As a writer for prime-time hits such as "Moonlighting" and "Trapper John, M.D.," Carl Sautter is used to an audience of millions. But the series he's writing for now may never be seen in the United States--and he thinks that may spell good news for other writers.
Set to begin production April 18 in Santa Fe, N.M., "Lucky Luke," a tongue-in-cheek look at the American West based on a popular French comic book, has been sold in France, Italy and Germany. While the venture is financed by Italy's Cecchi Gori Group and features a largely Italian cast, headed by spaghetti western veteran Terence Hill, American writers were recruited to develop the series. (The producers are still trying to sell the series in the United States. It is being filmed in English and will be dubbed for other countries.)
"I don't think American writers have any information that there is a new sort of world unfolding," says Sautter, the show's head writer. "I know that agents don't, because when I first went to my agent--and I have a terrific agent--but when I went to her and told her I wanted to do this, she said, 'What?' "
"Lucky Luke" is part of a European production boom building toward 1992, when the privatization and commercialization of television in the Common Market countries will mean a demand for many hours of original programming. That means lots of work for writers, and Sautter believes many of them can be "made in the USA."
Many European producers, he explains, are likely to recruit American writers because the U.S. product has already proven appealing to a worldwide audience.
"We have created an audience for the American style of storytelling by shipping 'Dallas,' 'Knot's Landing' and 'Hunter' (overseas)," he says. "As bad as our film and television are, we still have a reputation for being the ones who can write for a world audience."
Sautter sees special opportunities for freelancers and new writers trying to break into the business. Since European productions don't stick to the Hollywood rule of hiring staff writers, a show like "Luke," which would have employed seven or eight staff writers had it been made for a U.S. network, farmed out 22 script assignments.
American writers are also a bonus to U.S. producers entering overseas co-production agreements, says Irwin Meyers, president of Ventura Entertainment Group, who recently set up projects in Greece and West Germany.
"When discussing those projects with potential co-producers, they were excited about two things. They were excited to shoot in their countries and that we would bring American writers. It's a plus," Meyers said.
But Sautter advises writers not to wait around waiting for these opportunities to knock. He recommends reading the trade papers, nagging agents and attending international trade shows and festivals to make contacts.
And Charles Slocum, director of industry analysis for the Writers Guild, adds writers must be willing to work on shows that aren't necessarily household words--and aren't likely to become so.
"Not all the good work will be in the TV Guide anymore," Slocum said. "Don't poo-poo working on a foreign production because you think, 'Oh, I'll never get paid,' or "I don't want to fly to Australia.' "
While he was hesitant to call "Lucky Luke" a wave of the future, Slocum said that the series is a "healthy sign" for American writers. " 'Lucky Luke' is a nice symbolic series to start the decade, and before the decade is over we'll see many more like it."