The WGA recently held a seminar on “How to be a Good Showrunner”. (Okay, only .00001% of the membership will get the opportunity to be a showrunner but it’s our dues put to good use. ) The answer: stay within budget, even if the budget is smaller than Napoleon Dynamite’s clothing allowance. You may think “shouldn’t the course be more about how best to realize your creative vision?” That would be NO. Because if you can’t keep the budget down you’re fired (even if you’re Aaron Sorkin) and then there is no creative vision. Networks only give you creative freedom if you’re a runaway hit or they feel they can trust you to not give away the store. Abuse either of those and you’re back to getting memos questioning why the actors playing Klingons can’t bring their own wardrobe from home.
People ask me what’s it like to be a showrunner. I tell them “did you see the end of BONNIE & CLYDE?” It is a constant barrage of problems coming at you from all directions. It can be overwhelming…which is why I’d take the show runner from any well run series and replace Bush with him immediately.
Showrunners are responsible for the writing, casting, hiring, post production, promotion, dealing with network, censors, studio, non-writing pod producers, and the other 90% of time dealing with the actors.
You need to be a psychiatrist, an accountant, a CEO, a personnel manager, a Drill Sergeant, a Jewish mother, and work well under heavy medication. Once you’ve satisfied those requirements then you can add talent…but that’s optional.
To first time show runners I would say this:
Don’t pay for seminars when you can get this information on my blog for free. You have already taken the first step in the right direction.
Hire the best possible support staff. Leave your ego at the door. Joe Torre is a great manager but it sure helped having Don Zimmer as his bench coach for years. Surround yourself with experienced people. You don’t have time to make rookie mistakes.
Be willing to delegate authority…unless it’s to Dick Cheney. You can’t do it all. You can’t be in four places at the same time. As Garry Marshall once said, “What good is all the money when you’re in Cedars?”
Be organized. You can’t plan far enough in advance. When you look at most TV show budgets, the overages come from indecision, midstream changes, scrambling last second to meet deadlines (double and triple overtime time), and confusion. Again, see: our government.
Be a cheerleader. With tight budgets you’re asking everybody to work harder, give more, eat less craft services. That only comes with good morale and that starts with you. Know everyone’s name and that includes the actors.
And this next point I can’t stress enough: DON’T TAKE CREDIT FOR EVERYTHING. Nothing will kill morale faster and nothing is more untrue than that. You’ll realize it bigtime when your staff has fled and you really DO have to do everything. Can you say “implode” boys and girls?
Finally, learn the fine art of bending over. You’re going to have to compromise. Pick your battles, prioritize what in the budget you really need and what is a luxury. On CHEERS one year we thought of a great gag that would require levitating Norm. The cost turned out more than the license fee of three episodes combined. We did a beer joke instead. And think in terms of the whole season not just one episode. If you’re using a lot of outside sets or special effects one week, plan on doing little or none the next. A few weeks ago on 24 there was toxic gas released at CTU (R.I.P. Edgar). What it meant was they were pretty much able to do two entire episodes on an existing set while not blowing up even one refinery. Much easier to ask for a helicopter the following week when they’ve done that.
This is ultimately what I learned. At the beginning of the season the network and studio is wary of every showrunner. Be fiscally responsible right from the get-go. Because other shows won’t. And soon the suits and bean counters will leave you alone because the three page tag in this week’s STILL STANDING takes place at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
Just remember, creative freedom comes not at a high price but a low one.
One other thing I would say to first time show runners – I’m available to do punch up one night a week.