Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Advice for first-time showrunners...not that anyone asked

Well, actually, someone did. Brian Hennessy. He submitted a Friday question that warrants an entire post. (Note: Whenever I can't think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

Hey Ken - can I ask you what are mistakes that first time showrunners make?

1. Not communicating with your staff. It’s not enough to have your vision for the show; you need to clearly share it with your other writers. Don’t just assume. It’ll be hard enough for them without trying to figure out what’s in your head. Same is true with your editor and directors.

2. Be very organized. Time will go by much faster than you think. From day one lay out a plan. You want so many outlines by this date, so many first drafts by that date, etc.

3. Don’t squander that period before production begins. It’s easy to knock off early or move meetings back. But this is golden time before the crunch when actors arrive, cameras roll, and a thousand additional details require your attention.

4. Accept the fact that the first draft of the first script you receive from every staff member will look like a script from the last show they were on. It will take them time to adapt to your show.

5. Remember that every writer is not a “five-tool player” as they say in baseball. By that I mean, some may be strong at story but not jokes, or punch-up but not drafts. Not everybody is good at everything.  Consider that when putting together your staff.

6. Hire the best writers not your best friends.

7. Hire at least one experienced writer. Otherwise, on top of everything else you're doing, you're re-inventing the wheel. 

8. Don’t show favoritism to some writers over others. It destroys morale and no one loves a teacher’s pet.

9. Pick your fights with the network and studio. Don’t go to war over every little note. Antagonizing everyone all the time is a good way to ensure this will be your only showrunning gig. Yes, you’re an artist and you’re trying to protect your vision. And yes, a lot of the notes are moronic, but you have to hear them out. You have to consider them. You have to do the ones you can live with. The best way to get your way is to get them on your side.

10. Don’t overwork your staff. This goes back to being organized. There’s only so many times you can whip the same horse. Your people are dedicated to the show but not to the extent you are. They’re not getting any back end deals. They’re not getting interviewed by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. This show may be your whole life but they want to go home.

11. Praise your staff. If they turn in a good draft, let ‘em know. This sounds like such a simple thing but you’d be surprised how many showrunners don’t do it.

12. Respect the crew and learn their names. When you walk onto the set, greet them.  They’re not just a bunch of convicts picking up litter along the side of the expressway. They’re dedicated highly-trained professionals who never get any recognition. Take the time to know who they are.

13. Take care of yourself. On the weekends get plenty of sleep. Eat right. Relax. It’s a long haul.

14. Never make your staff work late nights if you’re not there with them.

15. Don’t get so caught up in the work and the grind that you forget to have some fun. You’re running your own show. That’s a rare opportunity. Enjoy it… or at least as much as you can before you have to put out another fire.

16. A good way to completely destroy any morale is to automatically put your name on every script and share credit with every writer. You may win in arbitration but you lose your troops. The trade off is not worth it. You’re getting paid more money than anybody already. Let your writers receive full credit and residuals.

17. Accept responsibility. When things go wrong (and they will) ultimately you’re the one in charge. Not saying you can’t make changes in personnel if someone doesn’t work out, but don’t be constantly playing the blame game. You’re the showrunner. You take the hit.

18. On the other hand, don’t take all the credit. When ideas and scripts and jokes come from other people, publicly acknowledge their contribution.

The bottom line is a showrunner has to develop people skills and management skills as well as writing skills. You may have enormous talent but that will do you no good when your staff firebombs your car with you in it. Good luck. The work is hard but the rewards are enormous.  Wasn't Natalie gorgeous? 

41 comments:

rachel said...

Never have truer words been written exactly when I need them. Thank you, boychick.

Pete Grossman said...

Pics of Ms. Nat just make everything better. What a crush I had on her. And oh yeah, superb post and advice today. There is a way go get things done right and enjoy it.

Pete Grossman said...

That's "to" instead of "go" in the last sentence. I really shouldn't type in the morning after 5 hrs. of sleep, but when the pooch has got to go, he's king.

Blaze said...

Sound advice for any manager in any industry. Treat your employees like people. Praise when it's deserved. Have fun.

Staggering how few boss types don't touch on any of these axioms.

Kwik Caray said...

NAT-A-LIEEEEEEE!!! What a beauty! I'm one of the readers who comes for the humor and the occasional baseball bits of interesting info. Last night in Atlanta - or this morning, really - the Bucs got screwed on a hideous call by the home plate umpire, Bruce Davidson, I believe. These guys (both sides) play like champs for over 6 hours and the ump flashes the human element at the worst possible time, so my question is: why no instant replay for plays on the bases? After 6 1/4 hours, how much longer is it gonna take for the umps to go watch a replay? Hell, everyone could use the rest while the umps are watching the T-&-V. I have no dog in the fight, even tho I think it's GREAT that the Buccos are going eye-to-eye with everyone they play and they do deserve the love this season.

Anonymous said...

Try not to drink before you go to bed Pete. That should help with your 'pooch' problem :)

Terry

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, great post.

One other thing I've also come to discover (in my limited experience) when it come to actors and (or maybe versus) showrunners and writers, from having talked with people on both sides, is that those on the production side generally have a tendency to think "How will my work on this show help me get to the next step in my career (i.e., help me land a better writing job or get a deal, etc.)?"; while for the actors, a lot of times their main concern is "This may be the only shot at a successful series I'm going to get, so this is all I'm going to focus on and do it the way I think it should be done." I think that may be from where some of the creative conflicts arise.

On a nonrelated note, how sad has this season become for the Mariners? Maybe the Dodgers wouldn't have looked like such a bad deal after all -- on the other hand, maybe you'd still want to make sure your paychecks won't bounce...

Love the pics of Miss Wood, BTW...

DJ said...

The umpire in question was Jerry Meals.

blindmind said...

Awesome post, sir.

purplejilly said...

I love your post on first-time showrunning. Can I submit a Friday question early? Maybe this can be the Wednesday question from extreme newbies..

How would someone get to be a freelance script writer?
For example if someone had a job, kids, and couldn’t afford to leave that job, but just wanted to write scripts on the side? Has that ever happened? I believe in my own abilities enough to think I could do a fabulous job, but in this scary economy, I don’t want to leave a stable job. Are there any successful freelance scriptwriters for TV?

Colleen said...

This is pretty accurate for anyone that manages people. You are right how shockingly few managers say good job or thanks.

Anonymous said...

Read #11. Know for a fact, that you didn't follow this one.

Jeff G said...

Ken - I am trying to find a good show runner to discuss a new tv show concept I have developed (similar to sex in the city and cougar town). I have the pilot and second episode drafted and would like to begin discussions with a show runner. If you have any contacts or suggestions, it would be much appreciated. Thank you very much. Jeff G.

Carol said...

Anonymous said...
Read #11. Know for a fact, that you didn't follow this one.


There's a troll in your dungeon, Ken.

Can you tell me exactly what it is a producer does? I know they pony up the dough, but do they get creative input, and does it trump everyone elses? Also long running shows seem to give the main actors producer credit. Do they DO anything as producers, or does that just mean they can say 'no, my character won't do that' without starting an argument?

Finally...just so you know...my fundraiser I was going to be writing for isn't happening, but I really appreciate your advice. If your in the Philadelphia area in October, and feel like coming to see Merry Wives of Windsor and Lysistrata, let me know! :)

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

My boss should read this, and I work in the health care industry.

Ken Levine said...

Let me rephrase #11 -- Only praise those people who are man enough to leave their names and not hide behind anonymity. Ask the people who worked for me and acknowledge that they worked for me. I was pretty good about #11.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I'd love to give you the names of showrunners who've done the opposite of all 18, but alas, not a great idea.

Mac said...

Thank you. From grim experience I would add "don't read out a writer's bad jokes to other writers, in the hope that it'll discourage them from writing bad jokes."
While I concede that some of my jokes may have been very bad, it's not the way to inspire. More the way to get all your writers scrambling for another job.
And yes, Natalie was gorgeous.

K. Caray Redux said...

Jerry Meals was the ump that made the call that ruined the night that turned into blight for Pittsburgh. Thanks, DJ. Bob Davidson was jobbing the Mariners last night, altho in fairness, Sabathia would have beaten the 27 Yankees and the 300 Spartans.

Emma said...

I'm not involved in the entertainment industry but nonetheless enjoy reading your blog, your jokes/witty comments and gaining insight into your field.

One thing I had to say: a lot of what you've written here applies to running businesses and being a great manager as well!

Chris said...

Here's another one for Friday: in an episode of George Lopez there's a scene where he intentionally gets some horrible singers to audition for his wife for their vowel renewal party, but the scene went way too long, it was like 3 minutes, was that lazy writing to fill up some time or as a writer you have to turn in 23-24 pages and the producers decide what stays?

emef said...

Sound advice for any manager in any industry. Treat your employees like people. Praise when it's deserved. Have fun.

Staggering how few boss types don't touch on any of these axioms.

Max Clarke said...

Natalie Wood was gorgeous. I remember the time she had a 15-second cameo in the Robert Redford movie, The Candidate. She was in a make-believe fundraiser for Democrats, something like that.
Looked great.

Allison H said...

I always enjoy your posts, but this one rings especially true for me today (and I'm not in "the industry" at all). Great advice.

Johnny Walker said...

Great question, great post. Thanks a lot for sharing this (I think a lot of it is good advice for project leaders/managers in ANY industry).

D. McEwan said...

Walt Disney was famous for not following #11. People who worked for Walt always said he never praised. If he didn't compain or change it, or fire you, that meant he liked it.

Kirk said...

Favorite Natalie Wood movie: Splendor in the Grass.

Tallulah Morehead said...

#19. Keep a checklist of whom to fire. Try and schedule their firings near their birthdys or Christmas.

#20. Tell TV interviewers your staff are all idiots and "asshats."

#21. A good way to say goodbye to the staff each evening is: "Fix this crap. I gotta get to Hef's. I'm outta here."

#22.1 Never give a sucker an even break nor smarten up a chump.

#23. Place large sign on your office wall: "There are only two geniuses working on this show, and they are both me!"

#24. Remember, everyone's name is "Shithead."

#25. Sell great concept to network: A female comedy Trio, like the Three Stooges: Cybil Shephard, Brett Butler, and Roseanne. Drop them all in a pit with a broken pool cue amd tell them: "Last one standing gets top billing."

Graham Powell said...

Good advice for a manager in any industry: give the credit, take the blame.

jbryant said...

Anonymous: Maybe you and Ken have different ideas of what constitutes "a good draft."

Matt Patton said...

Ms. Morehead: I think the Cybill/Brett/Roseanne show has already been sold to one of the basic-cable channels for next season. What none of the contestants knows is that the producer has been given permission to shoot the winner dead on national television . . .

Always enjoy that Natalie Wood pictures on your blog--the sight of her always cheers me up. The second photo is from one of her odder movies, Sex and The Single Girl. The plot is standard-issue sex farce, but Joseph Heller was one of the screenwriters, and he stuck in all sorts of great off-center jokes (I still remember the great bit with Larry Storch as the insane motorcycle cop who tries to put everyone at LAX under arrest).

cadavra said...

The single sexiest photo I've ever seen was in a mid-60s LIFE magazine--Natalie was posing in a bikini on a couch. Sadly, it's not on their website or I'd have sent the link.

D. McEwan said...

Matt, a lot of the climax of SEX & THE SINGLE GIRL was shot up top the Sepulveda Pass, on and around the bridge whose demolition two weeks ago was the cause of Carmageddon, when we had to suffer through traffic that was 65% lighter than usual. (Yet closing it down to shoot that movie 45 years ago didn't cause a national panic) Any one who knows their Los Angeles geography will find that chase bewildering and bizarre. They're on the freeway, they're on Sepulveda. They're going north, they're going south. They're going north, then going north but are south of where they just were, etc. Distracting for an LA native, unoticed by the rest of the planet.

Natalie's Helen Gurley Brown was much, much prettier than the real woman, yet curiously Doris Day-no-sexish, quite different from the philosophy Brown was actually selling in her book. The picture gets by on its sterling cast.

RCP said...

Tallulah Morehead said...

#19. Keep a checklist of whom to fire. Try and schedule their firings near their birthdys or Christmas.


Ah yes. I well remember Black Christmas, when you presented me with a stocking containing a pink slip. I can still hear your laughter!

Tallulah Morehead said...

RCP, when did you work for me, and what did you do? I've never fired anyone in my life; I only divorce.

Karp said...

Dear Ms. Morehead (sounds like the name of a Bond girl):

For No. 22, I love you.

Karp said...

Ken:

Re: No. 5

Just curious: Who in your opinion are "the five-tool" writers? I'm putting together my Fantasy League team.

RCP said...

Allow me to refresh your memory, Tallulah: I answered an ad you'd placed for a piano player - to help you in your quest for a comeback. Well, when Hollywood didn't break down your door, you blamed my "lousy playing" and canned me on Christmas Day - but not before you made me accompany you through half a dozen x-rated carols, first.

And now you claim to not even remember me? Unbelievable.

Tallulah Morehead said...

RCP Darling, you seem to be under the impression that you, not me, get to write my history. I have hired exactly one piano player ever, Bryan Miller, for my 1990s cabaret show "Rye Memories," which is all documented in my book MY LUSH LIFE, which a number of the regular commenters here have read. I repeat that I have never fired anyone, ever.

Karp, Bill Fields was a darling drinking buddy, and the wisest man who ever lived.

RCP said...

"RCP Darling, you seem to be under the impression that you, not me, get to write my history."

Oh I'm just having fun, Tallulah. You do happen to be one of my favorite writers (although that assistant of yours, Little Derwood, tends to take the credit you should know) - and I've read and very much enjoyed My Lush Life and your excellent blog.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Little Dougie takes too much credit as it is. All he does is take my dictation. Remove the "tation" from that word, and you have his entire life story.

WV: "calings": What priests have when they are afraid of too much "L".