The WGA recently held a seminar on “How to be a Good Showrunner”. 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 WEST WING'S 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 showrunner from any well run series and elect him or her the president of the United States.
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 showrunners I would say this:
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. 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. In other words: the Federal 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. One week HOMELAND was in the Middle East with exciting chase scenes and explosions. A couple of weeks ago most of the show was set in an interrogation room. Much cheaper. And by the way, the interrogation episode was better.
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 who knows what the fuck Dan Harmon is up to?
Just remember, creative freedom comes not at a high price but a low one.
Note: In case you're wondering, whenever I can't find an appropriate photo I post a picture of Natalie Wood.