Wednesday, December 06, 2017

How to be a good showrunner

Here's a Friday Question that became an entire post.  I know the WGA has seminars on this and some colleges offer courses in this, but the following points are pretty much everything you need to know.   (Reminder: Whenever I can't think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

The question is from Brian Hennessy.

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? 


Joel Keller said...

"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."

Doesn't Matt Weiner do this?

Dave Creek said...

The part about keeping in mind that you're the one making more money and getting some publicity is good advice for many other professions, as well.

When I was still working in TV news, an anchor complained to me once that her new contract had her working more hours for the same money. I pointed out to her that she still made more money than I did and worked fewer hours than I did, and always would, and maybe I wasn't the right person to commiserate with.

benson said...

Taking Dave Creek's point a step further...

This entire post pretty much applies to every job and profession. And a lot of it is common sense. (Although that seems to be not abundant these days)

And on one of those points: If you're there in the trenches with them, they will follow you pretty much anywhere.

therealshell said...

Who was the first "showrunner" ? Does anyone know ? I recall first hearing the term used to describe Joss Whedon.I may well be mistaken, so feel free to correct me.

John in NE Ohio said...

Good advice for running anything, from a fortune 500 to a lemonade stand.

tb said...

Yes. Yes she was

Mike Bloodworth said...

The first time I heard the term "showrunner" I thought it was like a "gofer." You know, running here, running there. Later I learned it meant the person who RUNS THE SHOW. Logical. Obviously, the jobs are polar opposites. Hey!
There's a sitcom for you. The "gofer that for some reason (revenge, nepotism, demonic forces) winds up running the show. Hilarity ensues. [Standard sitcom rules apply] Try not to inhale too many particulates. P.S. Nextime show a photo of Natalie's LEGS!

Wally said...

Longer version by another writer, Javier Grillo-Marxuach. I've read the document, but haven't listened to the podcast:

Max Clarke said...

Phil Rosenthal created the tv sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, and was its showrunner through all 9 years. His book, You're Lucky You're Funny, gives you a good idea of the business.

I own Phil's audiobook of You're Lucky You're Funny. He did a really good job.

Chris said...

I don't track the writers on Chuck Lorre shows but does he go through major staff changes? I know when I do come across his shows, the writing credits are ridiculously split (story by, teleplay by, third joke in the 2nd act by...) and his name seems to be on every episode. I can't imagine those are warm and fuzzy places to work, but I'd be happy to be corrected on that (because it would mean--I hope--that writers are being treated well). Also, I remember at the end of one season of "Designing Women" CBS issued an announcement during the credits of the finale congratulating Linda Bloodworth Thomason on writing EVERY SINGLE EPISODE THAT SEASON. My first thought was "How selfish," then, really? She sat in a room and did it all? As George Kaufman once said: "I know you think I was born yesterday, but exactly what time yesterday do you think I was born?" Even if Ms. Thomason were to write in here defending this amazing claim, I wouldn't buy it for a second.

NLElectric said...

The crew thing - super important. I've been fortunate to work on a few shows with the same show runner - he's great. Super nice, respectful and thankful #frontier #netflix

BTW - Have you seen Frontier?

Dana Gabbard said...

Your sitcom sounds a lot like The Famous Teddy Z with John Cryer allegedly inspired by Marlin Brando plucking from the mail room his new agent.

Mike Bloodworth said...

In a rather funny coincidence, tonight KCET (public T.V.) ran the documentary, Showrunners: The Art of Running a Show. I missed the beginning because I didn't know it was on. They took an hour-and-a-half to say what Ken said in a few paragraphs.

Jabroniville said...

Hi Ken- Friday Question here. What's your take on the mini-controversy over airing a 21-minute FROZEN short (originally meant for TV) in front of Pixar's COCO last month? It seemed to be done to shore up interest for a project in which Disney lacked faith (particularly after early criticism that COCO was too similar to THE BOOK OF LIFE), but people were quite upset at the "short" film's length (adding about a half an hour to a movie that already had a bunch of previews), the obvious "cash-grab" (Buy the dolls with new dresses! Buy the Olaf plush! Buy the new album!), and tacking on a love letter to Nordic countries to a movie celebrating an entirely different culture.

The people of Mexico were quite pissed and got the short pulled, and Disney's doing the same everywhere else after negative reviews. I found the short cute, sweet and funny, but I agree that the length is pushing it, especially for a glorified commercial (though you'll be happy to hear Idina Menzel does not power-belting). How would you react if someone shoved the "Current Hot Thing" in front of a production of YOURS?

-Grant Woolsey

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Joe Keller: I think Aaron Sorkin is more famous for it; there was an arbitration case over an episode that won an Emmy. MAD MEN has many episodes that are attributed to other writers without Weiner's name appearing.

Chris: Ken has noted here many times that Lorre's shows are room-written, so they try to get everyone's name in the credits but have to conform to WGA rules in doing so.

Ken: I hope you and yours are all right. The pictures I see of fire this morning are terrifying.


Dana Gabbard said...

Actually I remember reading she was famous with a yellow notepad writing whole episodes over the weekend ready for the Monday table reading.

J. Michael Straczynski wrote nearly all of seasons 2-5 of Babylon Five. So it is not an unknown thing but certainly not for the faint of heart.

Johnny Walker said...

I wish every manager in every company would read and adhere to these suggestions!