Saturday, July 25, 2020

Weekend Post

Here's some advice for first-time show runners.  Not that anyone asked.   (NOTE:  As most of you know, when I can't find an appropriate photo I feature Natalie Wood.)

1. 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. Embrace diversity.  Welcome different points-of-view. 

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? 

21 comments :

Matt said...

Great list, Ken. A lot of the rules apply well to managing people in many other professions, especially #5. Put people in a position to succeed and you'll be amazed at how much growth will take place.

Dixon Steele said...

Two things:

1. Excellent advice.

2. How does Mrs. Levine feel about your Natalie Wood obsession?

VP81955 said...

The list seems like things Chuck Lorre learned before he became "Chuck Lorre."

Kendall Rivers said...

For me one of the most overlooked showrunners of all time is Phil Rosenthal the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond whose also one of the most brilliant and skilled showrunners ever. Reading his book You're Lucky You're Funny(My sitcom writing bible) was such a fantastic read and Phil makes running a top rated sitcom seem so easy yet we all know it's not. His methods were very unique and it worked to great effect because he had a very specific set of rules for how a show should be ran and made it a great place to work from what you hear from the writers of the show and the actors etc. I feel Phil is in the same class as Carl Reiner, Norman Lear etc. and should be revered as such.

Roseann said...

I'd work for you any day.

My 15 Minute Show said...

FQ for @kenlenine. OK, I know the pressure soneone in your position must be from “Hey,check out my my script” people. And rightfully, I can see how you might want to ignore that. But my FQ is this: Has there ever been a breakout that was discovered this way because someone on the other end of the transom was bored or drunk or something? If so, what productions were there that happened that way?

DanMnz said...

So act like a real boss and not a low life that got into a position of power and abuses it? This should go for ALL bosses.

MikeKPa. said...

For a tutorial on how to treat a writing staff read SUNDAY NIGHTS AT SEVEN by Joan Benny, about her father, Jack Benny. One of his writers, George Balzer, said, "One of the nice things about writing for Jack Benny was that he never denied your existence. On the contrary, he publicized it—not just in conversations, but in interviews and on the air."

Mike Bloodworth said...

Originally, I had planned a very angry comment about number 6. But I've decided to replace it with this.

"Designing Women" creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (no relation) is a staunch liberal Democrat. The late Dixie Carter was rather conservative Republican. Needless to say D.C. wasn't always comfortable with much of her dialog on that show. Yet, despite the fact they disagreed politically L.B.T. and D.C. were able to compromise and have an acceptable, working relationship.

Any further opinions have been censored by discretion.

M.B.

VP81955 said...

Kristen Johnston tweeted today that production on season 8 of "Mom" has been further delayed, probably until fall. (The show's first table read had been slated for Monday, Aug. 17, with a probable episode filming on the 21st.) It's not much of a surprise, given the increase in Covid-19 cases in California, and I'm certain many other shows will be similarly affected. But as Kristen wrote, "I can't helping thinking if we had a government who took this seriously in January, we'd all be back at work."

Frank Beans said...


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

I can say that for any job I've ever been a part of, this is the essential truth. Real team leaders know the the entire thing inside and out, and work hard. The other side of the coin is that they know how to back off and give people autonomy. This is truly the only way anything of value gets done.

Also, I share the same affection for Ms. Wood and those brown eyes. How am I supposed to concentrate now?

Tom Galloway said...

The big one I'd add from my general managerial and peon experiences is:

Devote some effort to making your people better at what they can do, roughly in reverse order of their seniority.

Not just mentoring, but challenging. Talk with them about what areas they seem weaker in and which if they can improve will help them in future jobs. And then assign them work in those areas.

For example, on one team I managed, everyone on it was, IMO, below average in developing and giving public presentations (i.e. outside the immediate team). I was upfront about this with them, and told them that I'd be assigning almost all future presentations to each of them in turn, and that I'd work with them on them. But they'd have to write them and present them. Because over their career, this was a skill they'd need to get better at and it'd help them advance.

At least on the anonymous reviews, they all mentioned being glad I was doing this.

Anonymous said...

Natalie Wood gorgeous - yes.

However if, like virtually every other female who hadn't had plastic surgery, she had walked through the local mall, she would have been virtually indistinguishable from 99% of other females her age.

It's all smoke and mirrors courtesy of make up and hairstylists.

blinky said...

You have essentially described what it is like to be a good boss. All those things work in EVER work place.
You would be surprised how many bosses do the exact opposite. I have had bosses that got mad at me for doing a good job because it made them look bad.
There is a lot of the Peter Principles notion of being promoted to the level of incompetence.at work out there. Just because you are a great writer does NOT mean you are a great manager of writers. (Not talking about you, Ken)

Chester said...

Friday question: When I view IMDB's writers roster for series TV, it looks as if the show runner generally claims credits on every show in the series. What follows is a list of writers who contributed to "x" number of episodes. Does the show runner (creator?)get credit and residuals for the shows he/she may have not actually contributed to?

Scottmc said...

Turner Classic Movies just showed ARTHUR as part of a Dudley. Moore double feature. It was great that they showed it in Letter Box format. (My DVD copy is Full Screen.) I haven’t seen it in that form since the initial release. In a way, it was like seeing it anew. It was so much crisper. One might not think a screwball comedy is impacted by being shown Pan and Scan but the difference was obvious. It’s great that after almost 40 years the film still shines.
Major League Baseball might be having to confront some of the issues that you raised when you suggested that they not force a season. The Marlins are looking at a virus spread. A couple of starters are already going on the I.L.

Chris said...

Friday question: whose idea was the fish-eye shot in the Becker 1.17 (Partial Law) you directed? Never seen it before that episode, so figured it was yours?

By the way, how did networks allow such dimly and cinematically lit sets back then? And it seemed to be the norm in the 80s and 90s. Especially with multi-cam, looks like that became taboo following Two and a Half Men.

Jay Moriarty said...

One bit of Showrunner advice I would add: Never assign/approve a story/script that you can't rewrite yourself.

By Ken Levine said...

Great point, Jay.

Poochie said...

Friday Question: On the topic of 1st time showrunners, as streaming services go outside traditional venues for creative talent do you think we'll see more showrunners as support staff to the actual creative directors. I'm thinking specifically of Brave New World, clearly meant to be Peacock's prestige showforce. It's showrun by David Wiener but by all accounts its creative vision is shaped by renowned Comics legend Grant Morrison. Which makes sense as he has a very unique voice but ofc little experience working television. What are your thoughts on this type of symbiosis going forward.

Poochie said...

Friday Question: On the topic of 1st time showrunners, as streaming services go outside traditional venues for creative talent do you think we'll see more showrunners as support staff to the actual creative directors. I'm thinking specifically of Brave New World, clearly meant to be Peacock's prestige showforce. It's showrun by David Wiener but by all accounts its creative vision is shaped by renowned Comics legend Grant Morrison. Which makes sense as he has a very unique voice but ofc little experience working television. What are your thoughts on this type of symbiosis going forward.