Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to be a good showrunner

Natalie Wood
Hello from the Custom Hotel where I am holding my annual SITCOM ROOM seminar this weekend.  Wish you could be here.  This is the type of stuff we discuss: 

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.  


LouOCNY said...

The term for what HOMELAND did is called a 'bottle show', no? Trek did that all the time - a couple of relatively SF heavy shows, then an episode like "The Conscience of the King", which had bare minimum effects, which could be covered by stock.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Isn't nudge/noodge the technical term for a Jewish mother?

LouOCNY said...

Mitchell - there are SEVERAL terms for Jewish mothers.....

Paul Duca said...

Some of which you can even repeat in public...

David Schwartz said...

All of these are exactly true, both for show runners and anyone doing TV production. As a writer and producer (of mostly commercials) for the past 25 years, I can tell you that bringing the production in on budget is imperative. In my business the overages often come out of my own pocket, so you can imagine how organized I try to be when it comes to budgeting.

One point to add is that bringing the show in on time is as important as any of the other items. Writers and producers who are late with scripts or the finished project get a reputation for unreliability that is very hard to shake. I've heard that writers are sometimes hired as much for their reliability to deliver as for their creative brilliance.

ddatch54 said...

Natalie Wood, Oh Yeah!

Larry said...

How about "put all your money in the bank" since most shows don't last more than a season.

Milwaukee said...

Well said. That holds true for every project. They need to be managed.
And study the history of colossal budgets overruns, like Cleopatra and Heaven's Gate. Director M. Cimino never compromised his artistic vision, and bankrupted United Artists in the 80s.

United Artists gave Michael Cimino a budget of about $12 million to make Heaven’s Gate. Forty-four million dollars later, his story of a Wyoming land feud was complete. He had taken the risk that the genius so evident in The Deer Hunter would carry him through one more time—and then came the reviews. Even the usually mild Vincent Canby, then the lead film critic of The New York Times, said, “[It] fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter,and the devil has just come around to collect … an unqualified disaster.”

The failure of the movie was blamed for the collapse of United Artists, the once venerable studio eventually folded into Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Taking his revenge, United Artists executive Steven Bach wrote an entire book devoted to the topic, Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists. The title just about sums it up.

Vanity Fair-Cimino interview

Johnny Walker said...

And what about when you're in the room?

VillainLabs said...

Can somebody more experienced answer this question: Let's say you're in season 2. Do the network and cable executives personally approve the script of each episode or they trust the showrunner?

GHor said...

Iron Fist, the Network and Studio Executives never stop having approval of the scripts (and the outlines and the premises that precede them), but as you gain trust through successfully prooduced seasons, mincro-managing *may* ease up. Or it may not.