Wednesday, September 04, 2019

What are the mistakes that first time showrunners make?

I was asked by reader Brian Hennessey: "what are the mistakes that first time showrunners make? 
(Note: Whenever I can't think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

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.

19. #MeToo. It's 2019. Don't be an idiot for God sakes.

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? 


Dana King said...

Great post. Basically, the key to being a good showrunner is leadership. Not the kind we too often see, but the kind that actually motivates others, which is what leadership is all about. Accepting blame, sharing credit. Not asking anyone else to do anything you aren't willing to do or haven't done in the past. It sounds simple but people will run through walls for such a person.

Frank Beans said...

Great guidelines for how to get along in any artistic or business situation. That's what I like about learning the entertainment biz--values that apply to many aspects of life.

[TMI alert]:

Natalie Wood turns my crank the same way. Please don't tell anybody.

Thomas Prosser said...

Wise words to follow from one who knows and has fought the wars. Thank you for sharing.

Mike Bloodworth said...

The first time I heard the term "showrunner" I thought it was similar to "gofer." i.e. run here, run there. I didn't realize that it meant the person who RUNS THE SHOW. It's a good thing I learned the actual meaning before I said the wrong thing to the wrong person.

I've mentioned this before, but there's a documentary, "Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show." It's very enjoyable and informative. Unfortunately, I've never seen the whole thing. I never know when it's coming on, so when I do catch it it's usually somewhere in the middle.

It's two shells of the same bivalve. On the one hand we all hope to reach that level of success. On the other hand it seems like it's more hassle than it's worth.

E. Yarber said...

It shouldn't surprise anyone that most of the people who want to get into the entertainment business have no idea what the work is actually like. I've seen every single rule here broken by people who assumed that creative work is some sort of emotional free-for-all where the "artist" must be slavishly indulged in order to produce material. And yes, they weren't offered further jobs once they made life miserable for the people who hired them.

For all the stream-of-consciousness and leaps in the dark you have to take in order to create, you need an equal amount of discipline and structure. Giving people a safe space to compose in is not just about letting them babble in tongues but making sure they feel personally secure in the work environment. I can understand why some people might be attracted to the idea that they'd be able to break out and go nuts in a writing assignment, but none of that energy means anything unless it can be controlled and directed toward a common goal with the group. For some reason, that never registers with hopefuls more interested in going on an ego trip than pushing themselves through long hours of mental effort.

maxdebryn said...

They even use the term "showrunner" in Germany. I watched a show called AFTER 'DARK'(a chat show that airs after DARK episodes in Germany) on Netflix, and the husband & wife team of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese were introduced as such. With an accent, though.

Dr Loser said...

Friday Question, Ken. What does your lovely wife think about your default position on Natalie Wood photos?

And a more interesting question: what would her default photo be? (I'm guessing a young Tony Curtis, although Brad Pitt is a possibility.)

Don't let me put you off. There's no better default than Natalie.

Dr Loser said...

Number 6 works for everybody in every organisation or industry, btw. And the ability to visualise the corollary is rare.

If your friend isn't right for the job, don't give them the job. It's going to be hard to explain why not, but you need to do this. And the point of being a friend is that you can then go on and recommend a more suitable job.

I've done this a couple of times. It's Good Karma. (I am low on Karma Payback at the moment. Perhaps I should buy some Goop?)

Loosehead said...

Yes. Yes she was.

JAS said...

Friday Question: I saw an article today about Adele Lim quitting the Crazy Rich Asians sequel because she was being paid 1/10 what her (white) co-screenwriter was being paid. Warner Bros. put out a statement that compensation is based on experience, etc. However, Lim seems to have a ton more experience than her co-screenwriter. The difference is that she's written a lot of TV, while her co-screenwriter's (very few) credits are on features.

As someone who has written for both TV and features, can you give an insider's take on this situation? Is it pure racism/sexism? Or is there really that much of a disparity between how Hollywood values experienced television writers versus more inexperienced feature writers? Do you think you would have made more on the movies you've written if you didn't a television resume?

DrBOP said...

Somewhat off-topic, but I just happened to be screening some Harlan Ellison interview clips, and ran into this one about how he learned how to write a script. Not a method that you would recommended I'm guessing ;>)

VP81955 said...

Ken, are we to assume #16 is your primary beef with Chuck Lorre, whom you apparently respect otherwise?

Jeff Boice said...

Number 2 is essential. if not for business but for your own mental health. Taking all that time keeping the ducks in a row can seem like a waste, but when one of the higher-ups unexpected pops in asking "Whats the deal on this?" its great to be able to go to the binder, turn to the appropriate tab, pull out the documents, and present them saying "Here's your answer".

TimWarp said...

I recently watched "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" with the audio commentary by Paul Mazursky, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon. And I have to say the guys did not come off well. In the pool scene they're saying Natalie looked great for 35 - when she was 30.

Honest Ed said...


It's a term which is increasingly used in Europe. I was a series producer on a BBC show years ago, but what I was doing was showrunning. I even ran a writer's room, though none of us really knew how to use a writer's room. Where I get wary over here is when I see people credited as showrunner. I saw a director have himself credited as showrunner on a French show, for Netflix, even though every episode was written by one person. I think over here some directors, and producers!, feel threatened by the idea that showrunning is essentially a writing position.

Roseann said...

#12 was always important for me. And it does make a huge difference.

Breadbaker said...

I'm nowhere near the television industry, but I'd add one more: Be proud of the people who started out as underlings on your staff who go on to do things perhaps you yourself never imagined they can do. Encourage their future success and teach them to dream big, even if it means they leave you and go elsewhere.