Screenwriting

The Successful Showrunner Checklist

*Remarks quoted are excerpts from the showrunner roundtable discussions sponsored by Variety and Hollywood Reporter (2013).

According to my informal showrunner poll, the following are the most essential qualities and skills for the successful management of a scripted, episodic TV series:

Staying on time and on budget: According to veteran showrunner, Jeff Melvoin (Early Edition, Alias, Army Wives) and cofounder/director of the Writers Guild of America Showrunner Training Program, a showrunner’s first responsibility in episodic television is quality scripts, on time. Time is money. Keeping a series running on time and on budget— from script through post-production—is essential for all showrunners.

Photo by Rob and Stephanie Levy

Forecasting: The ability to anticipate future story needs and production problems. According to Kevin Williamson (current showrunner of The Following), “You can map it out all you want, but when you come up with better stuff, you start changing things.” For this reason, many showrunners prefer to break story for no more than five episodes at a time, giving them the opportunity to course correct. For Homeland co-creator/ showrunner Alex Gansa, “We didn’t even know at the beginning of the year that Carrie and Brody would spend time in each other’s company very often. In episode 3 or 4 of the first season, I was in dailies and it was as if the word ‘chemistry’ was flashing on top of the screen [..] and we had to go back and look at scripts we’d already written and figure out a new way to tell the story.” According to Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner, “I didn’t know Don [Draper] and Roger [Sterling] were friends until episode 9.” For Suits showrunner Aaron Korsh, “The most fun is when we surprise ourselves. If a plot discovery shocks us in the [writers’] room, then we know we’re really on to something.” For The Americans showrunner Joel Fields, “We thought we knew everything from the beginning, but then about half of it dropped out [in service of better, juicier ideas]…. It was an unintentionally hybrid process.”

Vision and Scope: Showrunners are involved with every facet of the series, making decisions on casting, locations, lighting, music, production design, and everything in between. Mood and tone are vital showrunner decisions from the get-go. According to The Americans showrunner Joel Fields, “The standard for television series is really high now. Today’s audiences are expecting a cinematic experience.” According to Kevin Williamson, “We’re creators. We paint a picture.”

Development and Adaptation: Many current series are based upon shows from other countries (Homeland, The Killing, The Bridge, House of Cards), books (Game of Thrones, True Blood, Orange is the New Black), and even classic movies (Bates Motel). In developing/adapting source material, the showrunner must evaluate what to retain from the original and what to change. Putting a new spin on Sherlock Holmes and his many iterations, Elementary showrunner Rob Doherty’s vision was of “Sherlock Holmes in repair; the man [who was] always ten steps ahead of everyone [is] now secretly maybe only two steps ahead.” Doherty’s intention was/is to honor the spirit of the original without being a slave to it. For showrunners Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin on Bates Motel, “Our goal was not merely to do an homage; that wasn’t interesting to us. We wanted to create our own Psycho franchise.” And since Norma Bates was already dead  in the film, they were wide open. For House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon, regarding his adaptation for Netflix, “The voice [of the series] is way more powerful than the actual mechanics of what you’re adapting; that’s what people really connect to.”

Photo by Alessandro Bonvini

Wizardly Writing (and Rewriting and Rewriting) Talent: Even Aaron Sorkin admits that he has many more “off ” writer days than days when he’s totally on and in the zone. And yet, a TV series is like a monster that must constantly consume new story and new scripts . . . so you need to keep writing to meet the schedule no matter what. Having a well-toned writing muscle and the discipline to crank out new material and “bring up” scripts in need of revision—and fast—is a crucial skill for every writer and/or producer on staff. I always tell my TV writing students that the best way to succeed on a writing staff is the ability to hand in solid first drafts (that require only minimal revisions). Showrunner Kevin Williamson, a self proclaimed “control freak” (so you know it’s true) doesn’t care about your personality to be on his writing staff — if you can deliver a great script every time you’re up at bat—which is extremely difficult to accomplish and a rare commodity in the episodic TV business.

Here are the basic steps for staff writers:

Some shows require their lower-level writers on staff to submit a brief outline (called a “beat sheet”) and once that barebones structural document is approved by the showrunner, the writer will proceed to a more substantive (eight- to eighteen-page) outline. Series with all senior writers on staff (at co-executive producer level and higher) usually forego the formal outline and delve directly into a first draft.

In general, once the outline is approved by the showrunner and/or senior-level producers, the writers on a one-hour drama series will have anywhere from two weeks (usually only occurs at the beginning of the season) to as short as two days (during the crunch time of production) to write a first draft of the teleplay. On a cable series with a short order of, say, only twelve episodes, sometimes all the scripts are written before production even starts. Other series can’t afford that luxury. A critically acclaimed basic cable drama series’ showrunner told me that even under the best of circumstances, her writers only get five days plus two weekends to hand in a first draft —and usually less. She runs a tight ship.

These steps in the writing process are determined by the comfort level of the particular showrunner, studio, and network. A major challenge for staff writers at every level is keeping up with the myriad notes that continue trickling in from the studio, network, showrunner, other writers/producers on staff , production department heads (known as “keys”), and the actors. The showrunner or co-executive producer will disseminate those comments to you as you’re working on your script. Suffice it to say that it can be a tracking nightmare for each scriptwriter and for the show’s script coordinator, ** as every episode written before and directly after yours will impact your teleplay. It’s a fluid process necessitating a showrunner to possess not only great writing skills, but also a sharp memory.

** The script coordinator is the person in charge of continuity on all scripts. This job differs from the script supervisor, who is the person in charge of continuity on set between takes, among other major production responsibilities.

On sitcoms, the schedule differs. The writing staff collectively “breaks” a story and the writer(s) will write up a beat sheet and/or outline in a couple of days, get feedback from the showrunner, and then go write a first draft in about a week. Script deadlines can vary quite a bit from show to show. According to a veteran, Emmy Award–winning sitcom showrunner, “It depends what time of the year it is. If it’s early in the season, they might get even two weeks. At the end of the season, maybe only four days, but they probably would split a script with someone.” Once written, this first “writer’s draft ” will be discussed and collectively rewritten, then punched up in time for the table read (with all the actors, writers, producers, and network execs present).

With sitcoms, the table read will oft en occur on a Monday. Based on the feedback from those present at the table read, the script will be rewritten during the same week. On a multi-camera sitcom, as the script is being revised, the director and cast will rehearse the episode (with script changes arriving daily), so that the best possible script will be ready in time for the live taping on Friday night of the same week.

On single-camera sitcoms, after the table read, the script will also be rewritten, but there is much less latitude for script changes, as scenes will be rehearsed and shot in the same day. If the script changes substantially, the scenes already shot will necessitate reshoots (known as “pick ups”).

Patience: It can take a new series time to find both its creative legs and connection to an audience. For Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel), “The first season is exploratory,” [analogous to] “putting out an apartment building fire with a garden hose.” Getting the audience emotionally invested in the characters trumps everything. Or as Kevin Williamson puts it, “All stories need to be emotional or no one will give a shit.”

Photo by Ewen Roberts

Delegation and Collaboration: All showrunners must wear many hats and become skilled at multitasking, but it takes a village to run a show. Some showrunners, such as David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal), surround themselves with producers who can take care of all production issues so that Kelley can sit in his office and write virtually every script—longhand—and then his assistant types it all up and dis- tributes it. For showrunner Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies), having both a nonwriting EP on his team and a strong postproduction supervisor eases the strain on his time, so he can primarily focus on the writing. For him, this is the key to efficiency. Delegation is only possible when showrunners have a strong team to hand things off to—with the confidence that they can deliver. Aaron Sorkin is always looking for young, smart, new writers that he can mentor. Working on one of his series, writers are not going to be doing much script writing—“But they will get a one- to two-year paid apprenticeship. If you hire eight to ten writers and three are left by midseason, that’s a good haul, and you’ll hold on to those people for the rest of your life.” Michael Schur, Parks and Recreation showrunner, (facetiously) claims to have “delegated as much as possible without getting fired.”

Diplomacy: Otherwise known as managing egos with actors, writers, studio and network execs, and production staff. According to showrunner Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), to keep the morale up on a writing staff, “finding the good in a draft ” is important. Showrunners receive notes from many sources. The newer the show, the less experienced the showrunner, and the lower the ratings: the greater the volume of notes. Successful showrunners know how to filter the plethora of notes down to their staff s for the best net result. A harsh, unvarnished note can only serve to shut a writer down—when the showrunner (ideally) wants to inspire and not tear down a writer’s confidence. Sometimes this can be accomplished with a degree of handholding; in other instances (depending on the specifics and the proficiency of a particular writer) being blunt without bullshit can be the best way to go. Bottom line: the notes almost always need to be disseminated—and not verbatim—from the network or studio execs. Writers speak the language of writers and can usually determine the “note beneath the note” and are better equipped as to how to address the critique. And strong showrunners will have a conversation with the network and/or studio execs to fight for or against notes before getting the writer involved. Not every note from the network/ studio always needs to be addressed; often it’s a simple clarifi cation and the note goes away. But there are also those times when an entire outline or script is “kicked out” by the network or studio. It’s costly and has an enormous ripple eff ect on the production machine, but it happens. From my own experience on writing staff s, a little praise goes a long way. Yes, you’re getting paid an enormous amount of money every week, but that can only ease the strain of harsh criticism and outline notes WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS (as if they’re SCREAMING at you) to a certain degree. Showrunners need to be good role models for the rest of the team—and need to develop a thick skin to handle criticism from execs, production staff, and detractors on social media. One of the biggest changes in the TV business in recent years is the role of social media, from Twitter to fan sites and message boards. Virtually all showrunners I interviewed follow some of these threads—and most admit to being influenced by strong (viral) reactions to their series’ latest plot developments. In the past, showrunners and writing staff s worked in a vacuum and their only barometer of audience reaction was Nielson ratings. And while TV ratings are still calculated by networks and advertisers to determine view-ership numbers and ad rates, ratings are only part of the picture—not the be all, end all. A showrunner needs to trust his/her gut and not be too swayed by ratings and immediate fan reactions.

Organization Skills: For Anger Management ’s showrunner, Bruce Helford, who writes and executive produces two episodes per week, plus runs two writing rooms simultaneously to keep up with the staggering demand for material: having a writing staff packed with showrunner- level talent is crucial to meeting their script deadlines. For production budgets, schedules, writing timeframes and deadlines, I highly recommend an excellent book on the subject: The One-Hour Drama Series: Producing Episodic Television by veteran TV producer Robert Del Valle (Silman-James Press).

Fortitude and Stamina: Running a TV show is tantamount to running a marathon. It’s not a sprint, so you’ve got to pace yourself. It’s a daunting, overwhelming, monumental task. For veteran showrunner Aaron Sorkin, “It’s a whole year of always having a term paper due every week.” Right after you finish one episode, no matter how good it is, you immediately need to start on the next one. In the positive column, a showrunner like Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner is at the point in his stellar career where everything he writes gets shot and aired. In the negative column is the Sisyphean task of cranking out brilliant scripts over and over and over. Or as Weiner puts it, “It’s like winning a pie-eating contest and the prize is more pie.”

Homework: Remarkably, showrunners tend to watch each other’s shows—with a mixed reaction of respect, competitiveness, and awe. And most showrunners work nights and weekends to stay on stop of the workload. Or as former Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara so aptly put it, “Showrunners don’t sleep.”

Excerpt from The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: 21 Navigational Tips for Screenwriters to Create and Sustain a Hit TV Series by Neil Landau © 2013 Taylor and Francis All Rights Reserved

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