Advice for first-time showrunners...not that anyone asked

Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Well, actually, someone did. Brian Hennessy. He submitted a Friday question that warrants an entire post. (Note: Whenever I can't think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

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? 


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