Career & Craft

“The Impossible Job:” 14 Secrets to Successful Showrunning

Tips and takeaways from the Showrunner Training Program Virtual Crash Course.

Many writers dream of the day their pilot gets picked up and they become a first-time showrunner. The Guild’s acclaimed WGA Showrunner Training Program (WGA SRTP) recently offered a virtual crash course in essential showrunning skills, designed around the idea that if attendees had to take over a show tomorrow, or if their pilot got picked up, they would have the basics to get started on the right foot.

The SRTP Virtual “Crash Course” was moderated by SRTP Director Carole Kirschner, with presentations by founder and chair Jeff Melvoin, showrunner and SRTP alum Ben Watkins, and producer-director Craig Siebels. More than 1,000 Guild members attended the course, which included sessions on going from a writer to a manager, understanding production, and an overview of budgets.

While the information presented in the crash course is obviously applicable to those who either aspire to be showrunners or are currently running a room, the takeaways are useful for writers at all stages of their careers. Understanding showrunning provides important context for working in the room, no matter where you are on your writer-producer journey.

Here are 14 secrets to successful showrunning, as gleaned from the SRTP Virtual Crash Course:

  1. Be honest with yourself about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and hire accordingly.

    The fundamental three areas you’re responsible for as showrunner include prep (outlines, scripts, notes, casting, directors, heads of department, budgets, etc.), production (set issues, actors, directors, the “crisis of the day,” etc.), and post (editing, notes, music spotting, sound spotting, playback, etc.), in addition to publicity, marketing, product placement, social media, merchandise, and more. Depending on the platform, all of this may have to be done while continuing to generate new scripts.

    Showrunning is a nearly impossible job—and it’s impossible to do all of these things well, all at the same time. Don’t let the ancillary jobs get in the way of running the mother ship. Decide which aspects you’d like to do the most, and focus on hiring good people to do the other things. Always remind yourself that the end goal is to have a successful show.
  2. Be the boss you’d like to work for.
  3. Know your roles, to wit: The Twelve Ps of Showrunning.
    1. Producer: Be familiar with prep and production.
    2. Problem-solver: Is this a problem that rises to my level of involvement, and is it urgent? Hire the right people so problems will be solved by the time you hear about them.
    3. Potentate: You have power, but you can’t please everybody. Just because somebody is your friend doesn’t mean they belong on your staff.
    4. Professor: You would rather spend an hour or two with a writer to break down what did or didn’t work about their script, than a lot of time rewriting them over and over.
    5. Psychologist: Everyone’s needs are different; figure out how you can be the most effective with the people on your staff.
    6. Politician (in a good way): You will be constantly dealing with different constituents: executives, your staff, directors, etc.
    7. Paradigm: You set the example. How you behave and react under pressure is going to tell your staff what’s acceptable behavior under pressure.
    8. Professional: Certain aspects of showrunning get into areas of ethics, like credit-grabbing. (As the showrunner, you’re expected to do a lot of work on every script, but as long as your writers give you a good faith effort, it’s not cool to take their credit away from them, for example.)
    9. Parent: As creator of a series or as the writer-producer assigned to run one, your writers and cast will look to you as the head of the family. Take that responsibility seriously and you'll have a well-run household; ignore it and you'll have the problems of a dysfunctional parent.
    10. Protector: You’re there to make a safe environment for your team.
    11. Priest: People will confide in you if you earn their respect. Still, you don’t want to get too involved or be everyone’s best friend.
    12. Person: You can only do so much. The job is impossible to do well 24/7 and you can’t get a 100% on every exam in every part of the job. Protect yourself and practice self-care.
Showrunning is a nearly impossible job—and it’s impossible to do all of these things well, all at the same time. Don’t let the ancillary jobs get in the way of running the mother ship.
  1. The golden rule of showrunning is to GET ORGANIZED. Time is your biggest ally and your biggest enemy. “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
  2. “Work does not get better at 9 o’clock at night. You just think it does.” Prioritize time for everyone to be home with their families at the end of the day, when possible; you need it, and your writing staff and crew need it as well.
  3. Meet with your studio partners to let them know your goals and values—not just creatively, but operationally. Have that conversation as early as possible, such as right after the greenlight if it’s a new show, because that’s when you have leverage (for example, asking that you have final say). You can do it in a very respectful way that infuses people with confidence in you and lets them know that you want to start off on the right foot.
  4. As showrunner, you are ultimately responsible for the composition of your writers’ room, and the make-up of your cast and crew. You have to be able to defend this. Prioritize inclusion and equity, and let your studio know you want to prioritize this as well. Communicate this early on with your line producer.
  5. Hire missionaries, not mercenaries; people who are going to be passionate about seeing you realize your vision. When hiring for any position, do your homework, be resourceful, ask questions, and determine if the person’s interest is genuine, phony, or absent. Trust your gut, and don’t just be enamored with resumes, even if the person is high-level.
  6. When assembling your writing staff, read scripts until you have at least twice as many candidates as you do slots. Use social media to find pockets of writer communities that are not as plugged in but have a lot of talent, and use studio and network resources, as well as WGAW resources. Start the interview by talking about THEIR material; find out if this is somebody you’d want to spend hours at a time with, and if they will play well with others.
  7. Have “the talk” with your room at the beginning and outline the house rules: what you expect from them, what they can expect from you, dos and don’ts (like use of cell phones, only constructive criticism, etc.), and tell them your plan for the season. You set the tone in the room. Make it a safe and productive space.
  8. Share your plans for the season with the studio and network when you can. This shows them that you’re organized, makes them part of the process, minimizes surprises (for them and for you), and provides a reference point for when things go off the rails.
  9. The Showrunner’s Mantra: Quality Scripts, On Time. All sorts of things can distract you as showrunner, like ratings, deadlines, casting, wardrobe, etc. Learn how to delegate, improvise, adapt, and overcome. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
  10. Communicate with your line producer EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. It is their job to figure out how to best use the budget and they are responsible for setting up the machine of production. Openly communicate with them and be open to collaboration; they want to help you make a great show, and their goal is to help you spend the money as efficiently as possible. One way to do this is by having a quick call every day, or sending them the writers’ assistant notes each day so they can prepare for what’s coming down the line in your script.
  11. Know what’s critical in each scene you write. For example, if you’re writing a scene with four characters running through the snowy woods at night, but you’re shooting in Miami, what’s important in that scene? Is it that they’re running, that it’s a forest, that it’s snowing, that it’s at night? Communicate with your line producer and crew to figure out what can be adapted: not to “save money,” but so you can spend carefully and allocate money to what matters most in each scene.

In conclusion, as showrunner, treat your crew well, and they will fight for you. Embrace the collaboration of everybody in the room and on the set, and it will pay tenfold.

(This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2022 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter)

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