You’ve just landed your first showrunning gig. Congratulations! It’s no doubt both an exciting and foreboding time. But regardless of how well-prepared you think you are let me assure you of this – you will make mistakes, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll have a great time doing it.
Now before you embark on your epic journey, allow me to offer a few words of wisdom distilled from my own experience. You may already have a somewhat different game plan in mind and, of course, your mileage may vary. Still, maybe there’s something here that may prove useful in helping you navigate these uncharted waters.
PREP YOUR WRITERS’ ROOM
The first, and perhaps most controversial, piece of advice I’ll offer is to prep your writers’ room. Take two weeks before you and your team are scheduled to assemble and come up with your creative game plan. What will that first episode cover (in the unlikely event you don’t have that pilot), how will your first season end and how will it set up season 2? What are your narrative arcs? What are the major plot points and character beats you want to see realized over the course of those 10, 13 or 22 episodes? Things can change once the spinning begins, but I find it’s always incredibly helpful to have a plan going in. Heading into Dark Matter’s first season, I had the entire 13 episode arc mapped out in my head complete with individual story ideas. Admittedly, a bit extreme – but it did result in our breaking all thirteen of those episodes over the course of a three week span. On Utopia Falls, series creator RT Thorne and I got together and spent two weeks hashing out a fairly concise vision for that first season, crafting a narrative framework our writers were subsequently able to build upon.
FOSTER A POSITIVE WRITERS’ ROOM
Yes, I know it seems obvious, but I feel the need to state this because I’ve heard stories of toxic rooms. For some, this may be their first show and they may be apprehensive and initially reluctant to share their ideas. Help them out. Create a supportive atmosphere. Make everyone feel welcome. Invite dissenting opinions. Have fun. And don’t overwork your team. I remember reading that, On Everyone Loves Raymond, the room rarely worked late because the showrunner of the family comedy wanted to ensure the writers got back home at a reasonable hour so that they could spend time with THEIR families. Again, your circumstances and schedule may vary, but from my experience, keeping things positive and your writers well-rested has always proven a creatively rewarding strategy.
PRODUCE ON THE PAGE (aka WATCH YOUR STRIP COUNT)
By producing on the page, I mean that you should be writing to your budget. Back on Stargate, nothing killed a freelance pitch faster than an unproducable script. And nothing bogs down prep – and frustrates a showrunner – like a script that has to be reworked because it doesn’t board, forcing you to trim pages or lose those brilliant scenes because your inspired first draft would require an extra day of shooting the production can’t afford. Make the most of what you have. Get your money’s worth by writing to your standing sets. Excessive strips are the bane of every First A.D. striving to build a schedule. Set a scene in one location – and that’s a strip. Move to another another location -and there’s another strip. Change locations again – and you’ve got another strip. Aim for a lower scene count to minimize time-consuming moves.
THE MORE PRODUCTION-READY SCRIPTS, THE BETTER
Have as many production-ready scripts as possible when you go TO camera because the production machine is relentless and will chew through those scripts faster than you realize. On Dark Matter and Utopia Falls, I had most of my scripts done before the commencement of principal photography. On Stargate, we always had at least a third of our 20-episode order scripted before Day 1. Don’t be that showrunner prepping off a cocktail napkin or pulling an all-nighter so that your director has something to shoot the next day. Trust me, absolutely no one on the crew will be enamored of this shoot-from-the-hip eleventh hour approach. A well-prepared production is a smooth-running production.
IDENTIFY THE SPIRIT OF THE NOTE
You’ll receive notes from your broadcaster and your producer. Most, of course, will be brilliant and change the script for the better. A few, however, will leave you bewildered and convinced they will actually make the script worse. Faced with situations like this, my former partner writing partner would always advise me to “Look for the spirit of the note”. In other words, suss out the issue is at the heart of the note. Identify the problem and come up with an alternate solution that will hopefully address the executive’s concern while also preserving your vision of the scene or intent of the dialogue.
Hire the best people, then trust them to do their jobs. As a showrunner, you’ll be involved in every facet of production, from casting to costumes, props to visual effects, but you need to resist the temptation to micro-manage. It’s a mistake a lot of newbies make that ends up thoroughly exhausting them and, ultimately, hurting the end product.
HIRE A GREAT LIEUTENANT
Once production begins, you’ll have your hands full attending prep meetings and rewriting scripts. As much as you”d love to go to set, your other commitments will make this next to impossible. And that’s why you need to have a great lieutenant, someone who will be your eyes and ears on set while you’re locked away in your office furiously rewriting away. This individual should be someone who was there from the beginning, in the writers’ room with you – someone who knows the scripts and what the director will need to get: specific shots, moments big and small. On both Dark Matter and Utopia Falls, Ivon Bartok was that guy for me, ensuring I got what I needed so that when I sat down in the editing suite, there were no surprises.
DO YOUR READ-THROUGH’S AND KEEP AN OPEN OFFICE
Some showrunners will tell you they like to do read-through’s to find out what works and what doesn’t in a script. I mean, sure. There’s that. But the reason I like read-throughs is because they ensure: a) everyone reads the script and b) any problems are flagged early rather than on the day they’re shooting. a) may seem like utter nonsense, but having worked with someone who only read and studied their own dialogue, often resulting in odd deliveries completely detached from the spoken ebb and flow of the other characters, I can tell you better safe than sorry. As for b) – your days are packed and the last thing you need is a long drawn-out debate over character motivation or dialogue. The second to last thing you need is to come up with a script change to address any concerns while the crew impatiently awaits.
Actor Roger Cross was always great about dropping by my office on the heels of every read-through for a discuss about his character. Other cast members took a few days to process the script and then reached out, always well before production, giving me plenty of time to address their concerns. They always knew my office was open if they ever wanted to discuss.
In my first season on Stargate, we were spitballing possible guest stars for an upcoming episode. When I suggested one actor, showrunner Brad Wright replied: “LTS”. LTS, I discovered, stood for Life’s Too Short. Specifically, Life’s Too Short to work with assholes. Nothing deflates cast and crew morale like a toxic entity on set. Do your due diligence. Ask around. Find out what this individual you’re about to hire was like to work with on previous projects. And, in the unfortunate event a problematic personality manages to slip through, deal withthemt immediately. A nice, honest talk in your office to let them know you won’t stand for it. Protect your cast and crew!
GIVE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
Congratulations. You’ve produced a series. But you didn’t do it alone. A LOT of people helped. Let them know you appreciate them. Let the public know you appreciate them and their incredible work.
And that’s it, more or less. Good luck with your new show.
And let me know if you need someone to write that mid-season two-partner.