Sunday, April 26, 2015

Now at NYC's Maysles Cinema: Des Doyle's SHOWRUNNERS: The Art of Running a TV Show


We've heard the word bandied about a lot lately, where network and cable TV series are concerned, but what exactly is a Show-runner? According to SHOWRUNNERS: THE ART OF RUNNING A TV SHOW (written and directed by Des Doyle, shown below), which defines the term upfront before the movie begins, the word -- which is a relatively newly-coined one -- offers "an industry term describing the person and/or persons responsible for overseeing all areas of writing and production on a television series and ensuring that each episode is delivered on time and on budget for both the studio that produces the show and the network that airs it." OK: Fair enough.

What this has come to mean for the industry, however, seems to be that, for TV series, this showrunner (often doubling as the major writer) has taken the power place at the head of the table. (We almost never think of the director of these TV series because that director is likely to change, maybe several times, within the course of a series, even within a single season of a series. What a director has historically been seen to represent for a movie, the showrunner now represent for the TV series. Further, as TV series grow ever more talked-about and popular with both mainstream audiences and our cultural gatekeepers, the showrunner is very likely to eventually eclipse everyone else regarding the power place, both critically and economically, in Hollywood's and the media's hierarchy.

Sure, this day may be aways away, but it does appear to be coming. Which makes the debut of Mr Doyle's quite interesting film worth noting and the film itself worth seeing and thinking about. In it has been collected quite a number of "showrunners." How these were chosen is not addressed. Only two of them, Janet Tomaro, and Jane Espenson, are women, and I dearly wish the film had included Theresa Rebeck, showrunner (for a time) on the ill-fated series, Smash. I think Ms Rebeck might have had some smart and telling stuff to add. What's here, however, provides plenty of fodder to give the faithful a pretty good idea of what goes into being a showrunner. As one of this chosen group explains, "You know that you’re doing something right if just about everyone connected with the show is annoyed with you."

Among the chosen, Matthew Carnahan (above, of House of Lies and Dirt) gets a lot of screen time, and he proves worth it, as he is smart and funny and seeming pretty honest. He turns out to have been a protégée of  Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. "They didn’t want any of their protégées moving to Hollywood and working out of TV. But of course nearly all of us did." Also along for the ride is actor Anthony LaPaglia, who has some funny things to say about actors reacting to these writers/producers (and vice versa).

While many of the shows mentioned or described -- such as Bones -- sound like soap operas, you'll realize once again why, for all their "pushing the envelope," it's often the tried and true that brings home the bacon. Popular showrunner Joss Whedon explains why he will protect “moments’ at all costs but give up a good “move” in a heartbeat: “A move is ‘Oh my god, it was his evil twin!’ which gives you nothing. A moment is that something relatable that all of us have gone through and that you can mine in regard to the evil twin: that’s your moment.”

And if the film is mostly talking heads, at least they’re saying some interesting stuff. Early on, Ronald D. Moore (above, and a staple from the days of Star Trek: The Next Generation up through the current Outlander) realized that he had killed off his lifelong hero (from Star Trek), while Ms Tamaro talks about how she went from a job with ABC News to being a scriptwriter.

Along the way we get some funny gems:  “More serial killers have been caught in a single season of TV that ever actually roamed the streets.” As to helpful hints, there are a number of these offered: "Choose your battles carefully: Is this the hill you want to die on?" is one of the smartest. "The single thing that makes TV show take so long to get done is … meetings!" And here's Mr. Carnahan on Dirt: "The pilot and first season were great." The second season? "I’ve never seen it and I don’t want to.” We even get a Les Moonves story, but come on now, he can't really be that dumb...?!

There's an interesting discussion of Cable vs Network and where you want to work and why. Is there actually more freedom on cable? "Well, you've really got to take this on a case by case basis," notes one fellow. Managing is so important to showrunning that some showrunners split the duties into two jobs. "Writing and managing take such different skills," explains one fellow. "Sometimes it doesn't pay to try to do both yourself." Concerning contemporary shows vs period stories: "With period tales, you have to realize things like 'Every actor and every extra will need a special haircut.' There are all kinds of stuff you don’t usually think about."

Mike Kelley of Revenge says some smart things (some of it funny and knowingly hypocritical) about ratings and how and if one should even pay attention to them. Interestingly, this job, while too good to quit, is also too hard to do. "Almost all showrunners stop in their 50s," we're told. "It’s just too much." On that subject, Josh Whedon (below) talks about having to run three shows simultaneously. Actor Jason O’Mara (Terra Nova, The Good Wife) explains his theory about the actor being the guardian of the character, and one of the showrunners gives a smart timeline for how, eventually, the actor finally controls the character.

Race and color comes to the fore with Ali Le Roi (Are We There Yet?), who admits, "Sure the white suits think I’m going to bring in the colored audience. But really, I would just like a shot at bringing in 'the audience'." here comes the importance of ComicCon (for some shows), how smart content is now appearing on The Web, and -- oh, yes --  failures, too, as J.J. Abrams and others confront their own. "Even showrunners on the successful shows," one points out, "sometimes leave -- or are asked to....
Paging Ms Rebeck!

Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show -- an Ireland/USA co-production running 90 minutes -- after a successful run and return engagement at L.A.'s Arena Cinema has now opened in New York City this past Thursday and will continue through this coming Wednesday, April 29, at the Maysles Cinema. Click the link above for further information and then click on the particular date you want to procure tickets. (Note: If you can't get to the Maysles, the movie is now available via Netflix streaming.)

2 comments:

Cath said...

It's Joss Whedon not Josh Whedon :)

James van Maanen said...

Yikes -- thanks, Cath. Whedon's fans will be appalled at my mistake (and so am I). Meantime, I've corrected it...