As Sunday’s Emmy Awards telecast approaches, the Writers Guild of America West last night hosted its annual ”Sublime Primetime 2010″. It was a panel discussion with Emmy-nominated TV writer-producers including Carlton Cuse (Lost), Rolin Jones (Friday Night Lights), Mindy Kaling (The Office), Robert King and Michelle King (The Good Wife), Bruce C. McKenna and Robert Schenkkan (The Pacific), and Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuck, and Ian Brennan (Glee). As part of Deadline’s ongoing series on TV’s top showrunners, freelance journalist Diane Haithman examines the WGA’s Showrunners Training Program about making the leap from writer to boss:
The sixth season of the Writers Guild West’s Showrunner Training Program begins January 2011 and is taking applications now. Conducted in partnership with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, it’s designed to help senior-level writer-producers hone the skills necessary to become successful showrunners in today’s television landscape. But if you want to find about 2010′s boot camp, then you have to first get past the “Cone of Silence”. It seems fitting that the people who make and create TV shows would turn to the sitcom Get Smart to describe the bubble of secrecy that shrouds the popular program. Though voluntary, the pledge to not reveal what happens is vital to the program’s effectiveness. “We’ve only had one instance in five years when something got out of the room, and it was unfortunate but it was the result of an honest mistake,” Jeff Melvoin, showrunner for Lifetime’s Army Wives and one of the founders of the program, tells me. “The reason we have the Cone of Silence is, we want the experience to be meaningful. We have top folks coming in and talking about their experiences, and I think that if people are going to give up six Saturdays and do this program, they deserve the best that we can give them, and that means not pulling any punches.”
While the artistic mission behind the program is making better TV, there’s also another compelling reason: money. Networks and studios are constantly complaining there aren’t enough experienced TV showrunners (creatives who also know how to handle the financial and managerial aspects of putting on their shows). The AMPTP collectively give an estimated $125,000 to $150,000 annually to fund the boot camp. After all, they benefit most from it. The program is one of the most sacrosanct even when the WGA and AMPTP negotiate contracts.
As program co-founder and WGAW president John Wells (E.R., Third Watch, West Wing) tells me: “It’s really kind of a crazy thing, if you think about it – there aren’t too many businesses where somebody writes something, they produce it in the spring [as a pilot episode] and come May 1st somebody says: ‘All right, here’s $26 million – go hire 150 to 200 people and spend it all by sometime next May.’” Wells says that it’s virtually impossible to be just a writer anymore in television. “Some people have done it very successfully, where they’ve found a partner who is willing to take over all the managerial stuff and they are allowed to just sit someplace and write,” says Wells. “But in television, it is certainly the aspiration to reach a point where you are controlling your own material, and feel that you are making decisions about what you are doing – the cast, the music, what the cut looks like.”
Wells and Melvoin formed the program because both believe the apprenticeship system long in place before the word “showrunner” even existed has disappeared. Plus, shows are being given to creators who cut their teeth in the feature film world or, more rarely, playwriting or other writing disciplines. So these creatives were coming to television with a unique vision but no practical experience in the medium. “For people my age and older, you used to hear the term ‘head writer’ – and it goes back to The Dick Van Dyke Show – Dick Van Dyke was the head writer for the [fictional] ’Alan Brady Show’, and everybody loved him,” says Melvoin. “You get this handsome guy with this beautiful wife and these two nuts who work for him – one of whom plays the cello – and that’s how you make a show.” Now, he says, those nutty writers suddenly find themselves managing what amounts to multimillion-dollar enterprises.
Welcome to apply are current-active WGAW or WGAE members in good standing with writer-producer credit or above on a current, dramatic (comedy or drama) television series and/or an active studio or network pilot script commitment. Writing teams are considered a single entity. To apply, a recommendation form must first be submitted on the writer’s behalf by a current or recent (2009-2010) showrunner or a network or studio executive (from the development or current departments). The deadline for recommendations to be received is Friday, September 17. Once the Recommendation Form has been received, the candidate will be sent the URL for the online Application and will have four weeks to complete and submit to the Guild. Once Applications are reviewed, select candidates are invited for personal interviews. Approximately 20 writers/writing teams evaluated principally on leadership potential, managerial skills and career experience will be invited to join the program. “Our goal is to provide this program to people who need it most immediately,” program director Carole Kirschner tells me.
2010’s Showrunner Training Program (January 9-February 20) included the following seminar topics: From Writer to Manager; Managing Writers and the Script Process; Managing Production & Directors; Managing Executives and Actors; Managing Post-Production and Managing Your Career. Speakers and instructors included not only veteran showrunners Joss Whedon, Steve Levitan and Jason Katims, but also actors, directors, teamsters and network/studio executives. Also part of the program were breakout sessions with John Wells discussing budget/scheduling issues and Stephen J. Cannell instructing on the pilot process. According to participants, woven into these sessions are plenty of tips on dealing with network and studio script notes, crisis management, real-world scenarios, even what to do if a major earthquake scares your actors so much they don’t want to return to the set. Due to the Cone of Silence, network and executives are not usually invited to sit in on the writer-producers sessions. Still, at their own sessions, I’ve heard that execs tend to be surprisingly frank.
For Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse, an instructor since the inaugural program, the course is all about writer empowerment. He tells me he tries to give writers the tools to stand their ground against an avalanche of notes (“I don’t see a lot of shows failing and people saying: ‘We just didn’t give enough notes on that show,’ he grumbles), and the obvious pitfalls of trying to maintain artistic control in a collaborative medium. “I think writers have always had to sort of struggle with being perceived as second-class citizens,” he says. “That’s not to say that other people aren’t significant, but they are interpretive artists – whether you are a director, or an actor. TV is really the medium of the writer.
“It truly a circumstance where knowledge is power,” Cuse continues. “One thing that’s important is just sort of learning the lexicon of production; you can be shanghaied by a studio executive or a line producer if you don’t really know what’s going on when people start talking about numbers and budgets and the logistics of production…what you have to do as a showrunner is sort of win the battle, figure out a way to get the network and the studio to respect your vision.
“In most cases, what is being done on TV is better than in film right now, and I attribute that significantly to writers who are in control of their medium and you are getting a kind of pure, undiluted vision, whether it’s Ryan Murphy with Glee or David Chase with The Sopranos.“
Recent graduates of the program include Matt Nix (Burn Notice, The Good Guys), Jennifer Johnson (Cold Case), John Stephens (Gossip Girl) and Sam Baum (Lie To Me). Danielle Sanchez-Witzel is a program graduate who took the course while she was working her way up the writer’s ranks on My Name Is Earl, where she started as a co-producer, then became a supervising producer, and ended up as a co-executive producer. She says the program can be of greatest value “before you become a co-EP.” Now she has a “showverall” –- that is, a day job running a show (NBC’s Love Bites) along with a studio development deal (NBCU’s Universal Media Studios). She says that, when she attended the program, questions were flying from young showrunners about how to cope with this stressful situation.
“The first thing we have to think about is being creative, but it’s a little naïve to thing that we don’t have to think about [money], it’s definitely a factor in decision making,” she says. The showrunner program, she adds, is about “doing a schedule and managing writers and all the things that really might not occur to you sitting in a writers’ room trying to get a laugh. “
One of Sanchez-Witzel’s favorite parts of the program was Wells’ half-day budget seminar, which she says “sounds infinitely boring,” but instead was fascinating given Wells’ track record of success. She also liked Cannell, who “was the greatest, nicest guy – often we think the jerks rise to the top, but he showed us that it’s not necessary to run a business that way.”
Ok, so does the WGAW Showrunner Program actually help you get a job? Cuse says yes. “I feel the program is pretty well respected; people have come to see the value of it. I do really think it helps if you say to the network: ‘I’ve been through that program.’ ”