Writers’ Room 101: “Showrunners” Movie Review

Eric Haywood has written for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire.

And now for something completely different…

Since this blog is dedicated to breaking down the process of television writing, I don’t normally take time out to review films here. But there’s a new documentary that I think is of particular interest to anyone aspiring to write for TV, and I’m happy to slightly deviate from my normal game plan just long enough to give it a hearty recommendation.

Showrunners_i-Tunes_Art_2.psdShowrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show is a wonderfully-crafted film that explores the process of, well… showrunning. In a simple but entertaining way, it clearly spells out what showrunners are and what they do, and places special emphasis on the fact that writing is at the heart of the job. Chances are, if you’re either already writing for television or trying to break into the industry, your long-term goals probably include one day running a show of your own. And if that’s the case, this is definitely a film you should see.

Director Des Doyle was fortunate (and clearly tenacious) enough to gain access to some of today’s top showrunners, including Robert and Michelle King (The Good Wife), Shawn Ryan (The Shield, The Unit), Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly), Hart Hanson (Bones), Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles), Ali LeRoi (Everybody Hates Chris), Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory) Jane Espenson (Husbands), and a host of others. What we get, over the course of a brisk 90 minutes, is a crash course in the many ups and downs of what it’s like to be the person in charge of running a major network or cable television show (or, in some cases – notably Joss Whedon – shows).

Typically, I’ve found that when showrunners are interviewed about their work experiences, they often describe many of the same things: the long hours, the daily balancing act of fulfilling both their sometimes-conflicting creative and managerial duties, and the occasional funny anecdote about some minor clash with the network or studio. But Doyle manages to go quite a bit deeper, taking his cameras into the actual writers’ rooms of shows like Bones and the now-defunct Men of a Certain Age, and even granting us a virtual all-access pass to House of Lies creator Matthew Carnahan as he shoots, edits, and submits the show’s pilot to Showtime. And in another section of the film, Carnahan candidly acknowledges the way he compromised his FX series Dirt, even before the first episode was filmed. Showrunners was filmed over a four-year period, resulting in some of the show references feeling a bit dated, but the lessons it has to offer remain as essential as they are timeless.

Doyle also broadens the film’s perspective by including interviews with actors Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace) and Jason O’Mara (The Good Wife), and even letting a couple of network presidents (Showtime’s David Nevins and TNT’s former honcho Michael Wright) weigh in on what it’s like to collaborate with showrunners from the executive side of things. The result is a much more in-depth examination of the job of showrunner than you’re likely to see anywhere else.

Notably absent from the film are such powerhouse showrunners as Matthew Weiner, Shonda Rhimes, Vince Gilligan, and David Chase, and I couldn’t help but wonder what insights their experiences would’ve added to the discussion. But in hindsight, that’s a minor quibble because Showrunners does an excellent job of exploring its subject matter in a practical, down-to-earth, and humorous way, making its subject matter completely accessible to the novice and the veteran TV writer alike.

And for those who still can’t get enough of this topic, author Tara Bennett has written a companion book to the film, also titled Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show, which is available now. The film itself is available in the U.S. both theatrically and on VOD beginning October 31, 2014, so by the time you finish reading this review, you should already be thinking about which method you’ll be using to see it for yourself.

Showrunners recently had its Los Angeles premiere screening at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which was followed by a panel discussion (moderated by Bennett) that featured Lindelof, Carnahan, Hanson, Tamaro, LeRoi, Mike Royce (Men of a Certain Age, Enlisted), and Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus and the upcoming Daredevil for Netflix). One of the most surprising details of the evening came from DeKnight himself, who informed the audience and his fellow panelists that, even as audiences increasingly flock to streaming outlets like Netflix, no one fully understands how Netflix’s ratings work; they safeguard that information so closely that it’s not even shared with its own showrunners.

It remains to be seen how much Showrunners will appeal to anyone who doesn’t already possess an avid personal or professional interest in how television shows get made, but for those who do, it’s a film that’s not to be missed. In fact, I’d consider it mandatory viewing for TV writers of any experience level.

Watch Showrunners on iTunes today!

tvrunnersshowrunners_smallGet more insights into the life of a showrunner with
The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap

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