Troy DeVolld: How to be a Great Exec

troy devolldby Troy DeVolld

Before we get started, let me share that I’m well aware that your job is not easy.  You’re only as good as your last hit in the execuverse, and there’s a load of pressure on you to deliver the goods.  I feel you.  I understand.  This isn’t one of those “smartass producer bashes the network execs” kind of things, because man oh man, do I get what you’re up against.  Plus, I’ve worked with some pretty damn sharp execs in my day.

But you other folks…some of you don’t know what the f*ck you’re doing.

Many among you are brilliant and magical and when you exercise your authority or make a suggestion, and I marvel at how you so often provide insight, perspective, and practical solutions.  Long may you reign, you lovers of the medium who know what works and what doesn’t and what makes it go.  But for every one of you, there’s two young sprites fresh from the desks who run roughshod over experienced producers, spouting demands like “This show has to be a hit, you guys” and meaningless non-directions like “This needs to be better.”   If the head of your network knew how far over budget you’re gonna put your project with your lack of understanding, you could be cruising for a professional bruising.

As we often said on Basketball Wives: “Get it together, boo.”

“BUT I’M SUPPOSED TO BE OVERSEEING THE SHOW FOR THE NETWORK.”

Here’s the first problem.  Yes, you are overseeing the show for the network, but there’s no way in Hell you can do it all by yourself.  This is what you have a production company stacked to the gills with professionals for.  You’ve got to delegate some decision-making  and let people do what they get paid for.

On the reality shows I’ve done where I’m running story on the post end, all but a serious minority tend to deliver on time.  The process is efficient ONLY because I trust my story producers to review materials, propose outlines, work with editors to prepare assemblies of episodes for my review/refinement, and once those shows are in proper shape, I give the senior editor a couple of days to doll it up before I set foot in his or her bay.  In delegating, I’ve freed myself up to oversee the larger picture of the season, my people feel like they have enough freedom to deliver their best work on a set deadline, and everything works out just fine.

When you want to sign off on everything and the kitchen sink, you’re holding us up and telegraphing that you don’t trust us.  You, the person who has meetings and company responsibilities and always seem to be needing that extra two or three days or a week to respond to cuts and emails, are eroding the time we had allocated to making your show… and it’s costing the production company (and, eventually, your company) money.  Big money.

If the show’s well cast and the staffing is killer-diller in the field and post, take a deep breath once you’ve approved an outline or script and let the team do what they need to do.

That said, feel free to continue to come “supervise” for a few days when we shoot in New York, Cancun, Paris or other exotic locations.  We don’t even mind when you show up in the middle of a scene carrying your shopping bags as long as you’re quiet.

Rule Number Two: Know What You Want Early, Communicate It, Be Decisive

“I’ll know when I see it” isn’t leadership, and creating a situation where post has to deliver something that’s completely polished before you can deliver your advice is a waste of time and money alike.

I’ve worked on shows where the production company had to deliver something that was practically ready for air as a rough cut because they didn’t think a certain exec could handle seeing something that wasn’t almost in finished form.  Now, this is sometimes an issue with the executive producer on the production company end of the equation, who’s looking to dazzle and keep you excited about the project.  But whether you required it or not, it means spending days or weeks refining something that may be headed in the wrong direction completely.  Staying until midnight trying to knock out graphics on a rough cut and still meet a deadline that was never meant for this siphons away time we could be spending giving you a more generally refined edit instead of going bananas with the complete bells and whistles.

THIS is why you need to develop the skills to watch something at the rough cut stage and give as much information as you can about your expectations to the production companies executing your shows for you.  Sometimes it helps to draw a parallel to another show and say, “We’d like it to feel like Dance Moms” or “Shoot for the kind of pacing they had on Bethenny Gets Married.”  It gives us a launch point.

Rule Number Three:  Understand the Implications of Your Notes, and How to Give Good Ones

There is a practice in place at some networks where younger execs and assistants are delegated the task of giving the first round of notes on a rough cut, with each cut moving up the chain to the point where an SVP or sometimes higher will give the notes on the later, final episodes.  I’ve always felt, personally, that this is the inverse of how things should be done.  Many is the day that the folks in post production are stunned to discover that the higher-ups are completely dissatisfied with content that has been carefully crafted and reshaped by those who represent them and their interests, resulting in massive retoolings of product and cost overages for both network and production company alike.

It’s not your fault.  Television is a subjective medium, and you’re doing what you can to help steer something toward what you think your boss will eventually like and approve.

One of the most important things to understand during the process is that everything you request will take some time to address.  The post-production schedule has a certain number of days to turn around what you’ve asked for, and different types of changes can take seconds, hours, days or weeks to address.  Feel free to ask for what you feel you need to, but understand that certain types of notes take a while, and that sometimes you can get the same result with tweezers that you can get with a sledgehammer.

For example, let’s say you’re not a big fan of a certain scene between a couple of leads on your show.  It takes too long to get the information across, and while you feel that it’s a little bit low energy, you admit that the information delivered in the scene is important to setting up a later story point.  Let’s also imagine that the show has wrapped in the field at this point, just to make it interesting.

You could either request a pickup scene (which would require assembling a full crew to go shoot for a single day) or simply request that the scene be shortened through the use of an interview pickup or two, which could be accomplished during any planned pickup interviews you plan to do for the later episodes still in post (at virtually no extra cost, because these are already planned).   That little switch alone saves thousands of dollars.

As for knowing what to cover when you’re doing notes passes, here are some checklists you can use when giving notes on Build/Renovation shows and Docusoaps.  Just find the type of show you’re working on and these will provide a good starting point for thoughtful notes.

BUILD/RENOVATION SHOWS

  • Does the episode follow the established format?
  • Is the project clearly established in the beginning?
  • Do we get the impression that the task to be established is substantial enough to be worthy of our awe on completion?
  • Do we understand the obstacles to the completion of the task?
  • (Most) Do we understand the motivation for taking this project on?
  • (Most) Are there points in the project where some sort of difficulty must be overcome to proceed?  Do these bridge the act breaks?
  • Are the procedures executed over the process of the build adequately explained so that viewers know what is happening?
  • Is all technical lingo broken down into layman’s terms either in-scene or in interview/VO?
  • Are there any gaps in the progression of the project that will leave viewers concerned that something happened without them seeing it? (Is there time lapse or VO that might help to explain?  “Last night, Terry and the gang stayed late and put up the drywall so we’d be further along this morning” is enough to get us past the shock of returning to see something that wasn’t done at the end of the last day’s work, for example).

DOCUSOAPS

  • Do I believe that the quality of storytelling in this episode is up to par with what our viewers and my superiors will expect?
  • Do I think this episode approximates what the network and production company agreed the show should be both tonally and visually?  Can this be balanced against the realities of the production given complications we are mutually aware of?
  • Does the content of this episode align with what was set up in previous episodes?
  • Will the content of this episode make sense within the overall arc of the season and series?
  • Do all regular cast members (especially viewer favorites, if show is established) appear in the episode?  If not, does it matter to me?
  • Does this episode have, at a minimum, a clear A and B storyline?
  • Is there a sense of the logical progression of time and a build in the intensity of the action within these storylines?
  • Does each scene feel as if it is about one thing, two at most?  Exception: scenes in first and final episodes of a series/season where multiple characters are introduced or have their storylines resolved, as with a final dinner.
  • Do I believe we are getting value from interview bites or are they merely telling us what we’ve already seen?  Also, do they interrupt the flow of the scenework?  Would more interview content help to break up and compact scenework that feels long or dull?
  • Does the scenework feel compact/taut and deliver new information in every scene?  In other words, do scenes within A and B storylines restate themselves without adding any new developments, complications or resolutions?
  • Do the ends of each act compel the viewer to return?  Does the final act set us up for something in the next episode?
  • Do any orphaned (single and not part of the A, B, C story) scenes distract from or contradict the telling of the A, B, C stories?
  • Do any/all orphaned scenes have value (being funny or interesting)
  • Is the quality of the edit satisfactory?  Are there any disturbing cuts, audio issues or other technical goofs I should ask about?
  • Is this cut of a reasonable length compared to the final product? My rule of thumb:  A first rough cut should not exceed ten to fifteen percent of the target run time of the show.
  • Are there places where graphics or effects distract from the story?  Are there places where a lower third or subtitles would be helpful?  My rule of thumb: If you understand the dialogue, chances are the audience will, too.  Subtitling people just because they speak with mild accents or certain dialects can be construed as offensive within certain communities.  Heavy accents / confusing dialect / poor audio are the only reasons to subtitle spoken content.
  • Is there any content that I feel should be run by legal before progressing to the next cut? If so, could the stories told in the episode survive extraction of that material?  Is the inclusion of this material something I feel that I should discuss with legal/my superiors early on, rather than waiting until later in the process?
  • Is there any content that has historically been an issue to my superiors or to a sponsor affiliated with the program?  Is the inclusion of this material something I feel that I should discuss with my superiors early on, rather than waiting until later in the process?

In closing, I have only one other thing to add with reference to your notes:  Be kind.  Tell us what you like, if anything, in the cut.  Positive feedback also helps us to discover what makes you happy, too.

There’s a danger to being abrasive or derisive in your notes, and there are a handful of execs that do fit into that category.  When your attitude is too blunt, accusatory or demeaning — as in, notes that read “Who the f*ck cut this?” or “Really?” — you’re taking the wind out of the sails of the people who are working ten, twelve hours a day, sometimes six or seven days a week, to deliver what you want.  If you can say it with a little sugar, we’d all appreciate it.

That’s all!  Good luck to you new folks on your rise and rise!