by Kelly Jo Brick
The Writers Guild Foundation brought together The Women Who Run The Room, a panel of showrunners who discussed the ins and outs of running a television show. The evening highlighted their experiences through the years including the challenges they’ve faced, how they developed their management style and what they look for when building their rooms.
DEVELOPING A MANAGEMENT STYLE AS A SHOWRUNNER
I sort of climbed every rung so I’ve seen every level in the business, starting out as a PA and working my way up. I’ve worked with some remarkable showrunners and was most helped by the John Wells school of showrunning, having spent five years on ER. The way that he did it was a lot of delegating and trusting in your people and letting people experience and produce their episodes and be in editorial. I think that’s an effective way to get people to work all in, interested in learning and loyal to you. – Dee Johnson (ER, THE GOOD WIFE, NASHVILLE)
I learned from David Crane and Marta Kauffman who ran an incredibly democratic room and involved us at a low level as much as possible. I’m very direct about the studio said this, the network wants this. Here we’re all going to solve that problem. So I prefer a management style that is inclusive and isn’t hierarchical and people should stay with their scripts as long as possible. Alexa Junge (GRACE AND FRANKIE, UNITED STATES OF TARA)
One of my big management things for production was I went to my department heads and said you have to hire 50 percent women. I want my set 50 percent women. On the last show I was on, I got on the bus and it was me and 45 men. – S.J. Hodges (GUIDANCE, THE PLAYER)
PUTTING TOGETHER A WRITING STAFF
You really have to get the intel on the folks you’re hiring. I do a lot of calling around. I need to know if they’re going to be good in the room. Nobody has to do everything. You can be good in the room or you can bring an interesting point of view that I think the show needs. Can you write? Are you great in the room? Are you fast? Are you oppositional? I need to know those things. Then hopefully I put together the right chemistry so everyone gets along. – Dee Johnson
My first piece of advice is for when you’re interviewing for jobs. Be an active participant in the interview. Don’t kiss ass, but you do have to be engaged in here’s what I love about your show. Here’s where I think I connect with it. What do you think you’re going to bring? Be present. – Lizzy Weiss (SWITCHED AT BIRTH, UNDRESSED)
I don’t need any single writer to do everything. I’m on a show now that is very much a hybrid, there’s a romantic element, there’s a genre element, there’s a big historical/political element and I tell people if you can do one of those I’m going to love you. – Laurie McCarthy (REIGN, GHOST WHISPERER)
WRITING SAMPLES FOR STAFFING
When I’m hiring I really miss seeing spec scripts of other shows, because then I can look at the person’s writing, because that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking to see is it grounded, will they accidently sacrifice character for a joke. You’re looking for beautiful writing and logical, grounded thinking so that you can be intimate with a character and feel like you’re going on this journey with them as opposed to someone who is on the periphery of the characters and you don’t feel a love for the story and a love for the characters. That’s all incredibly hard to do when someone’s trying to think of a new series. – Laurie McCarthy
It really has shifted away from the spec and everything is an original pilot. I like reading original pilots, but I really like reading a spec too, because I need to know this person can have a voice that is unique, but work in the confines of existing material. Do they write to an act out? Can they function with this kind of structure? I love plays and all that stuff too, but it doesn’t necessarily tell me you can write in a structure and you can emulate whatever voice needs to be emulated. – Dee Johnson
You have to then sell that writer to the people above you. You have to convince them you want to hire this person. So do they have a sample that spoon-feeds to the person that’s reading them that this is the person who can write on this particular show? That’s been hard because a lot of writers I like and know can do very well, don’t have the right sample. – S.J. Hodges
I choose a lot on ideas and personality. I used to look for soul because my show has a lot of soul. It is like dating. I want someone who is articulate in the room, has a different perspective than me. I think some people prefer someone who’s a strong writer; I just want a bunch of people who can break it all. – Lizzy Weiss
HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN THE ROOM
I care about the room, but I care more about somebody who can take notes, problem solve story problems and come back to me with solutions. If you can do that, you will work for years. – Alexa Junge
Speak with confidence. There’s still a problem I see with some women who say, “This is really a stupid idea.” I’ve never seen a man do that. In fact they’ll sell it as, “Here’s is a crazy idea.” Try not to apologize, because you’re coming from a place of weakness. Try to remember to speak from a place of confidence. You’re here for a reason. Don’t apologize. – Lizzy Weiss
I think you need a nudge sometimes. You need to be pushed by someone. It’s important in this time to say, “Come on, you need to do this.” – Lizzy Weiss
I find that the level of discourse is disturbingly low on this point. In the theater, there’s a raging conversation going on about can plays that we’ve seen be played by people of color. The answer is yes. We live in a diverse time. It’s incumbent on us to take that seriously and make that happen. – Alexa Junge
There’s a lot of hands on work that you need to do to once you do reach out to people who are diverse or to someone who is just breaking in. I’ve been on other shows where female directors had a really hard time on set. The DPs found them very difficult to work with and female leads often couldn’t take notes from them. I was incredibly determined that on this show, because we started with a lot of relatively unknown actors and I also kill people really quickly, I was like everyone’s replaceable including me and I would make a lot of noise on set if I felt like the DP was not supporting the director. Now we have at least half female directors. – Laurie McCarthy
The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.
Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.