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Laws of Showrunning (2016) [pdf] (okbjgm.weebly.com)
189 points by jashkenas 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments

Also the rarest of gifts, a joke I've never heard:

In the 1980's, the members of the Berlin Symphony told joke about their imperious conductor, Herbert Von Karajan: The maestro gets into a taxi. The driver asks "Where to?" "It doesn't matter," Von Karajan declaims, "I'm needed EVERYWHERE!"

There are some well-worn ideas here expressed in I think fairly elegant terms:

> To successfully define a path to success, you don't even have to know the exact hill to take. The grinding race that is television often means that you may not always know the next goal; but even if you articulate your order as "Help me figure out the next hill to take," or "Let me know what our resources are so that I can make an educated decision about where to attack next," that alone constitutes a directive with a defined outcome.

Okay, yeah, I know all these things but this is just a font of wisdom ...

> The wonderful thing about credit is that it's not a finite resource.

> The worst position for a leader is as the bearer of bad news everyone already knows.

> Being transparent also helps to break down a commonplace fallacy in television: the idea that network and studio are your adversaries. In fact, these are your production partners and your financial backers - as invested in the success of the series as you are - and they deserve to have a clear picture of the process.

> ... explosions of genius-level creativity: but where does the black powder for that explosion come from? Pattern recognition.

> More often than not, all of the consideration and reconsideration done by showrunners of the material in post-production is a distraction from the the far less immediately rewarding work of the writers room

> Without a complete script, no one can decide where they are going to take the trucks with all the lights and cameras and costumes, and for how long. Without a script, no one can figure out how much it's going to cost to make this episode of your series. Without a script, the actors can't prepare for their work in front of the camera.

> Scripts are how you talk to cast, crew, studio, and network. Write them quickly, rewrite them impassively and efficiently. Work your scripts until they are ready, but recognize that in a fast-moving business like television, most of the time they will only be ready enough.

This article is 25 pages and calls itself the NICE VERSION. The author also has a 48 page version and so I'll assume that it isn't so nice.


Reading it, the un-nice version is more Hollywood centric. The 25 page version distills what the author has to say better for people outside of Hollywood.

This part:

Well... it is true that not everyone believes that knowing what they want, and reaching out to those who need to know it in order to perform, is a necessity for success in the world of television... and this is the part where they come out from their slimy, shit-stained hole and excuse their lack of vision (or their unwillingness to impart that vision) with a defense I consider to be the most cowardly and thieving seven words in the showrunner's lexicon: "I'll know it when I see it."

If you ever find yourself saying that, kindly consider the possibility that - and I mean this, from the heart - your impostor syndrome is most likely real and you are, in fact, a shrill, shrieking fraud. Here's what "I'll know it when I see it" means to me and to everyone who hears it from a showrunner: "I have no original ideas of my own but am perfectly willing to let everyone else spin their wheels and exhaust themselves emotionally and creatively so that I can eventually cherry-pick the best of their genius and claim it for my own."

The field of television is littered with the desiccated husks of eager artists of all stripes - from writers to casting directors, production designers, actors, scenic painters, set builders, and the people who embroider the backs of the chairs - who, in the name of their own honor and work ethic, wore themselves out on the wheel of "I'll know it when I see it"... and the high castles surrounding those fields are occupied by fat, bloated barons who sit on their comfy thrones wondering with great self pity why they can't seem to hire a staff that just "gets it."

I suspect this was shared because of the parallels to entrepreneurship. (Especially avoiding the sexy glamorous jobs)

Not a bad list for software project managers to follow.

It is general enough to be useful at a startup too.

Not really.

First, television and movie production is not "agile". It's waterfall. The script is the design.

Live theater is "agile"; theatrical directors go into a rehearsal room with a group of actors to have a debug session. What comes out may be very different from what went in. In that environment, "I know it when I see it" can sometimes be found by trying different things. You do that in TV or movies and the cost goes through the roof as the production people cope with the changes. Theatrical directors who move to Hollywood sometimes have real trouble with this.

This used to be less true. As projects became more set and effects heavy, more and more is locked in before the first shot. Hence the "previz" business of making the project twice, once in a crude storyboard form and again for real.

Second, there's no patching the product after release. There's no "pivoting". You only get one chance to make a first impression. Although sometimes, movies and TV shows are tested on test audiences and then re-cut.

The rules don't change because of the scale or timelines. You still iterate, from the smallest poem to the largest moonshot, but on big pieces of work, you iterate the most on the abstract bits of groundwork principles and process so that you can deliver good, detailed and coherent specifications when you go to delegate the work. "Man on the moon" was thousands of years of scientific iteration, followed by about a decade of focused engineering.

What the article rails against the most is blind iteration, the "make it fun," or "make it pop," "just change this one thing," type of vague sentiment that critiques but doesn't really direct. Blind iteration happens because the leads(or even on a solo project, the author as lead) ran out of templates to follow, and when you run out of templates you have to begin using trial and error to get results. But it's immensely cheaper(to the point of it being required in many types of project) to focus trial and error around finding a new template with better, clearer rules, than it is to send the order to make something to finished quality and then decide that it won't work and start over. However, the latter tends to happen every day, in all sorts of scenarios, from a poorly considered dinner plan to high-profile software projects.

Entire plot of Frozen got rewritten (for the umpteenth) after Jennifer Lee heard Let It Go for the first time. You’d be surprised how iterative screenwriting is.

You're missing the forest for the trees. The parts about communicating vision, mentoring, and sharing credit are all very germane to software businesses.

Anyway, who says a startup has to be "agile"?

One of the most memorable moments of my career was when I joined a project and, the very first day, had the equivalent of a “showrunner” sit me and another engineer down and pitch the project to us.

It was mostly the same pitch that the showrunner gave to get the green light for the project, and it was crackling with energy, excitement and potential. It was magical.

So many other times, I was kind of tossed into a team and had to piece together what we were making and even why and how. This time, though, I went from knowing almost nothing about this project to having a clear view of where we wanted to go and being thrilled to be on this journey.

Speaking of which, I can’t resist sharing a fantastic metaphor of a creative project as a journey from Pixar director Andrew Stanton (the following are all his words):

The hardest thing about directing an animated movie is keeping yourself excited about it. It's hard enough to make the crew excited about it, but keeping yourself excited about it -- trying to remind yourself why you wanted to do it. Because it's all about the details once you really start making the movie.

It's no different than building a house, or, building a really extravagant mansion. There's a million details that you have to spend more time with after the bigger ideas of where the rooms are going to go and how it's going to be structured, and it can get you kind of bogged down.

Joe Ranft used to have this great expression that there's always a point during the making of a movie where there's sort of the Columbus where-is-the-land moment, where everybody on the boat is going "You promised us the land. Where's the land? We're not seeing it!" And people get bogged down in all the minor problems or the major problems that won't go away, and it's all justified -- it's all legitimate to have that response.

So, for me, to prevent that is to get really, really picky about what story you're going to tell up front. And this is my opinion, and it's not a rule. But if I have an idea that I kinda like, then I don't want to do it. If I have an idea that affects every fiber of my being, like "I want to see that movie made whether I make it or not" -- it's like that idea has to get on the screen -- that's a real good quality to start with. Because it's going to get attacked for the next four years. And there's going to be, sometimes, weeks or months where nothing seems to be going right.

[...] It's like looking for oil or something -- it's like "where can I find something that has enough fuel that's going to keep me going for years?" Because there's going to large stretches of time where nothing is working, nobody's happy, everybody thinks that the sky is going to fall, and what's going to get me out of bed is just because that idea still has to be on the screen.

So I want that when I'm going to go into battle. Because it's going to be battle. So if I don't have that going in, then I won't go into it -- I won't make that movie.

> "I want to see that movie made whether I make it or not"

I think this is an important idea, there and elsewhere, for a few reasons.

Besides it being a gut-feel check on the real benefit of a project (separate from money/career potential), and how that might motivate others... being able to want to see something done, even if one's own money/career doesn't benefit, seems a good sign, in an industry culture that sometimes seems mercenary.

Fwiw, you can enjoy the author's work in the upcoming Dark Crystal series.

I really liked this article, but now knowing that the author is behind the new DC series just made me EVEN more excited for it. Thanks for sharing this tidbit!

I have always thought that calling this job 'showrunner' is a less impressive description than it actually is.

Indeed it is a very mundane portmanteau that conveys...well, it does convey a reasonable amount, but it is devoid of...well, it is elegant, being...I don’t know, maybe it’s a good word for it.

His advice is very pedestrian and generic. If you change a few words here and there, it might sound like an entry-level course in management or entrepreneurship.

I say this not to criticize the author, but to marvel at its implications about the TV industry: These huge, multi-million dollar productions are often being run by people who do not understand basic principles of management.

My experience as a manager is the exact opposite. This piece reminds me of the head-slapping simplicity of How to Win Friends and Influence People. It seems so obvious when it’s spelled out this clearly, but it’s so utterly not obvious and widely ignored in practice in all types of leadership and management situations. You absolutely won’t hear this stuff at business seminars, because it’s very dressed down and plain and common sense. It’s not high concept thought leadership drivel.

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