As TV showrunners adjust to their celebrity status in Hollywood, what are the biggest they face in the business?
This DQ show hears from some of the top executives in the industry on topics such as the shortage of showrunners in the era of ‘peak TV,’ the use of technology, the impact of social media and the new opportunities available for writer-producers to get their stories on screen.
Contributors include Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Amblin Television’s Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank (Bull), Ben Silverman (Ugly Betty, Jane the Virgin), Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Timeless), Eric Kriple (Timeless), Jeff Melvoin (Army Wives, Alias, Northern Exposure), Marta Kauffman (Friends, Grace & Frankie), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Eric Newman (Narcos), Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel) and Ilene Chaiken (Empire).
Watch part one, Rise of the celebrity showrunner, here.
They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.
This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.
In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.
Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).
Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.
The TV industry’s annual calendar is packed with great events – though not all of them have a high profile outside their domestic market.
A good example is the ATX Television Festival, which has taken place in Austin, Texas, over the last few days. For those not familiar with ATX, the organisers say: “We have the functionality of a traditional film festival with screenings followed by Q&As from cast and creators; panels focused on industry related topics; and an array of events that includes parties, live music, meet-ups and social media events. Unlike traditional festivals, however, we celebrate the history of the medium as well as the future. We spotlight classic shows, never-aired pilots, cancelled-too-soon series, cult favorites, current hits, and premieres of new series.”
Significantly, ATX gets plenty of support from big hitters in the US TV industry. At this year’s event, there were panels with the likes of Betsy Beers (Grey’s Anatomy), Noah Hawley (Fargo), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Streets), David Simon (The Wire) and Howard Gordon (Homeland).
There were also sessions exploring the depiction of the LGBT community in scripted TV, comic book adaptations, the way faith and religion are tackled, the role of the director in TV drama and the secret to making a successful fantasy series for TV.
One of the most interesting sessions saw writers from FX’s iconic series The Shield (2002-2008) meet up to discuss how the show shaped their respective careers.
Scott Rosenbaum, who has gone on to executive produce series like V, Conquistadors and Gang Related, said: “There was an immense amount of pressure. It was very, very competitive because we all wanted our ideas to get on screen and when we didn’t, we could be angry or petulant – but I think that’s what made it so great, this sense of competition.”
Aside from Rosenbaum, other Shield writers on the panel included Glen Mazzara and Kurt Sutter, who have gone on to work on both megahits and short-lived failures. In Mazzara’s case, credits include The Walking Dead and Damien, while Sutter’s post-Shield work includes Sons of Anarchy and The Bastard Executioner.
Also on the panel was Shawn Ryan, showrunner of The Shield. Ryan has gone on to create and produce a number of new series since The Shield including Last Resort, Lie To Me and Mad Dogs — with NBC’s new time-travel drama Timeless his next adventure.
However, he clearly still has a residual affection for The Shield and its central character, Detective Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis). Quizzed on the show, he gave the impression that he could be persuaded to go back to the franchise if the conditions were right and he could call on some of the original writing team: “I have some ideas where Vic Mackey is, but I don’t know where Vic Mackey is until someone puts me in a writers room with a group of these people (on the panel) and some people who aren’t here and gives us a week to sort it out. Usually my first idea or instinct isn’t the right one, so I have some thoughts. I’d love to hear their thoughts and I’d love someone to pay us to sit in a room.”
Rosenbaum also gave some insight into the psychology of working in the writers room of such a high-octane show. Recalling the addition of established showrunner Charles Eglee (NYPD Blue, Moonlighting) to the team, he said: “There was a proprietary feeling of, ‘This is our show. We’re the ones who did this. Why do we have to have a new person come along? We’re capable of doing this.’”
However, that initial resistance disappeared when “we realised we had someone really special. My first impression of him was that I thought he was one of the smartest people I’d ever met.”
Another ATX panel of interest was “Westerns: Then and Now,” which saw HBO give a sneak peak of Westworld. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan said: “It was Game of Thrones that made us feel like we could pull this off. The 30-second pitch for Westworld was that we were sort of making Days of Heaven and Alien simultaneously and then putting them together, which is kind of my dream project – exploring two genres and playing with the juxtaposition of both. It’s fantastic.
“HBO felt like the only place we could make this. And Game of Thrones was the inspiration for us. Game of Thrones has this commitment to practical production value, which is not necessarily what’s in play (elsewhere) these days.”
Meanwhile, still in the US, the creator of CBS hit series Elementary, Rob Doherty, has just signed a three-year deal with CBS Television Studios.
CBS has already renewed the show for a fifth season, but the new deal suggests Elementary will get a least a couple more runs yet – which is no surprise when you learn how much money it generates for the network. In May, CBS boss Leslie Moonves said Elementary made CBS an estimated US$80m in profit last year (the result of being a wholly-owned CBS property).
Elementary is Doherty’s biggest hit to date, though he has written and produced for a number of series, including Ringer, Medium, Point Pleasant, Tru Calling and Dark Angel.
Outside the US, the big story of the week is that Canal+ in France has renewed its spy drama The Bureau for a third season. Federation Entertainment and TOP will start filming the third run in September. This is the second piece of good news for the show, after its existing seasons were picked up by Amazon Prime UK.
The Bureau was created by Eric Rochant, who is also known for writing and directing movies such as Autobus, Mobius, Love Without Pity and The Patriots. In terms of TV projects, he also wrote and directed a number of episodes of Canal+’s Mafiosa, le Clan. Created by Hugues Pagan, this show also ran on Canal+ for five seasons (40 episodes in total) from 2006 to 2014.
Finally, coming full circle to the subject of interesting industry events, screenwriter and director Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) has joined the line-up for C21 Media’s International Drama Summit, part of Content London (November 29-December 1). Gallagher will discuss new work such as Sky1’s forthcoming eight-parter Jamestown at the event, as well as his approach to the craft and his role as a creator and writer.
Jamestown, about the first British settlers in America, is being produced by Downton Abbey and Lucky Man producer Carnival Films and is slated to air later this year on the UK satcaster.
Last week it was announced that writer/director Tony Grisoni had also joined the line-up for the International Drama Summit.
London-based producer and financer Nevision has teamed up with Danish production company Good Company Films (GoodCo) to co-develop a new TV drama for the global audience.
The project in development is 10-part drama Midnights, which the partners describe as “a political thriller set in a present world that is both familiar and strange, about Nordic immortals who discover that they are dying amid the emerging Cold War in the Arctic.”
Midnights was created by Anna Reeves and will be produced by Stinna Lassen and Vibeke Windeløv. The executive producers are Ole Søndberg and Anni Faurbye Fernandez, who formed GoodCo in autumn 2014 along with Lassen and Windeløv. Søndberg is best known for starting Yellow Bird Films and for producing the Swedish and English versions of Wallander, the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Millennium Trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s novels. Fernandez was previously CEO and executive producer of Yellow Bird.
Also involved in the project is Nevision-backed About Premium Content (APC). APC will help source pre-sales and will handle international distribution for the series outside Scandinavia. Laurent Boissel, APC’s CEO, said: “Nevision and APC together are able to offer a bespoke studio-like solution where the producer’s independence and creativity is fully preserved.”
Nevision executive chairman James Cabourne added: “GoodCo is a very exciting company with a team that has an amazing track record in producing quality drama that resonates with a global audience. The success of Wallander is testament to this and we are excited to be partnering with GoodCo on Midnights.”
Elsewhere in the world of drama, Australian pubcaster ABC has renewed legal drama Janet King for a third season. The new eight-part run from Screentime Australia will go into production this year for 2017. It focuses on the life of a female prosecutor who returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. DCD Rights distributes the series.
Sticking with the subject of drama distribution, there have been a few notable stories this week. BBC3 in the UK, for example, has acquired Cleverman, its first drama purchase since the channel moved from traditional broadcasting to online streaming.
A six-hour series from Australia’s Goalpost Pictures and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures, Cleverman follows a group of non-humans battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior and want to silence, exploit and kill them.
Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisition at the BBC, described the series as “incredibly original and ambitious.” The show, which is distributed by Red Arrow International, will be available first in the US (SundanceTV, June 1) and Australia (ABC, June 2). The UK screening of the show will come later in the year. Henrik Pabst, MD at Red Arrow International, said the series “is one of the biggest and most ambitious shows to come out of Australia and speaks to a growing world audience unafraid of adventurous TV.”
In Canada, meanwhile, public broadcaster CBC has just announced a summer schedule that includes UK political thriller Undercover (written by Peter Moffat) and Danish financial crime drama Follow The Money. The latter, which comes from the successful DRTV stable, is being aired at 21.00 on Saturdays. This seems like a bold move for a non-English-language drama, though it has already aired on BBC4 in the UK. Other non-Nordic markets to acquire the show include Belgium and the Netherlands.
Also significant is the news that Amazon Prime Video has acquired new AMC show Preacher for the UK, Austria, Germany and Japan. The show is distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which has also sold it to Viaplay across the Nordics, OSN across the Middle East and D-Smart in Turkey. AMC has an international channel of its own that could have acquired Preacher, but presumably SPT was able to extract more international revenue by putting together a multi-partner plan.
The news that US on-demand service Acorn TV has added two UK dramas to its programming line-up underlines the increased demand for scripted shows in the VoD space. They are police procedural Suspects, totalling 17 episodes, and Cilla, a three-part biopic about popular UK entertainer Cilla Black.
As we have noted in recent columns, this is a busy time of year for US channels as they unveil their plans for the summer and autumn seasons. Today’s headliner is Turner Broadcasting’s cable channel TNT, which has ordered a series about the life of a young William Shakespeare. It has also greenlit a pilot called Civil. Both are part of a wide-ranging channel overhaul that has involved a significant increase in scripted investment.
The Shakespeare series, Will, is written by Craig Pierce and follows the life of the young playwright in London. This being US television, the 10-part production will be a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s life played against a modern soundtrack. The theatre scene in 16th century England will be treated as though it was the punk rock revolution of its time.
“Will has an energy and style that is unlike anything else on television today,” said Sarah Aubrey, executive VP of original programming for TNT. “Shakespeare was a 16th century rock star, and Will captures what that must have felt like for the young writer and his fans. We are delighted to be working with such an extraordinary team of executive producers and cast in putting a fresh, bold spin on the story of Shakespeare.”
As for Civil, the backdrop is a fiercely fought presidential election that plunges the US into a modern-day Civil War. It is written by Oscar nominee Scott Smith (A Simple Plan) and directed by Emmy nominee Allen Coulter (Damages, Nurse Jackie). Other new dramas coming through at TNT include Animal Kingdom, Good Behaviour, The Alienist and Tales from the Crypt.
Also in the US this week, some cancellation news. First, A&E has shut down its Omen spin-off Damien after a single season of 10 episodes. The decision comes after poor ratings, with the show starting moderately and fading to around 400,000 by the end of its run.
Showrunner Glen Mazzara confirmed the cancellation on Twitter: “This hurts to say but #Damien will not be getting a second season. Thank you from all of us to our amazing fans.”
Bates Motel aside, A&E hasn’t been having much luck with original scripted content recently. The Returned was cancelled after one season while Unforgettable has also bitten the dust (though after a longer run). A&E cancelled Longmire after three seasons and then had to stand by and watch as Netflix picked up the show and commissioned a couple more seasons.
Also, Showtime has announced that the current season of House of Lies will be the last. Commenting on the show, which stars Don Cheadle, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said: “House of Lies is a comedy that has frequently been ahead of the curve. The core cast of Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson is one of the best comedy teams on television. They have brought the series to an incredibly satisfying conclusion with the historic final episode shot in Cuba.”
In ratings terms, the show is averaging around 350,000 – significantly down on season four and very poor in comparison with most other Showtime titles. The decision to cancel will have been made easier by the encouraging start made by Showtime’s new financial drama Billions.
Once upon a time, US cable channel A&E was a lovely place where gentle folk went to watch costume dramas and murder mysteries. But in recent years the channel has turned to the dark side. After offering its viewers psychos (Bates Motel) and zombies (The Returned), the channel has now announced plans for a series based around iconic 1970s antichrist movie The Omen.
Called Damien, the series was originally lined up for A&E’s sister channel Lifetime. But last week parent company A+E Networks decided A&E’s asylum would be a better home. At the same time, it revealed that the size of the series order was being bumped up to 10 episodes, having originally been planned as six.
The series is being written by Glen Mazzara, who is best known for being showrunner on series three of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Prior to that, he worked on Nash Bridges and The Shield.
Mazzara’s time on The Walking Dead didn’t end well. Despite the show achieving huge ratings during his watch, a difference of opinion about the programme’s direction saw Mazzara depart after just one series. So Damien is a big opportunity for him to really make his mark, building an ongoing scripted franchise from scratch. He is doing so via his own production company, 44 Strong Productions, which he launched after leaving The Walking Dead. Also involved is Ross Fineman, who developed the series concept with Mazzara.
The fact A&E has entrusted Mazzara with a 10-part series shows just how highly prized the alumni of hit series are. Reinforcing this point, US cable channel E! has just greenlit a project from Jonathan Abrahams, a writer who won a Primetime Emmy for his work on series four of Mad Men. Called The Arrangement, the new project tells the story of a young actress who is offered a part in a major movie on the condition that she has a relationship with the project’s male lead.
Mad Men, of course, comes to an end on May 17 after seven critically acclaimed seasons on AMC. Presumably, this means a wave of top script-writing talent will now be unleashed on the market. All told, eight people have been credited as writers on the final season, including the show’s creator Matthew Weiner.
Weiner has not given any indication what he plans to do after Mad Men. But he is undoubtedly going to be one of the most in-demand writers/showrunners in the US. If there is a career challenge for him, perhaps, it is to see if he can couple his creative talent to a higher-rating project. While other AMC shows such as The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul have delivered impressive ratings, Mad Men bumps along at around the two million mark.
Two other names closely associated with Mad Men are Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, who wrote numerous episodes before leaving at the end of season six. The husband/wife team was briefly attached to Zodiak Media’s lavish period drama Versailles, but ultimately their version was passed over in favour of a treatment by David Wolstencroft and Simon Mirren. As yet, there is no news of what the Jacquemettons are planning next.
An ongoing theme in the scripted TV world is the number of actors and directors coming over from film – and it seems writers are also tempted to make a similar move. A good example of this is Jeb Stuart, whose movie credits include late-night kebab and lager companion flicks Die Hard and The Fugitive.
Stuart has recently finished writing The Liberator for A+E’s History Channel, a miniseries based on the Second World War heroics of Colonel Felix ‘Shotgun’ Sparks, who fought his way up through Europe before liberating the Dachau concentration camp. History is obviously happy with Stuart’s work – he’s now writing a Vietnam drama for the channel. Called The Boys of ’67, the show is based on a book by historian Andrew Wiest and will tell its story from the point of view of an infantry division. It’s tempting to think Stuart might go on to round out a trilogy with an Iraq epic next.
While the US continues to be the world’s most dynamic drama market, Canada has built an excellent business on the back of demand for North American-style scripted shows. Canuck writers have benefited from this, with numerous shows created north of the border travelling into the US and other international markets. One Canadian writer in the news this week is Aaron Martin, whose credits include teen drama DeGrassi: The Next Generation. Martin is now writing a series called Slasher for NBCUniversal’s US horror channel Chiller and for Super Channel in Canada.
The show, which is being produced in Canada by Shaftesbury, is about a young woman who returns to the town where she was born, only to find herself embroiled in a series of horrifying copycat murders based on the gruesome killings of her parents. Sounds like a show that would also work on the new-look A&E…