The crowds were bustling along Minnie Avenue and Dopey Drive as the Produced By Conference welcomed the international commission of film commissioners as first time co-sponsors. Booths from various countries and states were attracting attention, but inside the packed Sessions theater, you could have heard a pin drop as Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives) Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Darren Star (Sex and the City, Beverly Hills 90210) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) sat on the stage to discuss their television programs. Billed as a conversation with ABC showrunners about developing and selling pilots and ensuring a series' "long term vitality," the hour and a half panel discussion moderated by Variety's Cynthia Littleton turned out to be more revelatory than that, giving an insiders' peek into the minutia and multitude of decisions required daily to nurse/cajole/prod a weekly television program to success.
The four men were also creators of their programs and their jobs were variously described as "plate spinners," juggler extraordinaire and "Chief Creative Executive." In the stories of the creation of their programs there was more than a little serendipity, but the most surprising story came from Star, who claimed that five days after he first met J.J. Abrams, their Lost treatment was picked up and they were given three weeks to cast and start shooting the pilot in Hawaii.
Is there a showrunner personality? A showrunner gene? It was generally agreed that being a strongly opinionated and passionate writer was a good start. Cherry, who got himself through Fullerton State College working as a singing waiter and had experience in stand up comedy, mentioned the importance of being able to command a room. He also talked about how his tone changed when he was in the writer's room and when he was dealing with his actresses. Without naming names, he checked off the key elements of his Wisteria Lane doyennes -- one who has no comedic sense whatsoever, but trusts him when he suggests a pause or raising an eyebrow, another for whom "the script has to be make perfect sense," one who is happy only when she has a real dramatic moment each week and another who "just wants to look pretty and go home." Everyone was left on their own to put the traits to the appropriate actress.
The stress of allocating the season's budget clearly weighs heavily on all the participants and resulted in a multitude of choices. Marlow told of coming from writing features such as Air Force One, where the budget was not a consideration, to a television show where "the story-telling brain changes" and becomes "filtered by budget restraints." The goal becomes wanting to "deliver the scope and scale" over the course of the season, and he has developed all kinds of tricks to meet those ends. Examples included a scene in the gym that could be shot much cheaper on a playground, three actors in a scene instead of five, cutting back on locations, using rustling bushes and other sound effects to move the story along and agreeing to an "appropriate" product placement in order to pay for the helicopter.
Lindelof was nodding in agreement and spoke of the shock of going from a "huge" budget for the pilot to a much reduced one for the series. He cautioned that while computer generation can solve some of those challenges, in order to be effective they have to be planned several months in advance, which is not always possible with a rapidly evolving story line. (Each man also praised their line producers as miracle workers. As Marlowe pointed out, on a good day he only talks to his line producer once and that means they have been busy solving all the problems that come up. "If I am talking to them once an hour, they aren't doing their job.")
The proliferation of producer titles was discussed as well, with plenty of culprits to blame. There are those forced upon them by the network and then the agents who can't necessarily get their clients more money, and maybe even less then their last job, but can claim "a bump" in the form of a producer credit. There are the writers themselves who think (probably erroneously) that their opinions will be more valued if they are listed as a producer. The title is often about perception -- how people see themselves and what they think it means and there was general wishing that being "a really good writer" would be enough. Marlowe said that the creators themselves were often complicit in the proliferation -- after all, like the characters in State and Main, when they don't want to or can't pay someone more, they give them another title.
While there was general agreement on the importance of social media, the new word of mouth, it was Marlowe who was the most specific. He spoke of building a fan base for Castle by giving his characters Facebook pages and that "evangelizing your fans" can pay off in the ratings. There was a gasp that reflected both a bit of surprise as well as awe when he said he that he took Twitter into consideration when casting guest stars. Those with really big followings can create a real ratings bump and if even ten percent stay with you, it can make a difference.
Clearly, these jobs are all-consuming. Ideas for their programs are their first thoughts in the morning and the last at night. No one was complaining: in fact they all professed to have never felt more creative. But to do their work well, they live in the vortex that is showrunning.