Producing Writing

The 11 Laws of Showrunning by Javier Grillo-Marxuach

One of the nice outputs of reading Maureen Ryan’s Burn it Down, that I referenced last week, was to learn about Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s guide “Eleven Laws of Showrunning.” (PDF link)

This guide was mentioned in the context of needing good management. So many showrunners are writers who have created the ideas of the show and are expert at both writing and solving writing problems, but they so often have zero managerial experience. Not only that, Ryan’s book noted how, historically, studios don’t have systems in place to train and prepare scribes for this senior leadership position.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who many people know from his time writing for Lost, first popped on my radar as one of the writers for The Chronicle and, later, the creator of the TV version of his comic, The Middleman. And he’s had a bunch of credits before or since. Basically, he’s come up through the writing and producing ranks prior to becoming a showrunner so that he wants to remedy the historic lack of training that would be aided by reading the “Eleven Laws of Showrunning.” I also appreciate that he goes to eleven.

Now whether or not you’re an aspiring showrunner, or even if you aren’t, you’ve probably thought something along the lines of “Hey! A lot of people promoted or otherwise thrust into management positions don’t get the training they need. It’s not just the entertainment industry.” You’re right — and I’ll be writing more about that on Wednesday.

In any case, I found a lot of these ‘laws’ were useful for managing people around projects that aren’t particularly artistic. In fact, if someone were strongly opposed to the spirit inherent in the headlines for numbers 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11, I would really question whether anyone would want to work in that special, special workplace. (You’ve probably picked up that I don’t find the broad strokes of project management to be insanely different among ‘industries’ –and that’s based on being in different industries– but that’s for another time).

The “Eleven Laws of Showrunning” runs about 25 pages and it’s up to you whether you want to check it out before, after, or during reading over my pithy comments. I will say, however, much like someone’s reaction video, you might get something out of my reaction, but you’ll get way more out of the original video.

#1 – It’s All About You Stop Making It All About You

If you’re like me, there’s a limbic proofreader in your brain-stem screaming about the lack of punctuation in the sentence above. However, once I silence that critic, I can re-read the sentence as a way to try and express how one needs to keep these conflicting ideas co-existing yet “at bay” from one another lest your endeavor end in a metaphorical anti-matter explosion.

This law absolutely flows into laws 2, 3, and 7… and frankly, as a writer, you should also be used to the fact that your latest draft can be simultaneously the best thing ever and utter crap. Embrace the conflict.

(Oh, and I love the button in this section of “How you answer that question determines the leader you will be.” Yes, you’ll need to read it to know the question).

#2 – Know Your Show and Tell Everyone What It Is

Directors know well the phenomenon of being asked hundreds of questions a day. By all indication, showrunners get this on steroids. And once again, clarity, conciseness, and a certain level of over-communication appear to be the order of the day.

I’m also reminded of the phenomenon many with leadership and management training know of as “bring me a rock,” where said executive gives you that instruction and no more. I like how Grillo-Marxuach extols the mindset and outlook showrunners should pursue instead. (Spoiler: don’t ask your folks to bring you a rock.)

#3 – Always Describe a Path to Success

#3 really comes from #2 in many ways and, I have to say having been on long, tortuous projects or productions, having leaders continue to describe success, even through the next task, is invaluable.

#4 – Make Decisions Early and Often

Slightly shifting the analogy of a “project path” to a project being “in flight,” you can quickly pick up on the fact that not setting a course means your project becomes aimless. And making decisions faster means you have more grace in correcting your course.

#5 – Do Not Demand a Final Product at the Idea Stage

I get violations of this law in technology and other businesses where people will jump to the solution because they want to get rid of the problem rather than understand the problem. Or they decide that research and planning is not a valid activity (and possibly a sign of weakness). I get it. We all want the endorphin rush of solving the problem. The examples here are way more in the creative collaboration mode, but not so dissimilar so you won’t recognize some tendencies, including the fact that facilitating, brainstorming, and collaboration are all skills to foster.

#6 – Write and Rewrite Quickly

Oh, we can all think of times when we’re just not writing quickly (right? Right??), but here’s where the “business” part of show business comes in like the Kool-Aid Man with an urgency usually reserved for hostage rescue.

A couple thoughts came to mind reading this law. First is the whole aspect of “fix it in pre” where you want to take as much time in writing and then pre-production as you can. A second is that ‘writing’ in this realm is what ‘requirements’ are to many another projects. Sure you can change requirements. You might have to change requirements. A lot. But you want to have the best baseline you can.

#7 – Track Multiple Targets Quickly by Delegating Responsibility

This law really rolls out from a successful execution of law # 2. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve been on where someone who’s been great working with teams in the trenches then gets promoted… and keeps on trying to do the work when they now need to see the whole trench network. I resemble that remark more than a little and am a fan of pacesetting, but I like how Grillo-Marxuach explains his idea of apostles here.

Apostles, not puppets.

#8 – Resist the Siren Call of the “Sexy Glamorous Jobs”

This law seems especially difficult, but flows out of #7 — and it strikes me that a showrunner will need to find some measure of “glamor” for their own motivation. I’m just guessing that, even as showrunner psyches are sure to vary, they’re going to need some doses of “joy” inherent in casting or costumes or cool prop inspection lest they become insufferably grim.

At the same time, Grillo-Marxuach details how giving in to the siren call not only means the showrunner has failed to delegate enough responsibility, but may then be sucking time and potential initiative out of the respective departments. I especially appreciate his comments about the potential micro-management time-suck that is editing because I read tales of 60s showrunners not being able to stop fiddling back then. Nowadays, the ability to fiddle is exponentially worse.

#9 – Expect Your Staff to Perform at Varying Levels of Competence

I have to say, this is one of the toughest lessons to learn and to subsequently navigate and, not surprisingly, there’s a lot of information Grillo-Marxuach goes into about how to foster confidence in newer writers, how to re-direct negativity, and how ultimately to use a showrunner’s great power for good.

If you’re like me, you’re replaying some choice scenes from your management experience right now and need a moment before moving on. Deep breaths, everyone.

#10 – Deliver Good and Bad News Early and Often

I’m not gonna lie, I say “I want my drama on screen, not the office” so frequently that I’d be hard-pressed not to be won over by this law when he mentions “Save the drama for the screen.”

Not only that, the focus on transparency being the ultimate goal and “sunshine being the best disinfectant” holds true for any workplace… except for the Legion of Doom. Those folks are toxic… and I don’t just mean because their headquarters is in a swamp.

Sooo not OSHA-compliant.

#11 – Share Credit for Success to a Fault

I mean, I could ask “Who doesn’t advocate this?” but I’ve met the silo denizens dedicated to being “keepers of the secret knowledge.”

Grillo-Marxuach rattles off no end of practical reasons why sharing credit should be a showrunner practice, but one of my favorite snippets is the reminder that “credit is not finite.”

So I hope that readthrough gives you ideas for your creative or other workplace. As indicated, more thoughts tomorrow.

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