Since the dawn of DVDs, television fans have had a wealth of access to the process of how their favorite shows are made. Thanks to audio commentaries, PaleyFest events and even comic conventions, showrunners have a higher profile than ever, standing alongside the actors as the engines that make it all go. They're more than just the lead writer; they help with casting, oversee every step of post-production and put their stamp of approval on every step of the process. They can be the driving force that makes it all work, or one of the big reasons a show fails. Yet there are some people who still don't know what a showrunner is or does. That's where the documentary Showrunners comes in.
"It's literally where the film starts," writer/director Des Doyle told Blastr. "We try to explain what the job is. Even for people who are diehard TV fans, I think there's still people who think it's a film about the guys who get coffee, but that's just where we begin."
Doyle's feature-length documentary began production in 2010 and was successfully Kickstarted back in 2012, but this is the year that he, along with fellow producers Ryan McGuffey, John Wallace and editor John Murphy, is hoping to bring it to theaters or some type of digital streaming platform. Interest has grown each year, and their panels at both Comic-Con International 2013 and WonderCon 2014 have given arguably the most ardent TV fans the opportunity to interact with and hear from a multitude of showrunners at once.
"It's different for every show," Doyle explained. "There's a reason AMC paid the money they paid to Matt Weiner, because there is no replacing him on Mad Men. I can't imagine anyone would watch Sons of Anarchy if Kurt Sutter wasn't running it."
"Every single person we've interviewed has told me the same thing: You must have a singular, clear vision to make a show work. When you don't have that, you can have chaos or confusion that surrounds that particular show. They've also said for people who are a first-time showrunners, or a writer steps up into that role, they think the know what the job involves. But suddenly they find themselves in a hurricane. Trying to deal with everything can be overwhelming."
There are those rare shows that are able to defy odds and survive multiple showrunners, such as The Walking Dead or Falling Skies. Then there are others that are done for once a change is made. For example, a series like Alphas had its struggles, and it would be unfair to pin it solely on the change from Ira Steven Behr to Bruce Miller, but the vision of the show did change once the network strayed away from what creators Michael Karnow and Zak Penn wanted to do with Behr at the helm.
"Going back a while, it was more common for showrunners to move around from season to season or show to show," Doyle said. "Now the preference is, if you can do it, they call it cradle-to-grave showrunning -- you're with your show from start to finish. That doesn't always work for a number of different reasons, like, in the fourth or fifth season, some start to get itchy feet. They like to try something new.
"It's very difficult to make that work time-wise, unless you're Shonda Rhimes, who has some magic ability running two shows at the same time. Or Joss Whedon, who had three shows on the air at the same time. It's a very difficult thing to do. Studios and networks' preference would be that one person stays from beginning to end as long as everyone is getting along, ratings are good, and not necessarily does it have to be a happy ship, but it delivers on time.
"The situation with The Walking Dead, because there's such a strong pre-existing vision from the graphic novels and Robert Kirkman is there on the show, that you can make that work like you can't as easily with other shows. I think Dan Harmon loyalists would rather walk away from and jump from season three of Community to season five; that's no offense to the guys who took over season four, I just think the fans are a big reason why Harmon came back to the show."
Provided that one can survive being a showrunner, one wonders if there are different breeds of showrunners, perhaps ones better suited for genre shows, action, shows or science fiction shows. The film touches on that by bouncing around to different types of shows and showcasing the talent behind long-running shows of all kinds.
"I'm not particularly fond of the idea that they're just considered genre writers. There's a huge freedom in [that] you can do things in metaphor that you can get away with. I think they would like to be considered just writers, though, rather than genre writers, because it can tend to be a slightly deprecating thing that can come with that.
"There are people who love being in that space and would be happy to stay in those shows for a long, long time. Ron Moore told us if he pitched a show about lawyers, there might be raised eyebrows, because there's nothing in his track record to suggest that. Now, it could be an awesome show [laughs]. Sometimes you get that preconceived thing from the network point of view. 'Oh, you're that guy.' which can certainly help you if you're pitching that kind of show. But if you really love to do something outside the space you're kind of known for, that can be more challenging. That said, we're looking forward to Moore's new time-traveling period piece, Outlander!"
Stay tuned to see when, where and how Showrunners is released to the general public. Showrunners featured in the documentary include J.H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner (Fringe), Shawn Ryan (The Shield, The Unit), Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles), J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias), Damon Lindelof (Lost) Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly), Robert King & Michelle King (The Good Wife) and many more. Click here to see a trailer. There is also a book, Showrunners: How to Run a Hit TV Show, by Tara Bennett, supplementing the film and due out in the fall. Check out the film's trailer below.