The term showrunner is a relatively new one. In fact, as I type this, my word processor is failing to even recognise the word. If you were to ask the average person or even the average television viewer what the word showrunner means, they might take a guess and say that a showrunner is someone who does odd jobs and runs errands on a television production, much like a “runner” does on a film production. A runner is at the bottom of the totem pole on a film or television crew. But on the other hand a showrunner, as first time director Des Doyle’s documentary so finely demonstrates, is the top dog on a television series, perhaps one of the most stressful jobs in Hollywood.
As television series grow more and more cinematic each year, the role of the showrunner, sometimes known as the head writer or executive producer, has become much more complex and all encompassing. Through famous showrunners like Terence Winter, J.J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof, as well as less notable creative like Kurt Sutter and Shawn Ryan, Showrunners takes us through the trials and triumphs of producing television, a side of the business that is often overlooked and underappreciated.
Most showrunners are first and foremost writers. To become a showrunner, one must rise through the ranks as a staff writer on various television shows, until a network produces your pilot, the first episode of a prospective television show, and chooses to take your show to series. But running a show is about a lot more than simply turning in a script at the end of the week. Showrunners not only have to supervise the writing team and that week’s script, but oversee the physical production of one episode, the editing process of another, and simultaneously stay on budget and in constant contact with the studio that is financing and producing your show. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is.
What Showrunners does so well is capture not only the positive, creative side of the process, but also demonstrate the sheer exhaustion and constant fatigue that comes with leading a television series. The documentary also tells the never ending tale of the relationship shows and their producers have with a studio, which at times, particularly for the major networks, can make the difference between a show staying on the air and a show getting cancelled.
Doyle successfully conveys the ups and downs of the nature of the industry. Every showrunner that graces the documentary has stories, some good and some bad, but Doyle does not discriminate against one or the other. He does not glorify the process, nor tear it apart. Every showrunner, from the notorious Joss Whedon to Ronald D. Moore has had experiences both good and bad that have shaped the way they work today. Doyle lets both sides of the equation come through, allowing the audience to recognise that even the most successful television creators have fallen on hard times.
But most importantly, Showrunners, which bills itself as “the first ever feature length documentary film to explore the fascinating world of US television showrunners”, accomplishes its goal. It exposes its audience to a behind the scenes world that most viewers are unaware of. It also isn’t a traditional “making of” documentary, seeking to glorify the experience of taking something from script to screen. Instead, Showrunners sheds light on a world that is in dire need of recognition and is certainly deserving of it.
Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show will be available to buy at showrunnersthemovie.com from Oct 31st and will be available on i-Tunes this November