The existing system for training showrunners can’t keep up with the demand, and John Wells has stepped in to help. The seasoned showrunner of shows such as ER, The West Wing and Shameless and former two-time WGA West president has launched The Showrunner’s Cornera section of his company John Wells Productions’ website dedicated to giving up-and-coming writers the basics they need to successfully make the transition to showrunners.
Complete with a glossary of industry terms like DOOD or EFC, The Showrunner’s Corner includes an Adventures In Showrunning by John Wells section, in which he shares his experience and gives practical advice on how to handle Scheduling & Deadlines, Communication, Delegation and Leadership. There is also a How We Make TV portion, where members of Wells’ team provide tutorials on subjects like Showrunner Prep and Production, How to Read a Call Sheet, Writer’s Assistant’s Guide as well as A Showrunners Guide to Business Affairs, which will be published shortly. Also coming up is a section on how TV development works.
Information is being added daily as The Showrunner’s Corner tries to be up to date on the fast-evolving TV business in addressing the questions first-time showrunners may have and providing managerial experience writers need to go along with their creative talents in order for their shows to succeed.
Wells said he got the idea and started working on the manual about a year and half ago during production on the praised Netflix limited series Maid, on which he was executive producer and director. He traveled twice to Canada, where the series filmed, to direct the first two and the last two episodes, and both times he had to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks per the country’s Covid protocols.
“Suddenly, I had some time on my hands, so that’s when I started,” Wells said. (On a separate note, he confirmed that there are no plans for a second installment of Maid.)
He spoke with Deadline about what prompted him to launch The Showrunner’s Corner.
“I started getting lots and lots of calls and emails from people asking pretty basic questions,” Wells said. “It was pretty clear that people were not getting enough opportunities to get the experience that they need to be able to manage the job successfully.”
Wells has participated in the Showrunners’ Training Program that WGA West has been running for years, developed by Jeff Melvoin and a group of guild members. Because the program is organized by working writers who volunteer their services on weekends, its capacity is limited to 30-35 trainees a year.
While that was sufficient when there were 140 or 150 scripted series a year, it is not nearly enough for a TV universe that spans more than 600 scripted shows.
“So what’s happening is a lot of really talented writers are getting the opportunity to run shows before they’ve really had an opportunity to have that kind of experience that would make it more likely that they’ll succeed because the managerial side is so big, and many of us with the guild, who’ve been involved with this for a long time, have gotten concerned that writers aren’t really getting all the information that they need,” Wells said. “Because we want writers to succeed as showrunners, I want them to remain in control of their ideas and their material.”
That includes a number of writers from underrepresented groups who got a chance to work on shows as part of studios, networks and streamers’ stepped-up diversity and inclusion efforts in the past couple of years.
“Even while there’s been an attempt to improve equity and inclusion, you can get the job but you’re not getting the opportunity to actually be in the room, producing the shows,” Wells said. “So that group in particular is getting more opportunities, and yet having less chance to get the experience necessary for all facets of the job. These are huge jobs, running a show. They come with big budgets and a lot of responsibility and very smart, talented people can become overwhelmed just getting thrown into the deep end on shows.”
The situation was exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We have a situation where writers for all intents and purposes have been working all day at home on Zoom, so the limited opportunities that they had before to get on the set and then in post and editing, be in the budget conversations and really participate and get the experience, have been drastically reduced,” Wells said.
As a result, demand for showrunner training has snowballed over the past two years, with the WGAW doing the best it can.
“There just hasn’t been enough bodies to do it,” Wells said. “The guild has started to do things like offer Zooms on particular subjects. They did an intensive one for four hours a couple of weeks ago, and I think there were over 1,000 people who signed up for it — they weren’t even sure how to get that many people through on the server to actually participate in the Zoom. So the need is there.”
Wells’ original plan was to write 10 pages over two days during the pandemic but ended up writing 80 pages of background information and tips over six weeks.
People in his office were excited by the idea and started writing about their jobs to turn The Showrunner’s Corner into an open-source resource they hope would be helpful, as there isn’t really a book someone can read that will teach them how to become a good showrunner.
Wells recalled the old TV industry model he came through where a writer would spend a minimum of seven years working their way up to an executive producer title doing 22 or more episodes a year. He described the gradual rise as “an apprenticeship” where writers spent time doing different jobs on multiple shows and learning how the business worked.
“But that whole system is falling apart simply because of the large number of shows that exist now,” he said.
The old system where a novice creator was paired with an experienced showrunner also has gone by the wayside as the proliferation of content has rendered most seasoned producers unavailable, too because the current economic environment and dwindling profit margins can’t always support the cost of an additional, supervising-type showrunner.
The initial feedback to The Showrunner’s Corner has been positive, Wells said, noting that he has heard from agents who have been getting questions from their writer clients that they can’t answer on managerial specifics of pattern budgets, amort accounts, writing schedules and other aspects of TV production.
While he and his team “just try to put useful, managerial tools up there that anybody could adapt to what works for them,” Wells knows that “there are going to be people who disagree with some of the things that work for us.”
And that’s OK as he hopes to start a conversation and to see some of his colleagues joining the effort by reaching out and writing about specific experiences they’ve had that could be useful to others.
“I’d be happy if 15 different websites decided to do this themselves from all the various showrunners. Let’s get as much information out there as we possibly can because the industry right now — as you’re reporting on every day — is very chaotic,” Wells said. “The costs are under a lot of pressure right now, and it’s going to put more pressure on showrunners to succeed financially as well as creatively.”