Inside Hollywoods Showrunner Apprenticeship Problem

Hollywood has an apprenticeship drought. In this tumultuous year, there is more work available for episodic TV writers than ever before.

Yet, industry veterans warn that the shifts toward streaming and fewer episodes per season is creating a concerning lag in the training pipeline for future showrunners.

For baby TV scribes, the chance to be “on set” during the production of their first “written by” credit can be a life-changing experience on par with marriage and parenthood. But increasingly, staffers have moved off the show’s payroll before production is completed. There’s not much time for a less-experienced writer to watch a seasoned showrunner navigate the rigors of talent relations or adjust Rookie writers miss out on opportunities to garner invaluable on-set experience on the fly on location, let alone post-production.

“It’s a huge problem,” says John Wells, veteran showrunner and former WGA West president. “Like in anything, being around people who have more responsibility than you, seeing what they do well and what mistakes are made, is a big part of where you get your training.”

Working far in advance of production was once seen as a detriment to keeping a show fresh over a traditional 22- or 24-episode season that ran from September to May. Now the work cycle in shorter season orders is a year-round process for writers, who often contribute to more than one series in a 12-month cycle.

“Now we have a system where many, many writers are working in advance of production,” Wells says. “There simply isn’t the opportunity to get the experience you need. You move up in credits and yet don’t get to the point of having to do your own show. So, there’s really talented people who are not getting the opportunity to have the rest of the experience that leads to being successful at the other parts of being an executive producer.”

The front-loading of the writing process for streaming shows is driven by the needs of the binge model of dropping all episodes at once. And it’s also generally a more economical move for a show because it doesn’t require keeping writers on the payroll through production. This tradeoff explains why the Writers Guild of America is sounding the alarm about a squeeze in writer paychecks even at a time of record TV employment for its members.

“Once again a new business model — vertically integrated streaming — is revolutionizing writers’ jobs, and being used to squeeze our pay,” wrote Meredith Stiehm, a TV drama veteran who is the incoming president of WGA West, in her candidate’s statement. “The downward pressure on income that we are all feeling is not a byproduct of the model — it is the goal.”

The WGA is alarmed about the rise in what has become known as “mini rooms” of two to four writers who turn out multiple scripts for a prospective project rather than produce a full pilot episode. The notion of mini rooms also extends to the traditional writers’ room as staff size has been shrinking since a peak in the mid-2000s. No one is more aware of these labor dynamics for the scribe tribe than the industry’s literary agents.

“The rise of the mini room where writers gather to write scripts but then move on is going to keep some people in a corner if you’re starting out on the early side of your career,” says Hrishi Desai, partner and co-head of literary department for ICM Partners. “The opportunity to produce episodes and learn the craft on set is indispensable.”

However, even as there are challenges for young writers, the streaming boom has opened enormous opportunities for young creators who didn’t come up the traditional rungs of the TV ladder, Desai notes. “The rules have changed because of the era we’re in. There is an emphasis on voices and people with really unique perspectives who are on the ascent to being showrunners.”

The shifts in the way TV is produced have also come as many directors have stepped into larger roles as hyphenate producers on series. The declining numbers and fortunes of the feature film side of Hollywood have sent many seasoned DGA members into episodic TV jobs for the first time. The rise of limited series, specifically, have created areas of opportunity for a single helmer to put a major stamp of vision on a project. This is notable in Emmy nominees from HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” to Disney Plus’ “WandaVision,” as well as recent adaptations “Lisey’s Story” for Apple TV Plus and “Nine Perfect Strangers” for Hulu.

Peak TV has created a content marketplace that Rod Serling couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams — dozens of outlets with deep pockets, seeking esoteric stories without pressure from advertisers. But the pace and volume of production has turned TV staff writing into more of a factory grind for young scribes, who aren’t getting the training as producers and managers that they need to move up the ranks.

“The scripts are written and everything is cross-boarded,” says longtime showrunner Neal Baer, whose credits include “ER,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Designated Survivor.” “Now they can do it all over Zoom. There are writers that may never go to the set.”

Industry sources note that the best training grounds for showrunners at present are the busy shops led by such uber-producers as Ryan Murphy, Dick Wolf, Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti, Chuck Lorre, J.J. Abrams, Julie Plec and Alex Kurtzman.

“When you hear complaints about there’s not enough experienced people around, it’s because there’s not a system in place in which the companies are willing to invest in making certain that enough people are getting that training,” Wells says. “You’d never hire somebody to run a network who hadn’t even participated in a full year of going through the programming and advertising and marketing and sales process. But they’re constantly asking writers on new shows to figure that out on their feet for the first time.”

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