TV Showrunners to Outshine Filmmakers at 2013 Produced By Conference

Sutter (right) with actor Charlie Hunnam on the set of FX's "Sons of Anarchy."
Sutter (right) with actor Charlie Hunnam on the set of FX's "Sons of Anarchy."
 FX

This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As the Producers Guild of America readies for its annual Produced By Conference, which will be held June 8 and 9 at the 20th Century Fox Studios, movie producers can only look enviously at the top ranks of their fellow television producers. Because whether they're scrambling to assemble financing for an indie flick or struggling to steer a million-dollar franchise, few film producers command the power enjoyed by TV's reigning showrunners.

"Since the early 1980s, television basically has been ruled by the writer-producer," says Marshall Herskovitz, the PGA's president emeritus, whose own producing career spans TV (thirtysomething) and movies (Love & Other Drugs). "In TV, I was one of those guys with a level of creative control and power you can't find anywhere else as a producer these days. It can be heady at times."

To explore how showrunning may be evolving now that new cable and digital platforms have emerged to compete with broadcast, Herskovitz will moderate a panel at the conference during which the top names in the business will assess the changing landscape.

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"Part of the enticement [of going to new platforms] is that they will leave you alone, and that's heaven to a creative person," says panelist Darlene Hunt, who was an actress before creating Showtime's The Big C. But, she admits, a little old-fashioned network interference can be helpful at times.

When she pitched The Big C, she explains, Showtime executives told her they liked the concept but wanted a more complex show and suggested that the central character, played by Laura Linney, have a troubled son -- a suggestion that, says Hunt, enriched the series.

The term "showrunner" itself is a bit of an oddity. PGA president Mark Gordon, who produces for both TV and film, traces the term back to the late '80s and early '90s, when in response to the proliferation of producing credits littering a TV show's opening credits, the designation "showrunner" emerged to make clear who was actually in charge. (On the credits themselves, showrunners are identified as executive producers.)

Gordon, who is not a writer himself, adds that nearly all showrunners in TV are writers. "It requires a unique set of skills," he says, "because you have to provide the creative vision for the show while also working with the entire creative team and then balancing that with the demands of the production company and the network."

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As the power of the showrunner has grown, the job is now more comparable to that of a feature film's director, functioning as the creative force who provides the vision for the project.

"All the muscle goes to the writer-producer-showrunner, who really has to have skills that are both left-brain and right-brain," says Warren Littlefield, who was a network executive at NBC before becoming a producer. "You have to be able to drive the show creatively -- which is a huge task that includes running an entire staff of actors and the crew -- while on the other side of your brain, you have to figure out how to do it for a price."

Those skills don't come naturally to every writer. Kurt Sutter, executive producer and showrunner of FX's Sons of Anarchy, started as a writer on The Shield and found it a challenge when he graduated to becoming a showrunner. "I do what I do creatively," he says, "but it required a whole new set of skills in terms of interacting with the network, with the studio, and being able to take notes, being able to listen to other people's opinions. That doesn't come easily to me, but I've learned, sometimes the hard way, that's part of the responsibility."

Of the pitfalls of showrunning, he says: "The biggest mistake people make is railing against those [budget and creative] limits. At the end of the day, I'm still working for the Fox Corp., and that's not a mountain I can scale."

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New digital platforms might offer showrunners greater freedom, but Herskovitz predicts that won't last. "Eventually, with success, all these institutions start telling you to do it this way or do it that way because that is what works for our brand," he says. "That's not a knock. That's the landscape of entertainment today."

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MUST-SEE PANELS

Conference topics range from star perks to international production incentives

The Real Deal
June 8, 9:30 a.m.

Roland Emmerich and Jon Favreau on what it’s like to both direct and produce.

The Walking Dead
June 8, 2 p.m.

The AMC series’ Gale Anne Hurd and David Alpert will reveal how they built a fan base.

Conversation with Tom Cruise
June 9, 9:15 a.m.

The title says it all.

Conversation with Jerry Bruckheimer
June 9, 3:15 p.m.

The producer of The Lone Ranger rides again.

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