Europeans cross pond for showrunner school

Europeans cross pond for showrunner school

A group of leading European television producers was in Los Angeles last week asking some of the best and brightest of their U.S. counterparts: "How'd you do that?"

We're talking here about the studios' world-renowned TV production system that has produced innumerable hits over the years for virtually every broadcast outlet in the world.

The dozen producers from various European countries came to town to talk to and learn from some of the industry's best showrunners. They wanted to know just how that enormously successful production plan actually works. They visited the sets of hit dramas, spoke one-on- one with top producers, and even sat in on production and creative meetings.

The principal difference between most of the European production operations and the typical Hollywood studio system is that here the show is writer-driven while in Europe production is driven by the director, says one of the visitors, John M. Jacobsen, founder of Filmkameratene, AS, Norway. In Europe, the writer usually works alone to produce a drama script; in the U.S. the studios utilize big teams of writers -- the writers' table, as it's known, he points out.

But there are just so many advantages to the studio system compared with European production methods, Jacobsen says. "It seems to me that what the Americans have done is to industrialize the system while still looking after the creative side." Jacobsen says he plans to introduce the writers' table system, along with other production aspects, to his company, which plans to expand its drama production. Jacobsen claims his company has produced the biggest share of domestic boxoffice hits in Norwegian cinema.

One underlying message that Annemieke Van Vliet, an executive producer at Endemol in Holland, took from her Hollywood experience is that "everybody is more disciplined here in Hollywood." She, too, will be introducing U.S. studio-like production aspects to her company. "With us it's more of a director-driven process. Here it's writer- driven." But introducing the writer table concept to Dutch writers may not be a walk in the park, she fears. "Introducing writers to the concept is hard because writers in Holland just are not used to that. They work alone -- and they have big egos. But we are definitely finding ways to overcome this."

The Showrunner Program, as the event is called, is organized by London and L.A.-based media consulting group MediaXchange. Host producers and shows participating with the group during the week included Shawn Ryan ("The Unit"), Veena Sud ("Cold Case"), Miles Millar and Al Gough ("Smallville"), Kim Moses and Ian Sander ("Ghost Whisperer"), Hart Hanson ("Bones") and Rob Thomas ("Veronica Mars") and will also feature contributions from Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof and Jeff Pinkner ("Lost"), David Shore ("House"), Gary Scott Thompson ("Las Vegas"), Simon Mirren ("Criminal Minds"), Randy Zisk ("Monk"), Blake Masters ("Brotherhood"), Jeff Greenstein ("Desperate Housewives") and Bob Cochran ("24").

The visitors also sat with such leading executives as Elizabeth Stephen, president of Mandalay Television; Thom Sherman, executive vp drama development at Carsey Werner; entertainment lawyer, Barbara Rubin; and Brian Hurst, CEO of the Opportunity Management Group.

"For me it's perfect because we want to get more into drama, and here I have this opportunity to sit down with the leading people in the television industry and actually watch them work and be allowed to ask questions and to find out how the (production) is structured and how it functions," Jacobsen adds. "I'm amazed at how open everybody was -- because you know everybody has their little secrets. But these people had nothing to hide. Coming from Europe it's very hard to find this kind of enthusiasm and enjoyment that they all seem to have."