Carlton Cuse Talks Streaming Wars, Network TV Notes and Hatching New Show Ideas

Kowthar Omar
Carlton Cuse

The former 'Lost' showrunner told the Toronto Screenwriting Conference that the "velocity of change in television is insane."

Carlton Cuse, former showrunner and remaining executive producer of Jack Ryan, on Saturday said that he has dealt with the strain of Peak TV on Hollywood's top TV creators by making dramas for more supportive streaming platforms.

"It's been three years making the first eight episodes of that show, and that eliminates a lot of the stress points, and gives you a lot more time to think creatively about what you're doing and to prep and make everything go right," Cuse, who co-created Jack Ryan for Amazon with Graham Roland, told the Toronto Screenwriting Conference during a session moderated by Marisa Guthrie, East Coast TV editor of The Hollywood Reporter.

Hollywood's streaming wars also means far more opportunity for TV screenwriters and showrunners. "The velocity of change in television is insane," said Cuse, as Disney, Apple, WarnerMedia and Comcast get set to launch rival streaming platforms to compete against Netflix.

The Bates Motel creator insisted stepped-up competition for talent in Hollywood means streaming giants have become much more talent-friendly. "They give fewer notes and they're much more supportive of the vision and direction I want for a series, whereas a network TV exec have an institutional way of note-giving they can never shake," Cuse said.

"If network execs were good at giving notes, they'd be writers," he added of intrusive traditional network TV brass. Peak TV has also raised creative expectations for creators and showrunners as never before.

"Game of Thrones is off the charts. The amount of time and money that went into the final batch of episodes, that's created a bar for television that I don't know if it will ever been exceeded," Cuse argued. The current streaming arms race and its content explosion has, however, forced TV creators to work with existing properties — as Cuse and Roland did in adapting Tom Clancy novels to create the globe-hopping Jack Ryan drama.

That has the former Lost exec producer wondering if he could ever create the iconic ABC mystery drama today, given it was hatched entirely from the creative minds of J.J. Abrams and writing partner Damon Lindelof. "I don't know if you could. It's really challenging to get an expensive piece of material made that's not associated with IP," Cuse said.

The trick, he added, was to create a new TV series from within the framework of existing IP. For Jack Ryan, that meant treating an intelligence analyst turned operative as a classic hero, rather than a flawed or anti-hero, and the CIA as a competent and patriotic organization, rather than the viper's nest of corruption it appears as in other TV dramas.

"It felt right at this moment of time, particularly in the U.S., to tell a story that celebrates institutional competence and professionalism," Cuse told the conference. He also reminded fellow screenwriters in the audience that Jack Ryan in 2015 was first conceived during the Obama administration.

"We started this when Barack Obama was president of the United States. And it felt relevant and a satisfying respite from everything else we were reading in the news to celebrate people who are really trying to keep us safe," Cuse recalled.

He is also the co-showrunner of the graphic novel adaptation Locke & Key at Netflix, which, like Jack Ryan, had a long journey through development before production in Toronto. Cuse is also developing shows for Disney's forthcoming Disney+ streaming service.

During a keynote conversation in Toronto, where Cuse steered clear of addressing the current dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood agencies, the veteran TV creator also told fellow writers how he comes up with new ideas for shows — and it doesn't call for writing out endless lists on a sketchpad.

"I walk around for a few days and see if I'm still churning the idea in my brain. ... It's come down to a seminal gut decision," he said.

The Toronto Screenwriting Conference continues through Sunday.