'Showrunners': Cannes Review

Joss Whedon Showrunners Still - H 2014
Black Sheep Productions

Joss Whedon Showrunners Still - H 2014

An intriguing behind-the-scenes exposé on some of the men and women responsible for TV's recent revolution.  

J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Shawn Ryan, Damon Lindelof and Terence Winter are among the many TV series creators featured in Irish director Des Doyle's documentary.

CANNES -- If television is the new cinema, then showrunners are the new auteurs, imposing their creative vision on everything from the original pilot script to the final episode, while overseeing a backbreaking production schedule that's the equivalent of shooting five or six films in the span of only a few months -- all while plotting out storylines for the next season. It's an ambitious, arduous and exhausting artistic undertaking, as evidenced by the many face-to-face interviews in Des Doyle's insightful new documentary, Showrunners, which offers up multiple first-hand accounts on what it takes to get a show up and running and then keep it on the air.

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Featuring some of TV's biggest writers and producers -- J.J. Abrams (Lost, Fringe), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles), among others -- this chatty exposé makes a good companion piece to Brett Martin's excellent 2013 study, Difficult Men, although it's missing some of that book's major heavyweights (such as David ChaseMatthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan). But as a primer on what showrunners do and how hard it is for them to do it, the doc should find small-screen slots in major Western markets, while the increasing number of film festivals focusing on television fare will also take notice.

Divided into chapters that take us from the writing process to broadcast and beyond, Showrunners is chock full of quotable material and memorable war stories -- which makes sense given the many clever, literary minds on display. Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) compares the experience of running Persons of Interest to a "controlled plane crash, every week," while Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica calls it "the best and the worst job," explaining how hard it is to convince networks your project is the one to bet on, especially as 89 percent of new TV shows fail.

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As in Martin's book, Doyle spends lots of time in the writers' room, where the various plotlines and overriding arcs of a series are fleshed out by the showrunner, along with his or her staff of scribes. Indeed, writing is the heart and soul of a good TV series, and many of the most talented minds have recently flocked from films to television because, as someone puts it, "the middle class of feature [movie] writing has disappeared." Whedon offers several insights into the process, with one of his key rules being to "fall in love with moments, not moves," while Winter talks about working on The Sopranos with Chase, whose motto was the bluntly stated: "Be entertaining."

A broader plotline in the documentary follows House of Lies creator Matthew Carnahan as he takes the show from the pilot stage to the first season, revealing the enormous amount of planning that goes into making a successful series. Combining both writing and producing duties into a single job, the showrunner position is something like having Ben Hecht and David O. Selznick melded into a single person, offering lots of creative freedom but also huge logistical and financial responsibilities. This may explain why, as one interviewee puts it, the job is "too good to quit, too hard to do" and thus has a "burnout rate of 100 percent."

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Trying to cram as much as he can into less than 90 minutes, Doyle overstuffs some of the content, jumping through dozens of interviews without allowing us enough time to process them. Still, the director and editor John Murphy manage to give all the material a solid through-line, making the many voices echo into one underlying argument: Showrunning sucks, but it may be the greatest job in entertainment today.

Tech credits are appropriately TV-friendly, though the score by Jeremy Little feels a tad too generic for the otherwise complex personalities on display. 

Production companies: Black Sheep Productions
Director: Des Doyle
Producers: John Wallace, Ryan Patrick McGuffey, Rock Shaink Jr.

Executive producers: Jason Rose, Jimmy Nguyen, Christof Bove
Director of photography: Alan Calzatti
Editor: John Murphy
Composer: Jeremy Little
Sales agent: Submarine Entertainment

No rating, 87 minutes