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June 24, 2022

What Is a Showrunner?

If you've ever thought about getting a job on a television show or film, you've undoubtedly thought about rising to the top of the ranks.

Many people think the top job on a television set is the director. But in recent decades, a new position has emerged that is more senior. So here's what you need to know about what it looks like to become a showrunner.  

What is a showrunner?

A showrunner is a person who literally runs the show. Often the showrunner is the head writer and guides the overall vision of the show. They are also responsible for managing production from the outline to the final script and from production to editing.

A director might have written the script and have executive producer credits giving them a say in other parts of the film process, but this isn't the norm. Usually, directors adhere to directing, and other people manage the other jobs on set.

However, in modern filmmaking, it makes sense for one person to hold all these roles to enable them to express their vision of the picture. It also avoids clashes on set between different personalities with different views on how the film should look.

Showrunning is closely connected to auteur theory, the idea that a picture, like a novel, is one individual's intellectual and creative property.

Do showrunners write scripts?

Yes, the showrunner will often write the scripts. However, as the series progresses and the characters and plot are established, the showrunner may step back and only write a few episodes per series, leaving some episodes to their writing team.

Remember, every series is different, and there are no set rules.

So, how do you become a showrunner?

Showrunners are writers and directors who have built up enough of a reputation and experience in the industry that they can be trusted to oversee the entire picture or series.

Not every director or writer is a showrunner, but if this is your dream, you must first cut your teeth in a standard job as a director or writer on a successful show to stand a chance of becoming one.

A showrunner is also not an actual title or position. Most showrunners are titled as executive producers, a rank above the director and writer. In the past, this title has been more honorific. It was often granted to the author of the property (such as a novel) even if they had very little day-to-day control of the show.

An executive producer has also been the title of an executive whose role on the picture is to oversee the budget.

Very often, it's the press that decides who is and isn't a showrunner.  

Famous showrunners

Becoming a showrunner can be a long and arduous journey; however, several writers have made a name for themselves as showrunners.

Russell T. Davies and Doctor Who

The most famous British showrunner of recent times has been Russell T. Davies, who revived the BBC Sci-Fi series Doctor Who.

Russell T. Davies, a lifelong fan of Doctor Who, lobbied the BBC to revive the series and update it for a modern audience. The first script he submitted was an episode of Doctor Who written on spec, which was rejected by one of the original show's script editors.

However, Davies, already a prominent and well-known scriptwriter, understood the dynamics of working within the BBC (known for being bureaucratic as it is funded directly by U.K taxpayers). He managed to convince the executive team to bring the show back to life as both head writer and executive producer.

Davies' vision for the show was to strip back the detailed exposition, double the length of each episode, and make the doctor more relatable to children. The episodes would also be more centered around Earth rather than alien planets. And due to Davies' hard work, the show was a massive success.

Shonda Rhimes: Grey's Anatomy

Rhimes is an alumnus of the University of Southern California, where she studied screenwriting and received her MFA (Master in Fine Arts).

The first few films she worked on, such as Britney Spears' debut movie Crossroads and Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, were box office disappointments. Despite these setbacks, she kept her head down and continued to write.

After her first pilot was rejected, Rhimes pitched a medical drama television show, Grey's Anatomy. Much to her surprise, ABC Entertainment green-lit it. The show was only supposed to run for four weeks but proved so popular it was commissioned for another series. Today, the TV show is still running, currently in its 19th season.

Rhimes was uncompromising in her vision for the series, which has served her well. She didn't write character descriptions and instead focused on casting the best actors for the role, stating she would not have continued with the series if they had worked in any other way.

Rhimes also founded Shondaland as one of the production companies involved in producing Grey's Anatomy. As a writer and head of her own production company, her position gave her status as a "showrunner."

Since then, she's created and produced a host of hit TV series, including a Grey's Anatomy spin-off, Private Practice, and Scandal, a political thriller.

In 2017 she signed an exclusive deal with Netflix that she hopes will be a fit for her and give her more creative freedom. The deal is said to include at least 12 separate projects in which she will be the showrunner.

What is a showrunner? Creative freedom is central to the role

A showrunner is someone who has creative freedom over their stories. Unlike a director or a writer who works in isolation and can be overruled by executives or other crew members, a showrunner has earned their stripes to implement their vision as they see fit.

Many credit the concept of the showrunner with the success of many of today's top TV shows and films. A showrunner is particularly important in a TV series to ensure the continuity of the plot.

If you want to become a showrunner like one of the greats, hone your craft, write every day, sell your first scripts and like Rhimes, never compromise on your vision.

Happy writing from the Arc Studio team!


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What Is a Showrunner?
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen using Arc Studio. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, Readers' Digest and Newsweek, amongst many other publications. He has just finished his second novel for young adults, set in a boarding school. He holds a BA in English from Loughborough University.

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