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  • Written by Rick Ellis

Will New Guidelines For Reopening Hollywood Sets Hasten Changes In Showrunner Role?

On Friday, a group of Hollywood Unions released a 36-page report that laid out a series of detailed guidelines and protocols which should be put in place now that productions in Los Angeles County will be allowed to reopen. The report builds on a White Paper that was issued June 1st by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force, which included representatives from the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters.

One union that wasn't represented directly in the talks was the WGA and some writers are already drawing attention to several protocols they believe will drastically change their relationship with the television production process. The dispute is part of a long-simmering disagreement between directors (represented by the DGA) and writers (represented by the WGA) and their respective roles on TV productions.

The primary sticking point is a proposal which seems to eliminate or sharp curtail the on-set role for showrunners and other writers and producers. Here is a copy of the relevant passages from the report, which was shared on Twitter by @TonyTost and several other concerned writers over this weekend.

The fear from writers seems to be that the guidelines as written would only give writers access to the set with the permission of the director. And any remote access to the set would also be extremely limited and at the discretion of the director. That would sharply curtail the traditional role of the showrunner on the set.

It's a complex issue, so if you're in the industry, forgive me for simplifying things quite a bit.

Generally speaking, directors are the primary creative and management voice on a movie set. They lead the production process and serve as the final arbiter in most creative decisions. Their vision is the primary one on a movie and it's why movies are seen as the director's medium. On a typical movie set, the writer might visit once or twice during the production. But in nearly all cases, they have minimal creative input in the production process. And in some situations (say Christopher Nolan), the director also writes or co-writes the movie.

The situation is almost entirely flipped in the world of television production. The showrunner of the production is a writer and it is his/her vision that ultimately rules the day. The director in television is generally seen as a talented hired hand. They come in for an episode or two and then move on to their next job. The biggest impact a director has on the creative direction of the series is in the pilot. That pilot usually sets the tone for the rest of the series and its one of the reasons why you will sometimes see a well-known movie director come in and do the pilot episode.

But the role of showrunner has become an increasingly precarious one in recent years. The combination of increased production and shorter seasons has put pressure on the traditional structure of a television production. A 22-episode season keeps all of the elements of a production together for most of the year. The traditional showrunner role is built around this model. The showrunner provides the consistency of vision and handles just about every major creative decision. Most showrunners are only physically on the set for a few episodes during the season, but there is almost someone else there in the showrunner's name. And depending on the location, there may also be virtual access to production meetings and other aspects of the process.

A number of factors have conspired to change that traditional role and it all comes as a bit of a perfect storm for the industry. It's increasingly common to have short episode seasons, with crews working multiple shows over the course of the year. Those short seasons have an impact on the way the show is staffed and how much time the showrunner can spend on the season. There is a lot more chaos and it's increasingly common for a director to handle an entire six-episode season, or at least multiple episodes in the season. So there has been a move in smaller productions to give the director more of a role in the creative decision-making, since they are on the set more than anyone else. This trend has also been accelerated by the rapid expansion of production in the television industry, which has led to a shortage of experienced showrunners. Some networks feel more comfortable giving control of a multi-million dollar budget to an experienced director over a novice showrunner who is still learning the ins and outs of an extremely complex job. 

Another factor which has an impact on this process has been the ongoing battle between the WGA and members of the Association of Talent Agents (ATA). That stand-off has led to some agencies packaging shows without a writer and that often means a director will be attached to the package. That packaging makes it more likely the director will have a primary role in the creative process.

It's important to note that this continues to be a very fluid situation. Top-level showrunners with a track record are not going to have to worry about a director infringing on the showrunner role. At least, not yet. Which is one of the reasons why several writers I spoke with over the weekend worried that these changes weren't a primary concern for WGA board members, since it's not an issue they have had to deal with personally.

And as I noted above, this is VERY compressed and simplistic look at the situation. But should give the layperson a sense of some of the issues that might impact the look and direction of future television shows. 

I've reached out to both the WGA and DGA for a statement and if you are a writer or director who has a comment, feel free to DM my Twitter account at @aysrick or email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. All comments will be anonymous unless you specify otherwise.