Noah Hawley is a novelist (The Good Father) and screenwriter (Lies and Alibis) who created and ran two TV shows for ABC (The Unusuals and My Generation). In this exclusive post, Hawley offers an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to have your show selected for a network’s fall schedule.
First of all, holy crap. You’ve already accomplished six impossible things. You sold a pilot idea. You navigated the development process and wrote a script that got the pilot shot, and you made a pilot that got the show picked up to series. Okay, three impossible things.
So what happens now? In a word, everything. First of all, even though your show just got picked up, you’re already 2 to 4 weeks behind schedule.
What? No, you heard me right. It’s May 15th. You need to be shooting by July 15th in order to premiere in late September. Which means you need to have your first script done in 6 weeks. And since you want at least ten weeks to hire writers and start breaking episodes, you’re 4 week behind right there.
Plus, you have to build sets. Which will take at least 8 weeks, but first you have to hire a production designer and supporting crew, which takes 3-4 weeks. So you’re about 5 weeks behind there. Why are you wasting time reading this?
So, what should you do first? Go to New York for the upfronts. The network won’t pay for you to go, but you should go anyway, because it’s cool to sit in Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall and see people talk about your show, and also to go to the parties.
Celebrate, in other words.
But while you’re there you should hire ten writers, a production designer, a post producer, a producing director, three editors, find office space and start breaking
episodes. Just kidding! You’ll have two or three days to do all that when you get back.
What’s next? Here are 10 critical things to know/think about as you race through the next four months until your show is on TV. (Holy crap, your show goes on the air in four months!)
#1 - You are now the CEO of a $60 million dollar corporation. Let that sink in for a moment.
In addition to hiring writers and running the story department, you are in charge of a crew of 200 people, responsible for every physical production and postproduction decision. You are also the main liaison between your show and the studio who pays for it, and the network that airs it, and you will be talking to both of them several times a day. Which brings us to point #2.
#2 - Delegate: You can’t run a $60 million dollar corporation by yourself. You just can’t. Don’t even try. Set up a clear chain of command, where everyone knows what they’re responsible for and how and when to report to you. This includes an experienced writer/producer to run the writer’s room, a producing-director to oversee the directors and all production issues and a post-production producer to oversee post. What kind of people should you hire? I’m glad you asked.
#3 - Hire “yes” people, not “no” people. When doing something impossible &mdash: like making 22 episodes of TV in 8 months — attitude is everything. Making a TV show can be the most fun you’ve ever had, or your worst nightmare. And that dichotomy has everything to do with who you’re working with.
#4 - Figure out what show the network and studio want you to make. This is critical. Now you may be thinking, well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? I wrote a show about a hit man who’s a doctor by day (or something) so that’s what we’ll make. But unless you’re running the world’s most paint-by-numbers procedural, there’s going to be some debate over what formula your show should adopt. And they will want a formula — a closed-ended case of the week show, a serialized soap, etc.
This is because a network TV show isn’t a beautiful and unique snowflake. It is an
Audience Delivery Device. And whether you’re solving crimes or writing about a scrappy group of rebels navigating their way through the end of the world, the network and studio are going to want you to set and meet audience expectations both week to week and for the season.
Your corporate partners (and embrace this. They are your partners) believe every
episode of a TV show should look basically the same as every other, so that the audience knows what they’re going to get when they tune in. The more High Concept your idea, the more you will struggle with this step, because a show that can do anything story-wise is a nightmare for a programmer who cherishes predictability.
This does not mean that studios and networks don’t want to take risks. They like making bold moves, in the beginning. But they also tend to second guess said moves ad infinitum. Look at Terra Nova, which started as a sci-fi show about dinosaurs and somehow ended up with a cop in it.
So be prepared to debate what the formula/identity of your show should be. And know that you will have to defend your choices on a daily basis. Which leads me to …
#5 - You have to figure out how to give the network and studio the show they want, while still somehow making the show you want to make. This involves saying “yes” to their notes and ideas as much as possible (be a “yes” person, not a “no” person) while at the same time working furiously to figure out exactly where each note is coming from (both creatively and corporately), so you can figure out whether to:
a) take it wholesale - i.e. just do what they said
b) implement their intent - i.e. they said they want your hero to have a “victory” in the third act, but what they really meant was that the act out of act three is too sad. So if you come up with an alternate ending that’s less sad, they’ll be happy. (in other words address the spirit of the note, not the literal note itself)
c) ignore the note - be prepared for them to raise the exact same not in the next draft/cut, assuming you simply didn’t hear them.
d) ninja the note, i.e. ignore the note, but convince them that you’ve taken it.
For example: posit — if the network executive says he hates the song you’ve chosen to close episode two, and you think it’s perfect, what do you do?
First, find out who hates the song. Is it the network president? Or just a development executive? The latter is fixable, the former not so much. Second, find out what they hate about the song specifically. On My Generation, I used a Mumford and Sons song that started with the singer repeating “I’m sorry,” then changed tone and became joyful and uplifting. I used the song to help transition from a sad, dramatic moment to an uplifting montage. I felt the song provided a real sense of catharsis (i.e. it produced joy from sorrow). But the network, unsurprisingly, wanted all joy and no sorrow.
So, because I thought the song was perfect, I went back and forth with the network for two weeks about the song. Finally, I figured out that all the network could hear were the words “I’m sorry.” So I cut out that part of the song and replaced it with score, then wrote the exec a long email about why the song was perfect and even transcribed the remaining (uplifting) lyrics. The result? I got the song.
This is how much work you have to do when you run a show. Every single creative and logistical decision you make will be up for debate, and you will have to figure out how to get what you want (the song) while making the network and studio feel like they’re also getting what they want (a happy ending).
Be prepared for this part of the job (network and studio politics) to take up 50% of your time. That’s right. Half of each day that you could spend making creative and logistic choices (i.e. getting work done) will be spent defending choices you’ve already made. Accept it. Try not to have feelings about it. That is the job. Which brings me to point #6 [read the rest here].
Read more from Noah Hawley.