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October 15, 2015

Next Stop: Running the Show

WGA training program preps writer-producers for the top job.

Libby Slate

What are three things a showrunner must know — and one thing never to do?

Answers to those and other questions were revealed at the 2015 Writers Guild of America Showrunner Training Program, which provides writer-producers with the knowledge they need to become showrunners.

Now in its 10th year, the program was co-created by Jeff Melvoin, most recently an executive producer of Lifetime’s Army Wives, and John Wells, the prolific producer (ER, The West Wing, Shameless) and former WGA West president.

Conducted in partnership with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the endeavor was inspired, Melvoin says, by “the way the business shifted” since he started in television. Would-be showrunners used to get opportunities to move up earlier in their careers, especially in cable.

An Emmy winner for Northern Exposure — and the recent recipient of the WGA West’s Morgan Cox Award for service to the guild — Melvoin, who chairs the training program, believes strongly in continuing education. “The opportunity to talk shop in our business is curiously limited,” he observes. “We labor in isolation.”

The program is held on six Saturdays at WGA headquarters in Los Angeles. Topics include running a writers’ room; working with directors, actors and executives; postproduction; and lessons learned by alumni. Melvoin heads the drama education; Yvette Lee Bowser, creator–executive producer of Living Single, handles comedy.

To foster bonding and a master-class approach, there are just 25 slots, which encompass about 30 participants, as teams are accepted. Applicants must be currently working writer-producers or have a pilot commitment.

Program alumni include Veena Sud (The Killing), Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis (ABC’s Once Upon A Time) Matt Nix (FX’s The Comedians), Kenya Barris (ABC’s black-ish), Courtney Kemp Agboh (Starz’s Power) and Glen Mazzara, a former showrunner on AMC’s The Walking Dead whose new series, Damien, will air on Lifetime.

At the recent session, Mazzara addressed diversity in the writers’ room because, he says, “it’s an area that needs to be improved. I’m trying to ensure that there’s a continuing discussion with showrunners. They need to be very mindful of who they’re bringing in.”

To date, graduates of the program have gone on to create, co-create or executive-produce 78 series.

The program “not only helps the writers as showrunners,” Mazzara says, “but if affects all the people they work with, such as production and casting. The effects have been incalculable.”

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