Guerilla Showrunner

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Why behaving like the contestants on “The Apprentice” could make your series amazing

Oh, ye gods. What a horror.

I watched an episode of “The Apprentice”.

For those who don’t know - “The Apprentice” is a UK reality TV show where a bunch of alleged experienced businessmen and women compete in a variety of allegedly business-related tasks to become the “apprentice” to alleged business guru (and, to be fair, successful tycoon) Alan Sugar.

It’s horrifying. “Normal” business practise is presented as a mass of sniping, backbiting, and bullying from Lord Sugar on down. The tasks bear about as much relation to actual business as that dude in the bear suit at your local mall does to an actual grizzly.

And the contenders are both spectacularly odious - sexist, overbearing, pretentious, backstabbing - and incredibly stupid. Stupid to the point that a team of seven of them, in an entire day, couldn’t figure out what a “cloche” was in the context of a posh hotel. (To be fair, they weren’t allowed to use Google, which would have put my personal time on that task up from 30 seconds to, ooh, about 3 minutes).

And yet these guys and girls are all very successful in business. One had made 70k a year whilst studying at the same time. Another ran a not-that-small company.

And this got me thinking. If you forced one of these morons to run a web series, would they do as well at that, in spite of their deficiencies?

Quite likely. Why?


If you’re smart, sensitive and empathic, as most web series creators are, it’s very easy to assess the risks. Very easy to get into other peoples’ shoes and figure out what they might think of our little web series. And so we’re “realistic”, and focus our efforts on stuff we have assessed we’ve got a good chance of succeeding at, and avoid things that are doomed to horrible failure or serious embarassment.

Meanwhile, if you’re dumb as a post and cocky as something that can’t be mentioned on primetime TV, your first reaction to “How do I publicise this series?” is “Call the New York Times and tell them it’s awesome!”

And actually, that’s a very, very good idea.

I’ve been working very hard in the last few years on differentiating between situations where I’ve got no chance at all, and situations where I’ve got a pretty small chance, but a good chance of feeling embarassed too. The latter are very, very easy to mistake for the former, because it gets you out of scary stuff.

Scary stuff like seriously pitching the New York Times film section about your web series - not sending a generic PR, but actually calling them up and saying “I’ve got this thing and it’s AWESOME!”. Like taking your dream cast list and actually calling their agents. Like phoning a major theater chain and saying “Hey, guys, fancy showing the pilot of my series as a trailer to Pirates of the Carribean 4?”

Now, you’re probably sitting there thinking “yeah, but there’s no chance that would ever work.” Wrong. There is SOME chance that would work.

I’ve been featured in the New York Times. And on CNN. Entertainment Weekly. About half of the UK’s national newspapers. And various other places. It’s doable. Hell, I pitched one of the biggest name casting agents in the UK the idea for a World of Warcraft fanfilm and she agreed to work on it. And subsequently a whole bunch of very famous people also agreed to be in it, thanks to her. (Joanna Lumley. Brian Blessed. Jack Davenport. Anna Chancellor. Think they’d agree to be in a tiny webseries? Turns out, yes they would.)

Does this mean that I’m awesome? Not especially. It just means I made a bunch of phonecalls that I thought had almost no chance for success, and it turned out my risk assessment wasn’t as good as I thought it was.

What stuff could you do for your web series (or hey, I know we have non-webseries readers, your film, or your iPhone app, or your ebook) that would totally revolutionise its success? Which ones are clearly stupidly impossible?

How confident are you that they’re impossible?

Confident enough that you’ll take 10 minutes of embarassing telephone conversation over the chance for an A-Lister as your lead actor?

Confident enough it can’t happen that it’s not even worth TRYING to get the Hollywood Reporter to cover you?

Are you really so sure that you’re right?

Or can you pretend to be dumb enough that you believe it might work?

Smart’s good. But sometimes, to achieve remarkable stuff, you’ve got to pretend you’ve got balls of steel but a brain of lead.

Good luck.

P.S. Oh, and don’t just do it once. Hollywood Reporter told you to shove it? Engage dumb-but-cocky mode again. They’re clearly morons who don’t appreciate your genius. Time to phone Variety.

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Showrunning scares everyone - why that’s useful and what to do about it

My projects scare the shit out of me. And I’m guessing that, if we’re being honest, your projects scare the shit out of you too.

Not all the time, obviously.

There’s stuff that doesn’t scare me one bit - technical bits and pieces, for starters. Need to get a 3D model from one obscure incompatible format written in 1998 to another totally proprietory one written by a stoned UNIX coder and a drunken monkey? Pass me Google and let’s get going.

Online marketing doesn’t scare me. I love web design. And I love above all else working with actors, directing, workshopping, and working on story, playing around with beats, going for walks, coming up with an arc.

You’re probably in the same boat. Maybe you’re 100% OK with editing, or could happily colour-correct until the perfectly-shaded cows came home.

But then there’s all the other stuff. Print press scares me, badly. Not doing interviews, so much - them I like. But whenever I get to the point of needing to assemble press releases and actually call the BBC or CNN or something, my heart rate’s going like Lars Ulrich playing a drum solo twenty seconds after he learned about Napster.

Camerawork scares me. I am acutely aware that when it comes to artistic stuff, compared to a lot of ultra-talented directors and DOPs, I’m a three-year-old with crayons. I know I don’t suck, but I also know I HAVE sucked in the past, and that means that I can manage up to two hours of “research” (procrastination) before I actually get the nerve up to point my virtual camera at something.

I’m sure that all of us have the same problems. There are things about our projects, our shows, that frankly feel somewhere between “I’d really rather just eat some icecream” and “Fresh pants please, Brian”.

(Indeed, if I found a filmmaker who didn’t find any aspect of his or her work scary, I’d question if he or she was actually invested enough to do a great job.)

But the question is - what can you do about your fear? And what can you learn from it?

If it scares you, you should probably be doing it

Well, obviously not if “it” involves stepping in front of heavy things moving fast.

But one of the things I’ve learned about fear is that it’s an excellent pointer for the things I should really be doing to make my film awesome rather than just OK.

Let me tell you, getting started on the process that led to me casting Johanna Lumley, Jack Davenport, Anna Chancellor, and Brian Blessed in Death Knight Love Story was absolutely terrifying. Calling Seriously Big Name casting agents? Pitching the project to Gail Stevens and her team? Even organising the transport to take our actors to the recording studio was hyperventilation-tastic.

That’s the main reason I knew this was something that was super-important to do.

If you know you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re already ahead of the game

I’d still say that I’m not very good at camerawork. Thus, it’s a bit of a surprise for me when people compliment my shooting, as happens reasonably often, or even ask me for camerawork advice!

The ability I’ve aquired with camerawork, such as it is, has all been as a result of realising that, initially, I really sucked. So I grabbed everything I could to learn about it. I studied movies with the sound off for hours. Any time a blog post has the word “camera” in the title, I’ll read it, possibly even after the point I realise it’s about sticking something medical where the sun doesn’t shine.

If you’re shitting yourself about a task - or merely vibrating gently and procrastinating hard - you’re probably already ahead of most people on that task, because you realise that you don’t know everything you want to. Turn that fear into an impetus to learn, and do the task anyway, because…

Making good stuff is partially a function of making any stuff

There’s a much-overused Woody Allen quote on this point, about 90% of success being showing up. It’s overused because it’s true.

I have a note on my monitor reading “You don’t know if a shot is any good until the edit”, as I’ve mentioned before when talking about cameras. It’s there because I tend to paralyse myself with fear that whatever I produce won’t be good enough.

You can only make stuff that’s as good as you can make. How you’re feeling about making it on any given day won’t matter nearly as much as you think it will. I’ve shot and written things I thought at the time were shit, and subsequently turned out to be the best things about a project. And filmmaking’s a process - you’ll dramatically overestimate how far down the line on any episode you can see and predict, because once collaboration and multiple processes like editing come into play, the game totally changes.

Oh, and if you do end up producing something that doesn’t work, half the time the reason it doesn’t work will have nothing to do with whatever you were panicking about when you made it. It’s the stuff we DON’T see that clobbers us, not the stuff we obsess over.

So stop shaking and hugging like it’s your only friend. Make it, edit it, screen it to a bunch of friends, and THEN you can worry about whether it’s good enough yet.

What’s the stuff that scares you about showrunning? And how do you overcome it? Let us know in the comments!

_You know what else helps you get over the fear hump? Having baying fans waiting for your project. Learn about getting crazed stalkers with our free course. _

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