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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 Reddit.com 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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How Your Goals Make All Your Show’s Decisions Easier

Ah, Scotland. Land of the cold, dark winter. I’m really looking forward to about two months’ time when it’s not dark by 5pm.

Yeah, yeah, I know the Scandinavians in my audience are laughing at me right now.

Anyway.

THEN! (Cue fancy graphics). We talked about goals, why having some is a good idea, and how to figure out what it is that you actually want out of your show.

NOW!

How you can use the fact that you’ve got a goal to actually achieve the damn thing, and be either a) rich, b) happy or c) both.

A Right To-Do

So, let’s take an example. You’ve realised that what you really want out of your film is a very, very long comment thread, full of people arguing about and having passionate opinions about the series.

Now, what you do is attempt to work backward from that outcome. What would cause that?

Well, for starters, they’ll need something to argue about. What? Is there something in your film that would cause them to disagree?

Chances are there is, actually. Your subconcious has been building the show with your desired goal in mind all along. However, it’s probably buried because you didn’t realise how important it was. In my first ever series, Eschaton, I really wanted people to debate and find the hidden corners of the world, but I didn’t really realise that conciously, and so I didn’t build the breadcrumbs that would lead people into the mysteries - they were in there, but only people who were really looking would find them. Instead, I spent lots of time writing stuff I thought was important, but was actually distracting from the main points of the show - too much character drama, for starters. You need to find the core thing or things that would cause your audience to argue, debate and analyse, and bring that to the fore.

So, Where in your series are you visualising a viewer stopping and going to the YouTube comment page to go “I totally think that the birds are actually a symbol!” ? You’ll probably find you don’t have any specific times, and you’re probably underplaying a fair bit. Time to bring that out and up.

Now you know the result you’re looking for, you can also look at other shows that actually achieved that result. What you’ll find will probably hark back to what you’ve already discovered you’re not playing up enough. Twin Peaks, for example, wasn’t subtle about its wierdness at all - strange rooms, wierd unexplained backward talking, and the entire thing’s built around a mystery. That’s what got people arguing about the series and its interpretation. You need to signal people what sort of show this is - something that you can do now you know yourself!

So now you can go to the next episode that you’ve got in the pipeline and start making changes to head in the direction you want to go. You don’t have to be real subtle about this - JJ Abrams pulled a complete U-turn in the middle of the second season of Alias when he decided he wanted a more straight-up spy show, resolving the entire plot in an episode and starting off the new one. Provided you have some idea of what your existing viewers, or at least the ones you want to keep, are enjoying, you can balance those needs with the needs of the new idea you have for the series.

Pushing The Series You Want To Push

Even more importantly, once you know what you want to happen you can start designing all of your publicity efforts to get you the kind of attention you want.

Going back to the “I want a long comment thread with lots of people arguing” example, once you know that’s what you want, you can focus all your publicity efforts on persuading people to comment. You can start by actually asking people to comment at the end of each episode! (As opposed, say, to a series where you wanted maximum views, where you’d want to say “tell your friends” instead).

You can make sure to encourage the mystery in your own replies. Don’t be clear with your replies. Ask leading questions. Give out hints every so often. Say things that encourage people to say “But that means…?”. Ask people what THEY think is happening, a lot.

This carries over to the press you’re doing, too. (You ARE contacting the press, right?). You now know what adjectives to use when describing your series - “Mysterious”, “intriguing”, “argument-causing”. Mention not that you’ve got 50,000 visitors, but that your last episode had over 5 pages of comments “fiercely debating” what was going on. Don’t structure your call to action as “Come and watch the film”, use something like “Can you decypher the mystery?”.

You can even use the outcome you want to find new places to publicise your show. If you have suddenly realised that you want to make a show that gets people investigating and arguing, you’ve suddenly got a new audience: those guys. Alternate Reality Game (ARG) communities, for example, love mysteries and discussion about said. Your action-supernatural series might not have had anything to offer them, but your breadcrumb-filled action-supernatural mystery series where you drop hints about what’s going on all over your website and your audience busily pieces them together - yep, now the ARG guys might be interested.

Finally, you can now TELL how well you’re doing with the series. You know when you’ve got a win. You can use that to make yourself feel good about the series (don’t underestimate that - being able to know when you’ve got a win is vital for your own stick-at-it-ness) and also to test anything you’re doing. 20 new comments the day after you advertised on a specific webcomic? Keep that shit up. Introduced a new character and got bugger-all aside from one guy saying “she’s kinda hot”, even if your views went up? Ditch her or make her more interesting, stat.

For BloodSpell, I knew that one of my goals was to have the film version critically acclaimed as compared against actual cinema films. That meant I spent a lot of time contacting “real” film websites and magazines. And let me tell you, it was a happy day when we were favourably reviewed in the same issue of Dreamwatch as Stardust and Beowulf.

It Works No Matter What Your Goal Is

You want raw views, and lots of them? Then you need to optimise your show for “tell your friends” viral power, make sure to tell your viewers to tell everyone they know about it, and do press and advertising based on raw pulling power (don’t worry too much about whether the incoming clicks are completely right for the show), whilst desiging the plot or programme to be as broad-web-interest and at the same time as remarkable as possible. Look at “Will It Blend”, “Lost”, and “Doctor Who” as examples.

You want people to tell you that your show has moved them, changed them, perhaps even saved their lives? Then you need to be looking at emotions and catharsis. Watchphrase one: “How does it make us feel?” Find a group of people you think you can give an emotional experience they really want or need, and go for it. (Note: the second module of Get Crazed Stalkers, the upcoming free video course, goes into this sort of thing in a lot of detail).

You want lots of real-world, dead-tree press? Then you need to be thinking about what press you want to hit, and what Webby stuff they tend to cover. Why would they want to tell their readers about you? How can you give them a story so cool they can’t pass it up? You’ll need something remarkable and relevant. Spend lots of time on your press releases and on the actual phone to actual journalists.

No matter what you want, you can design your show to achieve that. You just need to know what it is that you want first.

Have at it.

_ If you found those tips useful, subscribe to Guerilla Showrunner! I’m writing new articles on how to make your show awesome at least once a week - make sure you don’t miss ‘em.

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What’s Your Goal For Your Show? Probably Not What You Think It Is.

It’s the goals post!

Well, OK. It’s the first goals post, of, I suspect, many. Goals are part of what the micro-ISV/Internet Marketing/Making Shit And Selling It For Money crowd call “inner game” - getting your head right so that you point in the “be embarassingly rich and successful” direction rather than the “I coulda beena contender; pass the bottle of meths” direction.

But hold on a minute. Don’t we all have the same goal? I mean, basically, it’s “Make A Great Show”, right?

Well, no. Even if you think it is, chances are that actually isn’t your goal, and if you persist in thinking it is, you’re going to end up really unhappy with your show.

What do you mean by “Good”?

“All I care about is that the show’s really good. If it’s really good everything else will take care of itself.”

The first rule of any goal is that it has to be measurable. You have to be able to tell when you’ve reached the goal.

If you’re saying “I’m going to make a really good show”, and you can’t tell when you’ve made one, you’re going to fail automatically. That’s a really good way to a) not improve, and more importantly, b) not be happy.

Now, you might say that it’s good when you think it’s good. And that’s really cool. I’ve got a lot of respect for self-expression.

Except - were you planning on releasing it?

If so, I don’t believe “Make A Show I Think Is Awesome” is actually all you want to do.

If it’s being created solely for an audience of one person - you - why are you bothering to release it? I mean, releasing a show’s a lot of work, even after it’s finished. If you’re planning to release your show to the Wider Public, you want something out of releasing it.

What’s that thing?

The thing that you want to happen when you release your film to the baying crowds: that’s your goal. That’s what you want. That’s why you’re doing this - because some part of your brain is visualising an outcome that it reckons will make you happy.

It****’s probably right.

Why you need to get your subconcious to tell you what you want

So yeah, you want something to happen when you release. But what?

One person’s visualisation of success is very different to another’s. Maybe you visualise huge YouTube numbers. Maybe you’re imagining long, erudite discussions of your film’s content and meaning. Perhaps you’re thinking of tearful comments about how your film’s changed someone’s life, or a 42-page thread on /b/ filled with lolPorn inspired by your series.

Or maybe you’re thinking about a studio guy with a big cheque.

None of them are the “wrong” sort of success to want. Success is what makes you happy. But all of them require different strategies to get to them. And until you know what you want, you can’t plan how to get there.

( Incidentally, it’s worth checking that you’re not telling yourself you want one kind of success when actually you want another. Perhaps you think success “should be” 10,000,000 YouTube views, but actually you want approving comments from pretty women. That’s kinda important. And yes, there are strategies to get that!)

If you don’t have a clear picture of what you’re wanting, you’ll be unfocussed in your design. You’ll not know which audience you want to appeal to, so you’ll try to appeal to multiple, probably contradictory audiences, or even worse, “everyone”.

You’ll not know what the end-game of your marketing is, so your publicity will be unfocussed or unenthusiasic - or, if you’re still trying to tell yourself that nothing matters but you liking your show, you won’t do any. And then you’ll be sat there wondering why you don’t feel like your film’s release has lived up to expectations.

So, here’s my suggestion for how to spend an hour this evening, no matter what stage of creating your show you’re at. Sit down with a nice beverage, alcoholic or otherwise, and really think about what “success” means to you, for your show. Visualise the day when you can definitely say “Yep, the show’s definitely worked”.

Picture yourself sitting down at the PC, or going out to the office, or however you’d start your day. Picture what would tell you that you’d achieved success. Your comments? Your email? A phonecall? Picture who’s saying things, and what they’re saying. Newspapers featuring you as the guy who has the most popular video on YouTube? A literature professor emailing you to say he’s using your work to teach his students?

(I’ve had the latter one. It’s pretty cool.)

And once you’ve really thoroughly explored what it is you want, write it down.

Now you know where you’re going, you can start to figure out how to get there.

Subscribe to Guerilla Showrunner - by email or RSS - to make sure you don’t miss the next part of the series, where I’ll be talking about how to use your goal to make your series better. Oh, and have you checked out my upcoming free video course on turning your viewers into obsessed fans? It’s going to be pretty cool.

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