WonderCon 2017
First published in Press Pass LA on April 4, 2017

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Author: Ariel Landrum
Videographer: Alex Moreno

A showrunner is the creative force and manager of an entertainment program. Both providing the vision and the work for a series, these heroes have great power, which comes with great responsibility. Bureaucracy can challenge any artistic feat in and out of the writer’s room. At WonderCon 2017, IndieWire held the first-ever Fan Favorites Showrunners panel, where attendees learned about the struggle from six showrunners representing various cutting-edge shows.

Present for the panel was  IndieWire’s executive editor Michael Schneider, Marc Guggenheim (Arrow and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow), Jessica Goldberg (The Path), Jonah Ray (revival of Mystery Science Theatre 3000), Sera Gamble (Syfy’s The Magicians), Raphael Bob-Waksberg (BoJack Horseman), and Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend).

The goal of crafting a worthy scene is its connection to the audience. Learning when a show hits the mark is easy in an age where social media rules. Recently there has been overwhelming support for musicals. The positive reviews over Gamble’s Les Miserables tribute to Syfy’s The Magicians have inspired her partners to deliberate the possibility of a full Broadway-style episode. No novice to musical numbers, McKenna’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend attracts followers with its original music scores. She hopes the variety of vocal talent on The CW will have cameos on her show. With the same mindset, Goldberg gleamed, “I love musicals. If we have a third season, I’ll have a musical number,” referring to her brainchild, The Path.

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With the good comes the bad. The panelist had multiple horror stories of how their work is picked-apart in real-time. “Those were some of the angriest fans,” Gamble said of Supernatural addicts. She muted them on Twitter, an action where an individual isn’t blocked, but everything they tweet is unseen. Ray was surprised when he did not receive negative comments on YouTube about the comeback of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. “Of course, it hasn’t aired yet,” he quipped.

The ever-changing face of Standards and Practices, especially around profanity, was a hot topic. Ray, Bob-Waksberg, and Goldberg agreed that one blessing about having their shows on a streaming service is the larger freedom around swear words. Bob-Waksberg emphasized that he uses particular curse words sparingly, as that moment becomes more powerful when used. Gamble proclaimed that Syfy allows “unlimited s-words,” but she writes as many f-words as she can get away with. “Even though cussing is rare on The CW,” McKenna said, “and it’s known as the ‘freaking’ network, always negotiate.” For the popular song on the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend series, “Sh*tshow,” she asked for two bleeped s-words, and the network “literally gave us two sh*ts.”

Bob-Waksberg teased, “It’s hard to write a show from the fetal position,” after a fan asked how the present political environment has affected the group’s work. Art often reflects life, but it can be surreal for life to reflect art. History is rewritten in an episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and an evil narcissist controls the world. When Guggenheim wrote the episode, he “thought the [real] world would be a lot different.” Gamble agreed, citing that certain jokes were removed from her show as they were framed with the belief that Hillary Clinton would be president. Although the old material had no significance, Gamble found that pursuing an arc around a character’s rape and abortion became more impactful in the current climate. 

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The spirit of the panel was to learn trade secrets; despite that, the true burning question was over rumors of an upcoming writers’ strike. Producer Bob-Waksberg emphasized that although no one wants a strike, “writers would like to be paid fairly.” The guests agreed that the entertainment industry has transformed into a corporate monster that doesn’t compensate its visionaries or provide them with consistent opportunities.

“Shows only produce 10 episodes,” Bob-Waksberg explained, “that’s fewer paychecks.” Writing for multiple shows does not solve the problem of establishing a consistent living wage, as Guggenheim pointed out that “contractually, some [writers] are prohibited from working more than six months.” He clarified for the crowd that it could take weeks to conceive an episode, and they are paid per diem. When Bob-Waksberg pointed out their healthcare was slashed, Guggenheim mimicked the President’s verbosity, joking, “No worries. Everyone’s going to have this awesome health care. It’ll be the best. It’ll be bigly.”

Later in April, Writers Guild of America members will vote on whether they will activate the strike. Guggenheim reaffirmed, “No one wants to strike, but that is our one negotiating leverage.” It was apparent to the group that corporations have forgotten how essential writers and showrunners are. Their charge is to provide meaningful content that inspires, moves, and entertains. Although creating content is difficult, it turns out the industry’s biggest hurdle is the industry itself.

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