The Awesome Way Women Are Running Hollywood Right Now

Photos: Courtesy of CBS; ABC; The CW; Showtime; CBS.
Imagine trying to write a novel while doing your taxes and conducting an orchestra. Or, if corporate metaphors are more your speed, picture yourself as CEO, COO, CTO, and CFO of a company. If the mere idea of simultaneously wearing that many hats at once gives you heart palpitations, please know that on any given day, a showrunner is doing all of those jobs and more — hence the all-inclusive, quite literal name. There's also no time to think about being a hat person.
Advertisement
"A showrunner is an executive producer who may or may not have created the series, but they are definitely the head of the household," Erica Messer, the showrunner of Criminal Minds, told us on a recent call from her car, where she escaped to be interviewed, lest she be spotted and forced to spring into action. "I would argue it's a 24/7 job — much like parenting — because when your show is in production, anything could happen at any time."
A showrunner deals with everything from panicked Sunday phone calls about forecasted rain on a day when the show planned to shoot outside, to responding to script notes from the network.
"It's the worst, best job in the world," jokes Jennie Snyder Urman, the showrunner of Jane the Virgin, which, in its first season, has already earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy — a feat never before achieved by a show on The CW. "It's awesome that you're getting to watch your vision come to life, and as a creative person, you really get to take ownership and decide all the details. But, the flip side of that is that you're deciding all the details."
The upside to being the be-all and end-all of decision-making? "There's no time to second-guess yourself," Urman says. "You become confident in your gut."
The Rise of the Showrunner
The term showrunner has become much more ubiquitous in the past few years. As TV programming options grew bigger and better, networks sought out showrunners with proven track records to engineer hits. Auteurism had arrived on the small screen, but unlike in the film world, accessibility came with it. The Internet allowed fans to engage with these creators and producers in online communities. Twitter gave rise to what television critic Emily Nussbaum coined the "interactive showrunner."
Advertisement
The showrunners who paved the way for creator-and-operator-as-brand were overwhelmingly male, though: Vince Gilligan, Matt Weiner, Damon Lindelof, Joss Whedon, and David Chase, to name a few.
The Year of the Female Showrunner
Well, the times, they are finally a-changin'. Shortly after the 2015 Golden Globe nominations were announced, Girls showrunner Jenni Konner tweeted, "Every show but one in #GoldenGlobes category for comedy/musical has female showrunners! RT that shit!"
It felt like a giant leap that women were being recognized for creating prestige television, especially in an industry where the Writers Guild still has to put out annual reports highlighting diversity issues on writing staffs in an effort to correct the gender, minority, and age imbalances.
Grey's Anatomy
Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
This was also the year that one specific showrunner was on everyone's mind. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal and executive producer of How to Get Away With Murder, has been heralded as ABC's new Queen of Prime Time. Her three-hour block of Thursday night programming is considered appointment viewing, with an engaged audience live-tweeting each shocking twist and turn. That's not an easy feat in the DVR era.
The praise and profiles are actually a little late, though. "Look at how long Grey's has been on. It took her more than one show for people to really, really, really give her her due," Tara Butters, the co-showrunner of two other ABC shows, Marvel's Agent Carter and Resurrection, pointed out when we spoke to her.
Advertisement
During an interview with Grantland, Konner's fellow Girls showrunner, Lena Dunham, suggested that with all of Rhimes' agreed-upon success, "You'd think people would be looking around going, 'Maybe we need to find some more people like her?'"
It's a spot-on observation. Why did it take so long for Rhimes' ability to spin TV gold to get noticed? After all, she actively encourages optimism behind the scenes, which clearly leads to shows that are ratings juggernauts.
Oh right, the stereotype stumbling block. "[A] lot of traits that are instilled in women from a young age like positivity, equanimity, making people feel good all the time — people think that is at odds with being a director or showrunner or a person in a position of authority. But, there's no one personality type that has the skill to manage the goings-on of a television show," Dunham continued.
Girls
Photo: Jessica Miglio/HBO.
Stop, Collaborate, and Listen
Those exact qualities Dunham mentioned are finally being welcomed and accepted as ways to make great television. "I think that when I've approached my male counterparts as a producer and said, 'Let's talk about who's going to do what and what you like to do; I want to support you in the parts that you enjoy doing, and I'm going to take the parts that I enjoy doing, and we'll figure out where the holes are,' they're a little surprised," says Lori McCreary, the executive producer of Madam Secretary. "[With] the females I've worked with, it just seems like a natural conversation…the males I've worked with, I don't know that they've ever had that conversation before."
Advertisement
As the boss, it's up to a showrunner to set the tone of her work environment, and Jennie Snyder Urman at Jane the Virgin has found that support and positive reinforcement yield the best results. "I try to empower everyone and give everyone a lot of positive feedback," she says. "It's really important to me to create a positive work experience for everyone, where everyone feels ownership of the cog on the wheel that they're taking care of."
When they reach the top, female showrunners are especially cognizant of hiring other women. "I would say we're probably three-fourths women directors versus male directors because we have a very female-driven show, and I would say the female gaze is important on our show," Urman continues. "You kind of surround yourself with people that wouldn't look negatively on the fact that you're a woman, and who understand a show with a female point of view."
Collaboration, teamwork, delegation, and strong partnerships are as much a part of their success as the hundreds of hours of television these women have produced in their careers. "Instead of being like, 'Okay, we need the best DP, and the best gaffer,' they think, 'We need the best gaffer that's going to get along with the best DP.' They think about personality balances in a way I think is uniquely female," Konner told us when she was featured in our Superwoman series.
This careful consideration of how people on a crew work together doesn't just affect what goes on behind the scenes. For shows like Girls and Jane the Virgin, writers need to tap into their personal experiences for viewers' sake.
"In my writers' room, we're nothing but vulnerable…you have to be to tell the stories and access the truths that you’re trying to mine for your characters," Urman says.
Advertisement
In the unique world of television, being strategic about tapping into vulnerability at work — which has in the past been frowned upon and written off as a stereotype which women should shy away from — can improve your job performance.
Marvel's Agent Carter
Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC.
They Write What They Want
Female showrunners are still breaking through the prevailing belief many studios have that women can only create shows for female audiences. In an interview on the Writers Guild website, Ray Donovan showrunner Ann Biderman stressed how tired she was of being asked about challenges she faced as a female showrunner, especially because her shows don't focus on "female-centric material." That's right, even the organization responsible for supporting all writers equally and trying to eliminate that whole gendered viewpoint couldn't help but reiterate the same assumption.
Biderman wasn't having it, though. "I've written about what I wanted to write about, and these are the things that I'm interested in. I guess it's more male-centric material, but I just don't break it down like that," she said.
Many women whose chosen material isn't female-centric have hit that same gender wall. It can wind up being both a positive and a negative experience, but they're always conscious of the reaction. Anyone who's watched an episode of Criminal Minds knows that some of the darkest, most depraved sides of humanity are shown each week. Many audience members are shocked to find out that the show is run by a woman. Erica Messer enjoys the surprise. "I don't think it's anything but positive when people realize that," she says. "I think it's a good thing."
Tara Butters recalled the downside of that same experience on a show she created with her writing partner, Michele Fazekas, a few years ago. "It was amazing how many people would say to us, 'We were really surprised to see that women wrote this show.' No one turns that around and says to David E. Kelley, 'Wow, I'm so surprised how well you write Ally McBeal,'" she says. "Not only female writers can write female characters, and not only male writers can write male characters."
Advertisement
On the flip side, Butters shared a story about a time when she was on set at Law & Order: SVU, and Ice T turned to her and noted, "The women writers on this show write the sickest stuff." He meant it in the most congratulatory way possible.
What makes all showrunners successful is their ability to tell engaging stories about authentic characters who resonate with viewers. It's been an especially great few years for strong female characters, who have finally moved past the tired old requirement of being likable or relatable. They've also moved beyond the boring, safe heroine or heinous villain dichotomy.
Jennie Snyder Urman brought up the great point that every antagonist is still the hero of her story, and as long as her motives are explained, audiences will attach to her for the same reason we love antiheroes like Don Draper. Also, role models need not be uptight and tame.
"I have a daughter, and I want to put smart women on screen, who have dreams and who are thoughtful. That doesn't have to turn out to be a boring character," Urman says. "Being likable doesn't necessarily mean that you're less intelligent or less edgy or less interesting."
For example, telling a story that follows a female Secretary of State through every part of her life felt like a no-brainer for Lori McCreary of Madam Secretary. "I know so many women who have important, impactful jobs and really great home lives. I think we're just trying to be as honest and faithful to those women that we know. Hopefully, this is just a reflection of who women really are now and what they can be. It's how the world should see us in 2015."
Advertisement
Jane the Virgin
Photo: Danny Feld/The CW.
How To Reach Hollywood-Running Status
So, how does one rise to this extremely unique position in the entertainment world? There are people like Liz Meriwether, who immediately found herself running a show after FOX picked up her New Girl pilot. While that does happen, the more traditional route — as outlined in the new documentary Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show — goes as follows:
Writer's assistant
Staff writer
Story editor
Executive story editor
Co-producer
Supervising producer
Co-executive producer
Executive producer
Showrunner
"I know quite a few female showrunners, and we all have this thing in common: We have worked our way up," Urman says. "We've been in so many different levels as a writer — sitting on the sidelines, doing our due diligence, keeping our heads down, and getting the work done. We have earned this status of being an upper-level writer. When you reach that level, everybody wants to know, 'Okay you've been at this level; what do you want to create, and what do you want to do?' Those doors open up whether you're a man or a woman."
When you're on the sidelines doing that due diligence, go out of your way to be involved with the editing process. Many writers make the mistake of thinking their responsibility for episodes they pen ends once they put words on the page. "I think every showrunner would love it if a writer was like, 'Hey, can I stay late with you after and watch while you edit and give feedback?'" Urman recommends.
Advertisement
"Ask as much as you possibly can to be involved with every aspect of production," Butters echoes. Not all showrunners will be receptive to this idea, but there's no harm in seeing if you can sit quietly in the editing room to observe. Butters and her writing partner/co-showrunner Michele Fazekas, who have been working together for over 16 years, go out of their way to involve writers on their shows in every step of the process. "We all come into this business wanting to be writers, but in order to grow, you have to learn how to be a producer. It's a very collaborative medium if you allow people to collaborate."
It doesn't have to be lonely at the top, and the women who are running Hollywood do it together. Working as a successful partnership means that studios seek out Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas when they need someone to run a new show. For Lori McCreary and Barbara Hall, it meant CBS bringing them together to create a series about a female Secretary of State. The results evident are in Criminal Minds, Scandal, and Grey's Anatomy's amazing ratings, Girls' critical acclaim, and two out-of-the-gate Golden Globe nominations for a heartwarming, admittedly wacky show like Jane the Virgin.
"The other nominees in this category included me on a group text about the planning for the Golden Globes and the advice they were giving," Urman shared. "It's such a warm, positive, female energy. It's been awesome. I told my writers, 'It's the sisterhood I always knew existed.'"
Advertisement