The Creative Masters: A Panel with Roberto Orci, Shawn Ryan, Anthony Zuiker and Gale Anne Hurd

     February 22, 2011


At the 2011 TV Summit (an all day event hosted by Variety and The Academy of Television Arts and Science Foundation), television executives, creators, actors, producers and show runners came together to discuss the creative process and the financial capital and revenue models needed to sustain such shows. I arrived relatively late to the proceedings in time for the last panel of the day focusing on “The Creative Masters” of the television industry. The question of art vs. commerce loomed large over the proceedings. Every answer seemed to be tinted with the notion of whether art and business are mutually exclusive or can be one and the same. The room was filled with market researchers, representatives of conglomerates such as AOL and Comcast, and other business/market savvy tie-wearing individuals. Under such a setting, the answer to the posed art vs. commerce question unsurprisingly skewed in the latter’s direction. Hit the jump for my coverage of the panel, including interviews with producers/show runners Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Roberto Orci (Fringe, Transformers Prime), Anthony Zuiker (CSI) and Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead).

There’s something inherently fascinating in listening to writers and so-called creative minded individuals discussing the business side of their work. One is so conditioned into thinking of the “uncompromising artist” dedicated only to the material with little to no regard towards commerce or business, living within the vacuum of his art – that hearing such talented creative show runners and producers such as Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Roberto Orci (Fringe, Transformers Prime), Anthony Zuiker (CSI) and Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead) discuss not only the need but the imperative to balance content with business was rather eye opening. Hit the jump for my coverage of “The Creative Masters” panel. In the following interview/panel: Shawn Ryan discusses the illusory “romanticization” of the creative process, Roberto Orci addresses creating a brand name, Anthony Zuiker talks of his approach to writing and Gale Anne Hurd regales a fated story in a cab and how it dictated the market approach for The Walking Dead, among many other topics of conversation.

shawn-ryan-imageQ: (To Shawn Ryan) There can be a tendency to romanticize the creative process but in talking to you beforehand, I was really struck by the pace of television, the necessity of putting it out. It doesn’t really lend itself to inspiration – a really pragmatic approach [is needed]…

Shawn Ryan: Yeah, well the days of the three networks force-feeding America what they wanted to sell them is definitely gone. There are too many options with broadcast cable, Playstation 3, Xbox, Internet – the whole thing. The lesson we learned on Terriers, which I think was a very well made show, very well reviewed but ultimately we didn’t find that one thing we were able to sell to America on watching it. It was a real lesson because we were all very proud of the work [but] it ultimately wasn’t financially or ratings wise successful. So it’s really something I think about going forward – what is that thing that is going to cut through the clutter because so many people want to sell you so many things. And what is that thing that is simple enough to understand some element of and yet also feels different to people. There’s a cynicism. People feel like they’ve seen everything. It’s really hard to surprise them. It’s not just enough to create something and execute it really well. Creators also have to think how is this going to be sold, how is this going to be marketed, how is an audience going to be conditioned to watch this.

Q: Bob, you have so many things – television, features – you talked about having a very structured approach [to writing]…

Roberto Orci: We call it the banker’s hours. I think people have a tendency to think of a writer as someone who wants to go take a walk, maybe case a library…  I think that’s great sometimes but we really treat it like Monday through Friday come in early. You’re not late for inspiration. You’re working through it no matter what is happening even if you’re writing a terrible version. The point is just to create a discipline for making sure that you’re creating material. The one thing I love about T.V. is that there is no time. It’s almost like a newspaper. There’s time to get better, there’s time to do great stuff – but there’s no time to be precious and no time to stop – the show must go on. We apply that ethic to whatever we’re doing. Just because you wrote it that day doesn’t mean it’s done but as long as you put in your hours, we feel you’re half way there.

csi-logoQ: Anthony – you’ve said that when you were starting out as a writer an advantage you had was that you didn’t know there were so called rules about writing a screenplay and as a result your scripts were very unique and stood out. Now that you’ve been in the business and been exposed to it [the so called screenwriting rules] – what is your approach [to writing]?

Anthony Zuiker: I’m not sure I know how to do it now. The best thing I learned from Steven Cal before he passed was character over concept. That was a really tough lesson to learn. I think I really approached CSI from the position of Grissom. That character wasn’t going to do karate chops or jump off airplanes and carry a bunch a weapons and stuff like that. He was really going to be a person who was introspective and study insects and keeps quiet… I think that approach really began to educate the voice of what CSI was going to be. As I get older and learn more about what the network wants, I feel like what they want on in October isn’t what they want on in February so it’s a little bit of a guessing game. I think what it comes down to for me is just the drive when you build an episode – the drive is act by act, the central drive of the characters through the narrative.

Q: (To Gale Anne Hurd) There was a time when television would have been considered a step down from features – but those days are long gone. What brought you from film to television?

Gale Ann Hurd: There’s a couple things – first of all television, I’ve come to appreciate, is a producer’s medium and film is still not as much. In television, you get hours and hours to tell your characters’ stories. I find in features you have two hours to tell a story. What gets cut first is often character. So what was compelling [about television] was the opportunity to tell a long form story that is driven by the characters and not the plot.

gale-anne-hurd-imageQ: (To Gale Anne Hurd) Frank Darabont had pitched The Walking Dead to the networks unsuccessfully?

Gale Anne Hurd: What happened is Frank had an overall deal with NBC and he wrote a pilot script for NBC. If any of you have seen The Walking Dead, somehow I can’t imagine that NBC would of gone for within the first few minutes a little girl zombie being shot in the head. Somehow I don’t see that being “network friendly”. So lucky for us, lucky for AMC, they decided not to proceed and it really seemed like the best version of The Walking Dead was going to be on cable.

Q: (To Gale Anne Hurd) Was it your suggestion to bring The Walking Dead to AMC?

Gale Anne Hurd: My office and I had had ongoing discussions with AMC and what we weren’t familiar with at the time was that one of their most successful blocks of programming is a genre block called Fear Fest that is the two weeks leading up to Halloween. So they actually were a network that for those two weeks genre fans were familiar with. It was actually perfect timing for us to pitch them and perfect timing because they had a need for a show that would air in October. So for once in my life the stars lined up.

Q: (To Shawn Ryan) [How does whatever network environment you’re working in – i.e. cable vs. regular broadcast – affect the show you’re working on?]

Shawn Ryan: I find the experience to not be all that different. Obviously there are different standards and practices that are allowed on cable versus network. You just have to embrace what your network is going to allow and the most important decision you can make from the beginning is where does the show belong. The worst thing you can do is end up with a network show on cable or end up with a cable show on network. I think we all saw with Lone Star – a cable show that ended up on network and suffered the consequences. The big broadcast networks have got a bit of a bad reputation unfairly for the last few years because there were people like David Chase and David Milch who would talk about how great HBO was to work at. I would talk about what a great place FX was to work at. I’ve had really good experiences working with broadcast executives. They’re smart too. They have a tougher challenge sometimes because they have to feed a bigger beast and it’s a fine line between finding those things that creatively can challenge the best of cable but still appeal to ten to twelve million viewers a week. But as long as I can write shows in the right place, I don’t get in my car and go I’m going to work at broadcast TV today and tomorrow, I’m going to work at cable. When I was doing The Shield and The Unit simultaneously, they were very similar experiences for me.

anthony-zuiker-imageQ: Anthony – I heard you say that one of the toughest things to do in television is to construct a formula and a philosophy around a show. Why is that so important and why is it so difficult?

Anthony Zuiker: I think that philosophically, as we approach CSI from a commercial [standpoint], we want to make sure that we hit the necessity of character development, build elements of surprise, our forensic journey drives the narrative, we try to hide the one whodunit until the very end. At the same time you don’t want to get so formulaic to where the audience is onto you, where they know where you’re going. The worst thing I can ever hear from a CSI fan is ‘oh it’s the first suspect from act one’. That’s a script problem. So I think there’s an element of benchmarks you have to hit from basic blocks of storytelling. At the same time making sure your storytelling has an element of surprise.

Q: Bob – when we were talking on the phone before you said comparing features to television, one is a business and the other is like voodoo. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that?

Roberto Orci: To go off the last comment and to segue into what you just asked – you want to be a formula but you want what you love about the show and what the characters need to be self-evident. You want it to be that clear because if you can’t connect the people who are working with you and your partners into it, how are you going to be able to get an audience. And that’s where it becomes more like a business where you are day and day out really collaborating with a larger group. Movies’ are an affair and T.V. is a marriage. In movies, the green-light process to me is very mysterious. It’s formulas they don’t want to tell you about exactly. There are a lot of tealeaves going on that aren’t communicated and again, it’s a one shot thing. Movies sometimes you’re on a rocket ship and it takes off and maybe you didn’t have the right telemetry and once it launches that’s the end of it. It only launches once and that’s it. So it’s much more mysterious. In movies, it’s very unclear where the power lies in any given circumstance because there are no rules to it.

Q: (To Gale Anne Hurd) The acceleration of technology has made a lot of things possible – effects and action and so forth; but its also created vulnerabilities in piracy and leaks…

Gale Anne Hurd: The Walking Dead in addition to AMC taking a big leap of faith, Fox International Television came on board right when we were starting to shoot and they devised a plan back then that we would launch essentially within the same week in 130 countries around the world, which I think was the first time that something like that had happened especially with a brand new show. And the reason that it became so important was illustrated by the cab ride I took from London where we were doing press back to Heathrow airport and the cab driver said ‘why were you here?’ I said ‘I’m promoting a new show. I’m sure you haven’t heard of it. It’s called The Walking Dead.’ And he said ‘I’m a huge fan of the comic book series, can’t wait to watch the show. You’re not going to wait six months before we can see it here because if you do, we’re going to go up to a Bit Torrent site and download it because my kids won’t wait that long.’ And they actually pointed out that they had regretfully pirated Lost. And he said ‘we can wait a little while, we can’t wait six months, we can’t wait three months.’ I immediately got back into Los Angeles and called Sharon Tall from Fox International Television. I said this is a perfect example of why what you’re doing makes a great deal of sense. Of course it only made sense if the show worked.

the-walking-dead-logoQ: [How do you feel about programs such as Hulu and other like outlets that showcase your shows without you receiving any sort of income from it?]

Shawn Ryan: It’s a concern.  These shows are more expensive to produce and they need to have value somewhere. Content creators, who theoretically have profit participation with these shows, I think, are justifiably worried because we don’t really have much of a say over where the shows are presented after they air on the network and yet our profits are tied to the success or failure of these things. It’s exciting the possibilities that are out there but right now in this transitory stage, it’s difficult. My family’s from Illinois and I go back there and they don’t have big screens or big hi-def TVs. One of the dangers is when we get into environments like this and talk about new technologies that are coming – we have to realize that when we are making the TV shows, my cousins are still watching in their 24 inch standard TV. You have to keep in mind that a lot of countries are still that way. So it’s very tempting to be in the editing room with your fancy sound equipment and your hi def T.V. and talk about just ‘Boy, the opening of The Chicago Code just looks so cinematic’ but that’s not really translating to a large segment of the audience. T.V. is still close-ups and story telling and character.

Gale Anne Hurd: I think when you start training audiences to expect things for free – that’s what happened to the music business. People were trained that they could get something for nothing and they didn’t want to pay for it anymore. It was file sharing. It’s really file stealing. But we were complicit in that, I think, you’re building expectations that content will always be free.

Shawn Ryan: If I was an owner who had participation in Hulu, I would feel different. But I don’t. They’re using the content of the show to increase the value of a company that I have no stake in.

roberto-orci-imageQ: (To Robert Orci) [On developing his own “brand” of shows and content]…

Roberto Orci: Two things – starting out you never think ‘how are you going to become a brand?’ However if you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you’re generating enough material such that it becomes a question of am I just going to ignore it and let it take on its own life or am I going to try to manage it because that movie is going to go somewhere… So that’s a part of it – not being asleep at the wheel and managing it if you’re luck enough or not lucky enough to actually have a recognizable body of work or whatever it is. When you start thinking in those terms, the other thing that occurred to me is we’re trying to make, and this may be sacrilege to some creators, we’re trying to make our own relationships with other brands – GM, Hilton, etc… The resistance of it, in terms of the networks, is they have entire departments whose job it is to do that and they don’t actually want the creators talking to the brands even though that’s what the brands that want meaningful integration, want. They want to be able to have access to us. And the idea is hopefully in doing so you come up with meaningful integration but [also] come up with a story…

Q: All of you have twitter accounts and some of you use it more than others – Shawn in particular. How valuable is [twitter] and what manner do you use it?

Shawn Ryan: First and foremost, I’d have to admit it’s just a time suck. I really read what other people write, lots of links to things. So I probably spend too much time on it and I have a weird thing where I sort of talk professionally about things but I’m also a big sports fan – so I talk about the Chicago Bears and such. And I think there is a danger too because the people who go out of their way to follow me and to comment on the show are probably going to be people at the extremes who love Shawn Ryan’s stuff or hate Shawn Ryan’s stuff and you just have to be careful to not take that stuff as gospel. But I do like the interaction because as writers a lot of the work we do are in small windowless rooms and this just sort of opens up the world to us.

Roberto Orci: I’m the opposite of that. I’m totally mercenary – just attempting to learn what it means. Just trying to not be behind in the Twitter verse or whatever it is. To me it’s just part of work.

Gale Anne Hurd: I think those of us up here are digital immigrants, not digital natives and most of our audience is digital native. They’ve grown up with this. It’s second nature to them. I’ve become very interested in seeing how people treat it…