Showrunner Cynthia Hsiung on 4 Ways to Break Into Showrunning

Posted on: May 30, 2024

Photo Credit: Cynthia Hsiung

By Jessica Mathis

Cynthia Hsiung is an award-winning executive producer, director, writer and development professional in television, feature films and digital media. She has developed, produced, written and directed for companies including HBO, Universal, MTV, VH1, Fox Kids Network and Warner Bros. Hsiung is the recipient of the UCLA Extension Distinguished Instructor Award and was given an honorary doctorate from Richmond American International University in London in media and communications. In addition she creates content for her YouTube channel called Your Hollywood Dream, which has over 159,000 subscribers.

The buzz around the industry is that there is a showrunner crisis. There aren’t enough and there isn’t enough training or opportunity for people to step up. Lots of people want to know how to become a showrunner, but the way to do that isn’t always clear. Through UCLA, Cynthia teaches what seems to be one of the few university showrunning courses available, and offers private classes related to pitching series or showrunning as well.

Cynthia pointed out there is a difference between scripted and unscripted and for this discussion, we focused on showrunners in the scripted world. Although there are other ways, Cynthia distilled the options down to four main paths in her answers below:

Climb the Ranks

Get a job as a writer’s assistant and work your way up to staff writer. As a staff writer, you might get your first shot at writing an episode. After that, you might continue on to become a story editor. Climb a bit higher to become the executive story editor. Then you might get a producer credit.

Maybe you will become co-producer. You’re still writing, by the way, and then you go up to producer, then maybe supervising producer, then let’s say co-executive producer, then executive producer. At some point maybe someone would trust you with actually running a show or even having a shot at doing your own show.

Create an Original Series

Most people want to create an original show, and that is one way to become a showrunner. You would need to pitch and sell your show to a platform or network where you might be paired with someone with showrunning experience if needed.

One example for becoming a showrunner through creating a series is a model like Stranger Things, where brothers Matt and Ross Duffer and a third party came up with this notion. You have to put together pieces that make it come to life for a pitch for whoever you can get it in front of. In their case, Netflix essentially greenlit it, then they were able to build it out. That model was new at the time. It was almost like doing an eight-hour movie, and they kind of approached it a little bit like that.

Create a Character or Sketch Online

Maybe you are an actor or a comedian, or you like to put on skits and create characters. You can build attention in front of an audience performing live or online. For example, the series Ted Lasso was created by some very talented people, but the character Ted Lasso was around for many years. Jason Sudeikis, Brendan Hunt and Joe Kelly were trying to make it into a series, but they didn’t have experience making series.

It wasn’t until a UTA agent came along and connected that group of talented artists with Bill Lawrence, who was a seasoned showrunner and series creator, that the synergetic relationship between those two entities created the series Ted Lasso

Form a Reboot or Adaptation

There are many people I know who love older series. The newer Battlestar Galactica is actually from an old colleague of mine, David Eick, who was working to get some rights to the old Battlestar Galactica property so that he could develop it into a new Battlestar Galactica.

David was just like you or I. He was walking into this with just this dream of wanting to develop this into a revised or reimagined Battlestar Galactica. He was able to obtain that. Then he brought it to Ron Moore and together they built it out into this reimagined Battlestar Galactica of the 2000s and now his name will forever be on there as executive producer. 

Are there other ways to become a showrunner? Yes, there are a myriad of ways people find their way to showrunning when they hold something of value. Cynthia says most paths to showrunning fall into these four categories.

For example, you might obtain the rights to original intellectual property from a novel, podcast or even a news story and pitch it as a series. That would fall into the same category as the reboot. Regardless of how you start your path, one thing is certain: you’ll need to be creative, have a clear vision and be dedicated to seeing your vision through to completion. You’ll want strong partners and allies along with samples to show you are capable of carrying through. 

Jessica Mathis (AKA Divinity Rose) is an award winning screenwriter/performer/producer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the CEO of She Dreams Content Development and Production, which focuses on female forward projects in comedy, docustyle and genre entertainment.

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