Once upon a time, a television show was delivered through the cathode-ray tube to American living rooms in orderly half-hour or hour-long bursts. Seasons began like clockwork in the fall and closed up shop in spring; in between was the deathly dull valley of reruns. Predictability ruled the production side as well. Writers spent long hours in airless rooms drumming up jokes or churning out cliff-hangers, but they knew exactly how long they would be there and what they were delivering. In our current age of peak TV, there are no certainties or standard formats anymore. A series can consist of 4 episodes or 24; it might broadcast weekly or stream online all at once in a giant, binge-ready bloc. Networks launch shows at any time of year. As the series in production swell in number, taking on a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, and as cable and streaming channels compete with the major networks for viewers’ attention, there’s also a new fluidity to the way shows are created. Traditional television practices—such as producing elaborate, pricey pilot episodes as the basis on which network executives decide what shows to put on the air—are being reconsidered.
“It’s the Wild West,” says screenwriter Evan Dickson, who’s developing a TV series alongside horror director David Bruckner. “I feel like the landscape changes from month to month.” The partners are currently running a three-week-long mini–writers’ room funded by a studio to “pressure test” eight episodes’ worth of story ideas and “see how they hold water.”
The rise of such “mini-rooms” represents a potentially seismic shift in the way TV is made. Mini-rooms (the “mini” can mean fewer writers, a shorter time frame, or both) offer the promise of flexibility and reduced costs for studios and networks, while increasing opportunities for less experienced writers to get their feet in the door. But mini-rooms also threaten to turn a profession that was reasonably stable and lucrative into yet another poorly paid spoke of the gig economy. “[The mini-room] was a very unusual thing when I first got into television, which was only five years ago, and now they’re everywhere,” says Patrick Somerville, a writer for The Leftovers and creator of the forthcoming Netflix series Maniac. Having both worked in and run mini-rooms, Somerville worries that the industry is pushing toward a freelance model, one far less secure than the writers’ rooms of yore. “With creative flexibility also comes the danger of exploitation of writers—less guaranteed time, less guaranteed income,” he says.
‘Mini-room” is an open-ended term that can describe a range of setups. Gina Welch, who has written for Feud and Ray Donovanand is developing a series based on Carmen Maria Machado’s story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, says the phrase often refers to rooms “where there’s no expectation that a whole show is going to get written. They’re just sort of either a cauldron of ideas or they’re to get the creator going on writing a pilot.” In recent years, cable channels such as Starz and AMC have experimented with a “script to series” process that short-circuits the traditional development model. Instead of spending millions on a cast and crew for a pilot, executives fund a less expensive writers’ room in which a small number of scribes generate scripts and a detailed story arc. Based on these materials, the network will decide to green-light the series or smother it at birth. Starz programming chief Carmi Zlotnik says he has four or five such small writers’ rooms going at any given time. “Our approach to all of our shows is to be bespoke and try to figure out what is the right thing that each show needs in development, in production, all the way through,” he says. The network’s two most recently premiered series took slightly different paths. For Vida, scripts were written and a mini–presentation video was shot to test out actors; Sweetbitter went straight from mini-room-generated scripts to shooting an entire series. The focus on scripts over pilots was born of economic necessity at Starz, Zlotnik says. A pilot can cost two or three times (or more) as much as a single episode of a series. That’s a lot of money to blow on a bet. Zlotnik compares his team to “venture capitalists in a creative medium, where the businesses are the shows. The [writers’] room is part of a system of staged investment that manages the risk.” He says that in the standard pilot model of production networks start a new series with lots of unknowns. “You’re budgeting and trying to imagine, ‘What are we going to need for the last episode of this season that hasn’t been written yet?’ ” he says. “Eventually, it comes and smacks you in the face.” Working out the story arc in advance gives a much better sense of what the show requires in terms of sets, locations, cast, and all the other expensive variables that go into creating a fictional world. David Madden, president of original programming for AMC, SundanceTV, and AMC Studios, says that when he likes a pitch the next step is not a pilot but a room that will generate four or five scripts, which amounts to half of the network’s usual 10-episode season. The writers are also asked to hand in “a supplementary document that basically lays out the rest of the season, and maybe gives people a sense of what the next season or two might be.”
While writers are coming up with a blueprint on paper, Madden says, AMC brings on a line producer to consider pragmatic details, including where the series would shoot and how much it would cost. By the time Madden gives the show a thumbs-up, half the season is already written.
Madden says he rejects the “mini-room” terminology, noting that AMC’s writers’ rooms “are pretty much the same size of a room that you would open if you were going to series” (referring to the number of writers, of course, not the square-footage), but some writers who’ve been involved in AMC’s script-to-series development process consider them to be mini-rooms. David Kajganich, a screenwriter and show-runner on The Terror, also ran an AMC room for a Texas-set series, about the death penalty, that did not get picked up. He and the writers in his mini-room, he says, felt like they were “racing to write five episodes in 10 weeks without the benefit of the room being able to see what the pilot looks like, sounds like, feels like, is paced like.”
Kajganich adds, “I remember driving down the highway towards Huntsville to go sit on death row and interview someone, and getting notes back on an outline for an episode and thinking, If I could have just written the outline after this trip, I wouldn’t have gotten these notes.” Ultimately, he says, “what mini-rooms have in common is a truncated process to get to a decision faster in a way that saves time and money.”
Madden insists there is also creative merit in this system. “It’s not that a pilot doesn’t have value, but I think there’s also things the room can tell you that a pilot can’t. There are way too many examples of very well-crafted pilots that, once you’ve actually gone to series, [the show] crumbles on you because the pilot was so clever or flashy in the way it was executed that it didn’t really demonstrate what the series would be on an ongoing basis. When you’re forced to actually plot out and craft and write four or five additional episodes, and figure out what the whole season would be, then the show-runner really knows what the show is.” The forthcoming Lodge 49is a product of AMC’s script-to-series model. The show, inspired by author Jim Gavin’s own short stories, is about a California surfer drawn into a mysterious fraternal lodge, and premiered on August 6. Since Gavin had little experience developing for TV, AMC partnered him with Peter Ocko (Elementary, Black Sails) to create a small writers’ room. Ocko says the original script made you think, I don’t know what this would be like but … if we could get that feeling into a series, then I think we have a show!
In the writers’ room, Gavin and Ocko were able to solidify a sense of the show as a modern-day version of a quest saga and the relationship forged between a knight and a squire. Ocko says he doesn’t think they would’ve figured that out quickly enough if they’d shot a pilot before writing half the season’s episodes: “You can fool yourself when you’re just talking conceptually, and you can describe a show and say this is what we’re going to do.” But getting down to the nitty-gritty of writing the thing made them focus on the show’s voice and finding ways to make its strange, lo-fi atmosphere a feature rather than a bug.
Another upside of mini-rooms, some say, is the opportunities they offer for marginalized voices. Winnie Kemp, senior vice president of original programming for entertainment company Super Deluxe, sees them as a way of speeding up access to the medium by bypassing the tortuous ladder climbing that used to limit who got to make programs. Super Deluxe served as the studio for the Sundance Now series This Close, written by and starring Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, first-time show-runners who are both deaf. For Season Two, Kemp set up a mini-room in Super Deluxe’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters and hired a seasoned writer to work with the duo. Whereas a bigger room of more experienced writers might have intimidated these relative novices, a mini-room allowed their voices—or, in this case, their sign language—to shape the show. That’s crucial, Kemp says, because the series that are “finding an audience now [are doing so] because of a … very specific point of view.”
Yet mini-rooms are also proving attractive to the kind of established names whom TV is increasingly chasing. Take Gillian Flynn, who wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of her novel *Gone Girl * and most recently worked as a writer on HBO’s limited series based on her book Sharp Objects. For her first series as a show-runner, the forthcoming Amazon thriller Utopia, Flynn convened a mini-room in Chicago. To hone the complex story line and yank out its loose threads, Flynn invited Alex Metcalf (a colleague from Sharp Objects) and her friend Scott Brown (a TV writer she has known since they were both young critics at Entertainment Weekly) to join her. “I’d been in this Utopia world for so long by myself, it was nice to hear it read out loud and ask, ‘Does this even make sense anymore?’ ” Flynn says with a chuckle. “It’s like when you look at a word for too long and you say, ‘Is this even a word?’ ”
Not everyone is thrilled with the vogue for mini-rooms. Says veteran producer and former HBO Entertainment president Sue Naegle, who heads Annapurna Pictures’ TV division, “Sometimes [studios] put four mini-rooms together, and no one gets picked up—that’s very dispiriting.” She takes issue with mini-rooms that offer lower pay for a shorter time, because writers toil “with an unclear promise of moving forward.”
Gina Welch compares TV writing in the current moment to a polar bear dealing with the effect of global warming: “Jumping from one melting ice floe to another.” The issue of instability came up during recent Writers Guild of America negotiations, with writers voicing concern that the mini-room approach could allow studios to circumvent the standard compensation structure. Some mini-rooms function as a sort of extended, paid job interview, a probationary period with no promise of future work. Sometimes writers end up in limbo, contractually or unofficially on hold as they wait to hear whether a show will be picked up. (The W.G.A. has taken no public position on the topic and declined to comment for this article.)
Despite the precariousness of mini-room employment compared with the good old days, some writers flourish in the more intimate working environment. Take Search and Destroy, a series in development at Hulu. It’s loosely based on Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein’s best-selling memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, about her adventures in the indie-rock underground of the 1990s Pacific Northwest. The series took shape in a two-and-a-half-week burst of mini-room synergy among Brownstein, veteran TV writer Karey Dornetto, and Brownstein’s novelist friend Chelsey Johnson. Ensconced in a Los Angeles pool house this spring, surrounded by large grids that were stuck to the walls and mapped-out story lines, the trio whipped up scripts for the first several episodes and an arc for the season that, along with the pilot they filmed, will help Hulu decide the show’s fate.
For Johnson, having only three women in the room gave it an intimacy and chemistry that immediately allowed them to focus on the show’s more intense scenes. “There were family issues and sexuality and our own coming-of-age,” she says. “I did think sometimes how different it would be if we were in a group of 10 people. It felt right away like a safe space, for lack of a better word, to take those risks of disclosure and plumbing the emotional depths of the characters through our own sensitive and tender experiences.”
This was Johnson’s first experience of working in TV—and, possibly, a deceptively idyllic one. Still, for many novices the mini-room is like a magical side door into a very tough industry. Although these gigs usually come without commitment of future work, they can be a low-pressure way of learning how a TV show gets built from scratch.
Even industry veterans can be swayed by their flexibility. One longtime TV writer spent two weeks in a mini-room for an adaptation of a novel and found it a fun, loose, liberating experience: his only obligation was to “pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch” any and all ideas that popped into his head. Another recalls spending a day in the living room of some show-runners, chatting about stories for a series the auteurs went on to write themselves. She feels guilty that she got a credit for it, since it was more like a hangout or a grad-school workshop than an actual job.
“In those mini-rooms, you get to work on something that you wouldn’t necessarily ever have thought you were right for or even want to do,” says GLOW writer Rachel Shukert. “People are willing to do that because you’re not having to produce the full season.”
Formerly a one-size-fits-all network universe, TV continues to evolve into a niche-ified space where (almost) anything goes. Kyle Bradstreet, an executive producer of USA’s Mr. Robot, loves that mini-rooms get more writers paid. “There are situations where people didn’t have great years financially and needed to make health insurance, and the mini-rooms saved them. It may only be four, six, eight weeks, but it pays the bills.” Some writers find it easy to hop from gig to gig, a mini-room gun for hire. Yet others get stuck in a holding pen, says Bradstreet, waiting “to see if that show gets picked up six months down the road.” Everything in these too-much-TV times is fluid, it would seem, and sometimes it’s not clear if changes in the medium are for the best or the worst—at least, for those souls who dream up all the content to fill it.