When budgets interfere, showrunners get creative
Dan Schneider knows how to explain the basics of a television show’s budget.
“It’s like a family,” says the creator and executive producer of Nickelodeon’s teen skeins “Drake & Josh” and “Zoey 101.” “If you want to take a fancy trip to Hawaii, you can, but maybe you don’t buy a car that year. It’s really the same thing with production.”
But instead of weighing vacation vs. vehicle, Schneider has other choices to make: a location shoot or staying on the set and using a greenscreen; staging an elaborate stunt or writing a simple pratfall into the script.
“When you go into a season you really have this set amount of money,” he says. “If I want to do some episodes that are more expensive, that’s fine, as long as I do a few that are less expensive so it all comes out in the end.”
Other showrunners face similar budgetary choices — even those who lead Big Four network shows that have considerably more money with which to work. Tim Kring, creator and executive producer of the NBC sci-fi fantasy “Heroes,” often finds himself in positions where he wants “A,” but the budget will only pay for “B.”
When he’s in one of those creative corners, he just writes his way out.
“The power of the written word is amazing. A lot of producers look at a script and panic when they see something and do backflips trying to figure it out. I take a pencil with an eraser and I erase a line of dialogue and say, ‘It’s not a circus, it’s actually a bicycle.’ There’s always another way to do something.”
And it goes beyond changing a scene or two to save money, says James Duff, co-executive producer of TNT’s police procedural “The Closer.” It also means getting the most out of what’s available to the production.
“Knowing how to use your sets and locations, knowing how to put them both to maximum use, is part of writing for television,” he says. “They give you only so much money to put on a show every week, and you have to be careful about how you use it.”
Of course, producers are constantly looking for ways to tell their stories more economically. Some examples:
The Fox crime series “Bones” conducted experiments — including one that used a body made from fake bones and Spam and another one that required a wood chipper — to help Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and Booth (David Boreanaz) solve cases. The experiments are less expensive than staging the actual crime for a flashback sequence, says series creator and exec producer Hart Hanson. And here’s a bonus: They’re a hit with viewers.
When the script on Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” calls for the title character (Miley Cyrus) to go on a photo shoot, the show’s cameras are moved to the back of an existing set, which just that quick becomes the photo studio. And the show’s seating area for the audience works just fine as a stand-in for the upper deck of Staples Center.
“Law & Order” creator and executive producer Dick Wolf spent part of this season looking at ways to take “a significant amount of money” out of the budgets of the landmark NBC skein and its two spinoffs, with everything from cutting cast members to changing film stocks reportedly under consideration.
It all adds up to getting the most bang for the network’s buck.
“Every now and then, if you’ve saved enough money, then you can get a day out when you need it or you can hire more people or you can make a big crowd scene or you can rent a helicopter,” Duff says. “You choose your stories and you choose the way you tell these stories so that you can pull in those big-ticket items every now and then to make your show look bigger.”
While budget limitations are to be expected, most producers will only go so far. “You do everything you can to not compromise the story or the writing,” says “Hannah” executive producer Michael Poryes, who also counts “Veronica’s Closet” and “Cybill” among his credits.
But sometimes, working without a blank check forces producers and writers into making decisions that actually wind up benefiting the show. “Heroes,” for example, would have given the characters’ superpower aspects an even bigger role if it wasn’t so difficult — and costly — to bring those abilities to the screen every week.
“We would have had a lot more special effects and it would have leaned a little more toward a genre sci-fi show,” Kring says. “Looking back, it was the very fact that the show skewed more closely toward a character drama (that) accounted for its mass appeal.”
Certainly producers and network number crunchers all have a common goal: to have a profitable, quality show. Hanson says it’s his job to deliver both. To that end, he and line producer Steve Beers have regular conversations about each episode’s requirements.
“What it comes down to is: He becomes the voice of the studio, which is, ‘We can’t spend too much money,’ and I become the voice of the show, saying, ‘This has to be good, so we have to spend money,’ ” Hanson says. “Sometimes we swap sides. All of a sudden, he’ll be saying, ‘No, no, we have to go out to the desert for this,’ and I’ll go, ‘No, we can do it in the FBI office.’ We both care about the budget, and we both care about the series.”