Mentors guide transition to becoming showrunners

For any television writer who has toiled in the trenches of another scribe’s show or created pilots that haven’t been picked up, having an original series greenlit for the first time is a milestone. Not only does it signify creative success and affirmation by a network, it also holds the promise of big bucks now and bigger bucks down the road.

But while a “created by” credit is the ultimate aphrodisiac in televisionland, most writers concede that the road to an original series is often paved with help, support and even instruction by generous showrunners and executive producers who themselves have launched series.

The idea for ABC fall drama “Once Upon a Time” had a long shelf life. Eight years ago, when “Felicity” was wrapping, scribes Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis started talking about telling classic fairy tales for television. Over the next several years, working on “Lost,” the writer-producers were inspired by that show’s co-creators, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, to look at storytelling in a new, original way.

Having “Lost’s” executive producers as creative godfathers, say Horowitz and Kitsis, not only helped them learn firsthand how to run a show but also how to adapt original and complex ideas to the television medium.

“They showed us that when you have a vision you stick to it,” says Kitsis. “You can’t predict ratings or who will like your show. So you might as well do the show you want to do, not someone else’s vision.”

John Enbom, exec producer of upcoming NBC fall comedy “Free Agents,” says he learned about running a show from Rob Thomas, who hired him as a writer on “Veronica Mars,” then collaborated with Enbom (and Dan Etheridge and Paul Rudd) to co-create the comedy “Party Down,” which aired on Starz.

“American Dad” producer Nahnatchka Khan, whose “Apartment 23,” about two incongruous roommates in New York, was picked up by ABC for 2011-12, credits her friend and co-executive producer Dave Hemingson with sharing his experience and knowledge. Hemingson, who created “The Deep End” and was showrunner of a number of successful series, was so excited about the premise for “23″ that he jumped on board.

“As someone who had been through the whole process, he was instrumental in showing me how to navigate those waters,” says Khan about her pilot, which was filmed two years ago as part of her development deal with 20th TV and “taken out of deep freeze” by ABC Entertainment prexy Paul Lee this pilot season.

Horowitz recalls driving around Los Angeles several weeks ago and missing the call from Lee telling him that his pilot “Once Upon a Time” had been picked up for a fall series. Kitsis also missed the call because he was taking a walk with his son.

But when the longtime team — pals from their days at the U. of Wisconsin — finally got the news, “it was mind-numbingly exciting, daunting,” says Horowitz.

Echoes Kitsis: “Wow. We were the soldiers. All of a sudden we’re the generals. It was exciting and frightening at the same time.”

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