I have been catching up on Series 5 of Mad Men in the last few days.
I needed to remember what had happened toward the end of Series 4 and went on IMDB to read the synopses so that I could get up to speed. Then I thought I would check the Wikipedia entry for the program to get a sense of the way that the series came into being. That led me into reading about the series’ creator, Matthew Weiner…. What a fascinating story of creativity and leadership he personifies…
As a result of writing the original script for Mad Med, Weiner was hired to become a full time writer on The Sopranos. The script languished in his desk drawer for seven years while The Sopranos took over his life. He pitched the show all over Hollywood, and finally got AMC, who were not known for buying original, first release programs, to buy it. The show became a resounding success as we all know.
What is more interesting to me, partly because of the course that I teach each year for the Australian Institute of Music, was when I read about how Weiner develops, writes and produces the series.
He spends a lot of time talking to friends and acquaintances about the period in which the drama takes place, discussing the events that shaped America, media and the world. Then he gathers together his writers and each of them is instructed to go away and come back with 10 story ideas. Many of these get shot down along the way. From what has survived an outline is created and script writers are assigned. Weiner then takes on the rewrite responsibility. When the show goes into production finally, Weiner is the chief writer, the executive producer, and also takes on the role of “showrunner“.
This is the ultimate creative control role in TV, and those that perform it well, are the creative leaders and genius characters of the modern TV business. Weiner’s leadership in the role is clearly what makes this show work. We may be familiar with the stars that we see on the screen, but it is Weiner who breathes the words into their characters and gives them life.
Weiner seems to lead in other ways too. He has a disproportionately high percentage of female writers on his team. In comparison to the Hollywood norm of there being 2 males for every female writer, seven writers of the nine total, are female. Perhaps this is what gives the program its edge?
Looking at how someone like Matthew Weiner operates as a leader of an incredibly successful production operation is fascinating in itself. But how did he get there? Clearly he must have a tremendous ability to build rapport with people. David Chase, who was the Executive Producer of The Sopranos, hired Weiner after reading the initial script that he had written for Mad Men. Prior to AMC buying Mad Men, HBO offered to buy the series as long as Chase became the producer and head writer. From this I would have to figure that Chase became an influential character in Weiner’s life and career development. Perhaps it is the ability to work closely with a significant mentor figure that really helps future leaders grow into their skins?
Weiner has to be one of the more significant creative leaders from the TV industry worldwide now. No one is loyal to a TV network any more. The audiences are only interested in the show itself. And that means that the show has to communicate authenticity. That comes from leadership.