A Change of Frame
By Gina Piccalo For Emmy.
Issue No. 1, 2010
JOHN WELLS EXUDES A COMBUSTIBLE SORT OF ENERGY, even in the subdued setting of his production office on Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot, which looks more like a homey living room than the headquarters of one of TV’s most successful showrunners. He speaks as if he can’t get the words out fast enough, perched on the edge of his seat, pleading — to viewers? NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker? fate? — for the life of the industry’s most endangered species: the narrative program.
Good storytelling on TV starts with the writers, Wells says, but as the internet siphons viewers and ad dollars, as networks slash budgets, a ceaseless stream of tabloid news, reality shows and live sports is overtaking entertainment programming. Writers are finding it much harder to make a viable living, he says, and if things don’t improve soon, all the real talent will end up “teaching at Middlebury.”
While there’s more mirth behind his words than translates in print, Wells is earnest about the future of his craft. And he should be, as the newly elected president of the Writers Guild of America, West (it’s his second term; he previously served from 1999 to 2001).
Clearly, the past few months have underscored for him the hard truths about the state of network television. Or, the state of one network, anyway. In writers’ terms, he was the lead protagonist in the cautionary tale that is NBC’s primetime schedule. If Wells sounds concerned, he’s got good reason.
Last fall he learned that despite executive-producing the record-busting ER, despite developing Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and cocreating Third Watch — all for NBC — he wasn’t inoculated against the whims of a fickle marketplace (and, some believe, a misguided network chief ).
In October, Zucker pulled the plug on Wells’s critically acclaimed cop drama, Southland, halting production on the second season before the first episode aired. The plan initially was to move the show from 10 p.m. to 9, but then the network announced it would replace Southland with Dateline NBC, leading into The Jay Leno Show at 10. Zucker’s decision hit Wells like a punch to the gut.
“NBC was telling us all along that they liked [Southland],” he says. “The reality is that we ended up a casualty of the Jay Leno decision. They assured us it could work at nine o’clock. Otherwise we wouldn’t have gone ahead and made it for them. We would have taken it and set it up someplace else.”
Given that Leno ended up moving back to his 11:30 p.m. slot and that NBC greenlighted six new drama pilots, Wells is entitled to some cynicism. But that’s not really in his nature. Wells is a worker. As a younger man, he made ends meet as a roofer and a framing carpenter. So he isn’t exactly crying into his beer. Truth be told, there isn’t much time for it.
Wells recently had his feature-film directorial debut at the Sundance Film Festival, he cowrote and executive produced a pilot for Showtime (the U.S. adaptation of the U.K. hit Shameless, with William H. Macy and Allison Janney), and he’s developing a telefilm based on Robert Caro’s 1990 book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent.
Meanwhile, Southland has settled at TNT, and the cable network has put a mammoth marketing campaign behind it, with promos in movie theaters and billboards in Times Square. In January it began airing the seven episodes that had previously aired on NBC; on March 2 it debuts the six new seasontwo episodes that had been shot prior to NBC’s cancellation.
Fortunately, Wells “has a knack to see the long view.” So says his longtime friend and collaborator Christopher Chulack. Another colleague, Gil Cates, secretary-treasurer of the Directors Guild of America, puts it this way: Wells “can see the big picture and at the same time the smallest detail.”
“As a writer and an artist, you have to be trying all kinds of things to just stay creatively interested,” Wells says, “knowing if you keep telling stories, you’ll find some place that will let you tell them.”
Wells isn’t exactly scrambling to find an audience, but he hasn’t forgotten the days when work wasn’t forthcoming. The Southland affair was an abrupt reminder of that.
In hindsight, the show never seemed entirely comfortable on NBC. It was a hard sell to Warner Bros. television executives, a costly enterprise with a format that didn’t fit neatly into the tried-and-true procedural drama paradigm. Then in August, Zucker announced the shift of Leno to primetime, five nights a week. Wells wasn’t a fan of the idea.
“I wish NBC and Jay Leno well,” he told reporters last summer. “Personally, he’s a very nice guy, but I hope he falls flat on his face and we get five dramas back.”
For Wells, it was a bitter pill, given that Southland had debuted big in April 2009, helping NBC beat CBS among those cherished eighteen- to forty-nine-year-olds. The premiere drew 9.7 million viewers, and the New York Times called the show the “key to NBC’s hopes of rising out of fourth place in the network ratings wars.” And even though ratings had slipped by May, the network renewed the series.
During this time, Wells was weathering a particularly contentious campaign for the WGAW presidency, a chapter in the guild’s history that he now dismisses. “It’s like debates in one branch of a political party,” he says. “The things we agree on are much greater than the things we disagree on.”
Meanwhile, Southland was in production and Wells was directing the feature The Company Men, a drama he wrote and produced about the personal toll of corporate layoffs that stars Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner and Maria Bello. Ultimately, he won the guild election, got his film into Sundance and TNT picked up Southland. “It was quite a year,” he says.
“He’s a very savvy guy,” says Lydia Woodward, who has worked alongside Wells on five shows, including ER and Wells’s first network show, China Beach. “He’s also a great observer. He observed other shows and prominent showrunners. He saw that they had ups and downs. So he didn’t have so much hubris to think that it wouldn’t happen to him. It’s approaching a life and a career without the blinders.”
WELLS, FIFTY-THREE, WAS BORN IN ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, one of three children of an Episcopalian priest and an elementary school teacher. He grew up in West Virginia and Denver, Colorado, and earned a fine-arts degree from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Next stop: L.A., for graduate school at USC’s School of Cinema-Television in the early 1980s.
Back then, Wells paid the bills with his construction work while he produced plays and low-budget films and wrote screenplays. His big break came when he was hired as a producer on China Beach, ABC’s Vietnam War drama. By the mid-‘90s, he joined the same China Beach team to write and executive produce the pilot for ER, based on novelist Michael Crichton’s own medical residency.
Wells made sure the series served as a launching point for talent. Jack Orman, a writer–executive producer on the show, credits Wells with “developing systems so younger writers and producers could come up the ranks and learn how to run a show. He was willing to share that with everybody.”
By 2009 — after fifteen seasons and a record 122 Primetime Emmy nominations — “it was time to be done doing it,” says Wells of ER. “I really miss all my friends. We made it a long time. A lot of us had worked together for twenty years. I was proud of how we ended it.” He pauses. “My parking spot’s right by the stage over there,” he says, pointing from his office window toward ER‘s former home. “So it’s funny to drive in and not wave to everybody.”
In spite of the dispiriting fallout with NBC, Wells hopes to maintain some presence on network TV. “You reach the most people that way.”
Still, he stays busy producing independent films. In a somewhat unusual arrangement, Wells’s company funds Killer Films, an indie-film outfit whose acclaimed titles (which he also executive produced) — Far From Heaven, One Hour Photo, I’m Not There and The Notorious Bettie Page, among them — speak to the multiple layers of Wells’s creative interests.
“John has always brought a great deal of vision to his projects and thus to his career,” Woodward says. “His projects weren’t thrown together loosely. They were things he thought about very seriously. I’m sure he applied that same principle to his overall work.”
As a key member of the Writers Guild of America since the late 1980s, Wells has helped shepherd the union — first as a board member, then as president, treasurer, vice-president and now president again — through some of its most dynamic years. In addition, he has served on the executive committee of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He has watched the industry move from three broadcast networks dominated by narrative shows to four networks now saturated by reality TV — a genre Wells likens to “crack” — and a crowded cable universe with some critically acclaimed programming, albeit smaller budgets.
In his second term as guild president, Wells is initiating “lots of conversations” with studio and network executives, determined to keep pace with the relentless change the internet has wrought while maintaining a certain diplomacy. “We’re trying to cooperate,” he says.
Writers foresaw the power of the internet as a distribution system, he says, because they were among the medium’s most dedicated early users.
Union uprisings, he notes, have always followed a “new major distribution system.” In the 1960s, it was the advent of repeats and the lease of feature films to the networks. In the 1980s, it was the birth of cable networks, reduced residuals for repeats, pay-per-view and home video that inspired tumult. By the 2007–08 writers’ strike, the battle had moved to so-called new media, a moving target if there ever was one.
“You’re negotiating in advance of knowing how that business is going to unfold,” Wells says. “And we’re finding out new things all the time. The entire industry is confronted with this question: If we want to keep doing what we’re doing, how are we going to get people to pay for it?” The results of a guild survey of TV writers, due to members in March, will likely revive that debate.
Wells remains philosophical. “People have been telling stories since we were all around the campfire,” he says. “The writers will survive.”