Marvel Studios’ Disney Plus Shows Don’t Use Showrunners, and That Has Some TV Writers Worried

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Back when giant crowds could gather in convention halls, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige stood on the stage of the D23 Expo in Anaheim in 2019 to present Marvel’s inaugural slate of television series for Disney Plus — including “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” Before inviting stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan onto the stage with him, Feige introduced the show’s core creative team.

“I would love you to meet our head writer, Malcolm Spellman, and our director, Kari Skogland,” Feige said.

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It was a subtle moment, easy to miss amid the spotlights and propulsive music. But Feige’s use of the title “head writer” for Spellman — rather than “showrunner” or “creator” — wasn’t just a cosmetic affectation. It represents a real and meaningful difference in how Marvel Studios is approaching the leadership structure that TV has traditionally used for decades, in which one (or occasionally two) writer-executive producers quite literally run the show.

As Skogland puts it in an interview following the “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” finale, “Marvel is using the features model.”

Effectively, the studio is making its TV shows as if they were roughly six-hour movies, applying the same production methodology it’s used for the 23 unprecedentedly successful interconnected feature films that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That means empowering directors to lead a lot of creative decision-making, in collaboration with a small cadre of hands-on Marvel creative executives who are with the project from the beginning and report up to Feige.

“It’s a nuance, but it’s one that I think is being embraced more and more because the job honestly in these big, epic miniseries or shows is too big,” says Skogland, who’s also an executive producer. “I was in the writers’ room so that I could really absorb what was being said and be part of the process by floating ideas. As we were going through production, we would workshop scenes and then ask for rewrites on things. So [Malcolm Spellman] was still very much a part of the whole process, but it’s a slightly different mechanical way it comes down. Honestly, it’s very effective and efficient, because it’s just too much work for any one person.”

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A spokesperson for Disney declined to comment for this story, but privately, insiders say this should not be a surprising development: Marvel Studios has always operated differently, transforming franchise filmmaking into, essentially, a massive ongoing TV show, just one that audiences watch in theaters. Why would Feige and his team change the most successful storytelling framework in Hollywood history now that they’re actually making TV?

For writers outside the company, however, Marvel’s decision to diminish the wide creative autonomy showrunners have traditionally wielded in TV — with directors and executives not just calling more shots within the production but also sitting in the writers’ room and requesting rewrites — touches a particularly raw nerve.

“At some point, it’ll bite them in the ass when it comes to recruiting top-shelf writer talent,” says a writer of elevated genre TV. “If you’re a midlevel writer getting a giant bump to ‘run’ a Marvel show, of course you’re going to do it. But if you’re an experienced showrunner with multiple shows under your belt, are you gonna work under those conditions? Probably not.”

Another Emmy-winning writer puts it even more bluntly: “I will never work on a Marvel TV show. They do have a showrunner. It’s Feige — which is fine! I just wouldn’t want to work that way, that’s all.”

David Goodman, president of Writers Guild of America West, says Marvel’s embrace of a “head writer” model is “concerning,” but he still sees the company as a “unique case.”

“If Marvel still wants to have its product be at the standard that people are coming to expect from it, they’re going to need good writers, and they’re going to have to invest those writers with responsibility,” he says. “I stand in awe of what they’ve done at Marvel. Others have tried, and they haven’t succeeded.”

Still, the bigger worry isn’t about what it’s like to work at Marvel; Spellman (who was unavailable for comment for this story) is writing a script for a new “Captain America” movie. Much like Marvel’s wild success in features upended the film industry — setting several studios on a yearslong, largely futile quest for their own sprawling cinematic universes — several writers say they are troubled that Marvel could be setting a wider precedent for event TV in the streaming era.

“The alarm bells that go off in my head are just concerns that the habits and hierarchies of the film world will bleed into the television world where writers reign supreme,” says one prolific showrunner. “Within the circles I run in of writers, there is an absolute concern about people returning to the idea that it is the filmmaker that makes the story special, and not the writer.”

“The idea of a showrunner being rewritten is unheard of,” says an experienced showrunner who has also worked on movies. “Whereas, in features, let’s face it, the writer is lucky to survive the experience.”

These writers point to the first season of “True Detective” (directed entirely by Cary Fukunaga) and the limited series “Sharp Objects” (directed entirely by Jean-Marc Vallée) as examples of prestige filmmakers taking on a much larger degree of authorship than directors have in the past, and publicly clashing with the series’ respective showrunners as a result. “Sharp Objects” executive producer Marti Noxon told Vulture in 2018 that she got into “toe-to-toe screaming matches” with Vallée.

“It really came down to me always as a showrunner. I would put in whom I wanted, and I would reject whom I didn’t want as a director,” says a veteran showrunner who has worked in broadcast and streaming. “Same with actors, same with the cuts. Somebody has to have the last word. And if the last word is the director — oh, dear. If they start having these showrunners who are directors, and the writers are not in charge, you’re going to see a different kind of TV show, which will probably not be as good. I’ve always felt it’s a writer’s medium.”

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As with anything relating to the primacy of writers within the industry of late, the WGA’s nearly two-year battle over packaging — which resulted in all the major agencies signing agreements barring them from collecting fees from producers for shows packaged with their writers — also looms over this issue.

“That’s a huge amount of money that they’re losing,” says the veteran showrunner of the agencies. “How are they making it up? If it’s true that they can package with a director and actors, then [if I’m an agent], I’m going to want a director/showrunner who gets paid that premium to get a package off of that.”

Technically speaking, there is nothing preventing the agencies from doing just that. But Goodman, who also serves as a showrunner on Hulu’s sci-fi series “The Orville,” isn’t buying it.

“This is a common refrain that I hear, a common fearful refrain that showrunners are losing power, that writers don’t have the authority anymore, that studios are taking it away from us,” he says. “It was a refrain at the beginning of the agency campaign, that when we got rid of packaging that studios would make actors and directors the center of TV shows. Didn’t happen, because the studios, for the most part, still recognize they need writers to do their television shows.”

Marvel Studios, meanwhile, is pushing forward with at least 12 new series for Disney Plus in 2021 and beyond, from the legal dramedy “She-Hulk” to a “Black Panther” spinoff set within Wakanda. Many of these already have head writers in place, and the experienced showrunner has some words of advice for them: “It’s great that Marvel invites writers to play in their sandbox. You just need to put the toy back the way you found it.”

Kate Aurthur and Joe Otterson contributed to this report.

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