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Inside/Out - From the President

COVID-19 and the shape of work to come

It’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t figure out what I was going to write for this editorial. I was flip-flopping between possible subjects. I would either offer my (most likely smart-assed) assessment of the recently released BTLR report, or take a stab at Lana Castleman’s newly minted Off Script feature. I took the latter for two reasons:  

1. It was proving impossible for me to write anything remotely entertaining about the BTLR report, beyond whether the acronym should be pronounced as “Bitler,” “Butler” or “Betler.” 2. The Off Script questionnaire was more fun.  

Then along came COVID-19. All the work of a zombie apocalypse. None of the fun. 

If COVID-19 was a fictional disease imagined in a writers’ room, I would argue that the methods of fighting it were a little too on the nose. Self isolate. Socially distance. Come on, guys. My note would be that this sounds like a virus created by a committee of writers for writers. 

And  all over social media, writers are discussing how this should be the perfect time to be writing that new pilot or that feature they’ve always wanted to write and how frustrating it is that they can’t focus. And to them I say, “Be kind to yourself, these are extraordinary times we’re living in and every feeling that you’re feeling is valid.” 

If there was ever a moment for social media to shine, it’s right now. I’m sure all platforms have seen an uptick in usage over the last several weeks. I know my usage has skyrocketed. This is what I’m seeing: People are reaching out to each other, wanting to share experiences, wanting to stay connected, wanting to share stories. 

It’s easy to conceptualize this as “wasting time online when I should be writing.” But I prefer to think of this as “doing my job.” I’m making jokes. I’m sharing anecdotes. I’m telling stories. Sure, I’ve always done that on social media. But now, I’m realizing that social media is a special connection, because for many of us right now, it’s our only connection. 

I have no doubt that when we come out on the other side of this event (and we will), things are going to be different. So, how is that going to look for writers? 

For starters, I can guarantee you that how we negotiate our contracts will be different. ”Pandemic” will be a specific item listed in any section on force majeure. There will be new language around schedule breakdowns and delays in production stages. 

How we schedule our productions will change — at least in the immediate future. I’m sure there’s going to be thought put towards how we make a show with the fewest number of people at any given time. We may even see a shift where the entire series is written before going into production in order to facilitate a more streamlined (and probably shortened) production schedule. 

The stories themselves will possibly be reshaped: How many of the leads are in a scene? Could this be a two-hander? Do we really need all of those extras? 

I also predict A LOT of pilot pitches about people living through a pandemic, and at least one pitch that postulates the world when it’s hit by “COVID-20.” 

Then there’s the question of how COVID-19 will affect the writers’ room. I’ve been talking with other writers and showrunners about their experiences with virtual rooms in terms of which conference software offers the most flexibility, and how they manage the course of conversation virtually. And I worry about how this will affect the construction of a writers’ room going forward. How it will affect the spontaneity of the conversation  and the alchemy of creativity that comes from amassing a group of writers in a single space? What will replace just giving them a stack of post-it notes and some jujubes and letting it rip? 

To be clear, this is something I worry about as a writer. As a human, I am worried about eleventy-billion quadrillion other things, but that’s not something that we need to discuss here.

We will get through this. Hell, it’s entirely possible that by the time this issue lands in your mailbox, we will already be cusping into a post COVID-19 world and you’ll be reading this and thinking, “Whatever, worry-wart.” Until that time, be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. And for the love of God, wash your fucking hands. 

— Dennis Heaton