Should Hollywood Screenwriters Write New Screenplays With COVID-19 in Mind?

Joel Eisenberg

Why impose limitations? That’s the answer.

The photo leading off this article, incidentally, is not a Hollywood product. It is an indie, that recently received some notoriety. But the same thing applies.

In a prior article, “How to Sell a Script During COVID-19,” I suggested the following talking point is, in reality, a myth: “Companies are only looking for projects that take place in the pandemic era.”

This is emphatically false. Quoting from the article: In my experience, having had conversations with executives and writer friends about exactly this, the projects being purchased on a larger scale take place largely in a modern time period where COVID-19 is not mentioned and no pandemic appears to exist, or they take place in an identifiable post-COVID world. Not quite science fiction, but entertaining fare looked upon as a break from today’s harsh reality. I’ve noticed many independent filmmakers are doing the opposite: embracing the storytelling potential of the pandemic and crafting projects closer to today’s reality.
Here is another reality. Though film and television product continues to be purchased and soldduring this dark period, the number of scripted projects in the mix have exponentially decreased. Television has largely given way to an increase in reality programming and Zoom-shot talk shows, while the majority of films have become similarly made on the cheap.
The challenge is to create “evergreen” productions, television and film that will outlast the pandemic and sell in licensing deals and/or syndication down the road, all the while attaining acceptable viewership.
The Business section of the August 12, 2020 Washington Post featured an article entitled, “The Pandemic Will Make Movies and TV Shows Look Like Nothing We’ve Seen Before.” It’s opening said the following: No crowd scenes. Few locations. Limited romance. Hollywood entertainment is about to get really strange.
So what else is new?
“Coronavirus: The Movie” was released early in 2020, as were a slew of independents that directly addressed the pandemic. Several had been shot on Zoom. The filmmakers behind one of these projects, “Unsubscribe,” a 29-minute short, rented out a theater and for one week in June could lay claim to being the nation’s highest-grosser with a haul of $25,488.
Not bad for a Zoom film that costs veritably nothing to make.
Though “Unsubscribe” was not about the novel coronavirus per se, the film was shot and released under the circumstances when most movie theaters were still closed.
Several feature projects are in various stages of development, such as a diary from Wuhan, China about the virus’ possible origins, various pitches about President Trump and his controversial coronavirus response are making their ways around town, and others which take a similar true-life approach.
Films such as “Outbreak” are receiving a second life on premium cable outlets, as are old novels presently being looked at as intellectual property with new potential.
However, in terms of trends, what we are seeing is exactly what I had excerpted in the beginning of this piece from my last article on the topic: There are two primary trends for features in this era: to either ignore the virus entirely and present a normalized world such as that in pre-pandemic days, or to address the pandemic full-on.
What ultimately shakes out will ultimately be based on what’s financed at both the studio, and independent levels.
And, of course … what the audience is willing to pay to see.
Television programs, both new and old, are showing similar trend lines.
1. On September 30, 2020, Cartoon Network aired a special one-hour episode of “South Park” about the pandemic. See here for a teaser:
2. Animation is consistent, and in some countries the demand for animated film and television, according to this highly-citied Wikipedia entry, has grown in recent months:
3. “Love in the Time of Corona” premiered August 22, 2020 on Freeform. See trailer here:
4. It was announced in June that NBC ordered a pandemic-themed comedy. “Connecting,”from creators Martin Gero and Brendan Gall, presently has an eight-episode order.
5. The fourth season premiere of Fox’s “The Resident” incorporates the “early days of the outbreak” in its storyline, as series co-creator Amy Holden Jones explained in an interview with Us Magazine. “Grey’s Anatomy,” “New Amsterdam,” and “Chicago Med” are also returning shows scripted to feature COVID-19. Not verified, but buzz has it the majority of network medical and procedural programming will follow suit.
6. A 2018 documentary, “Contagion,” has been picked up to re-air internationally, as have several other projects once considered future science, or even even science fiction.
As with films, what will ultimately remain popular on television will be based on viewership.If a television show or feature film portrays the pandemic honestly, characters will wear masks. If the production ignores the pandemic, they will not.
I’ve said it before: There is no right or wrong answer.
In terms of future-proofing a product, as with any teleplay or screenplay, the story and the characters are the primary determinants. The risk for any creator is maintaining a long life fortheir creative output, while many audiences members strive to escape from today’s real-life volatility. But isn’t escapism always the case, regardless if the release of a given product is now, yesterday, or a hundred years from now?
The very word, escapism, holds different meaning for different people. Some find darkness, such as horror or crime product, escapist. Others find their escapism in something lighter, like “Star Wars” or the Marvel Universe.
Again, there is no right or wrong. Product will become evergreen if the story is resonant, and relevant, if the characters are relatable, or unpredictable. Further, if masks are worn in the midst of a scene, that mask should not be focused upon. What should be a writer’s focus always is on his or her compelling story and characters.
You know the old George Santayana expression: “Those who cannot remember the past arecondemned to repeat it?” Or, it’s more popular variant: “Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it?”
Relevance is human.
Remember, as you write you must focus on everything you’ve focused on before. If you want to backtrack once you write your story, and add COVID-19 markers such as masks, social distancing and the like, go for it.
The sooner the pandemic becomes manageable is when content will slowly turn back to the way a it was. If we have three more years (hope not) of COVID-related content, so be it. One day, examinations of our current era will be newly-produced period films.
Regardless, whatever the new normal becomes, keep your eyes and ears to the grindstone for the latest trends.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA

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