Screenwriting, The Industry & COVID-19: Where Are We Now? Volume 1
Right off the bat, I can tell you this: There are gonna be more updates on this than just one, hence… me naming this one V1. We are all going to be homebound for just a little bit longer, so don’t be surprised to see a fresh new installment, i.e., V2, and even V3 somewhere down the line. Technically, I did take this concept out for a spin a couple of weeks ago with my Screenwriting in the Time of COVID-19 blog post, back in the days when I was naive enough to think that another installment would not be needed for some time.
I stand corrected.
So… where are we now?
(And I do encourage you to read all the way through; there is some good news down the line!)
While the majority of writers’ rooms did in fact shut down abruptly and productions halted accordingly right around the middle of March, some writers have continued working from home and sending their episodes into their showrunners, while others have seen their ordinary old writers’ rooms transformed into zoom rooms, i.e. ongoing virtual meetings taking place entirely in video form, most often on the very popular platform Zoom. While this is happening, other platforms have been popping up as well, such as Miro.com and WritersRoomPro.com. If nothing else, this strange period is highlighting some fantastic tools!
I am hearing that not only are a few rooms out there continuing their work uninterrupted and thereby keeping their season episode orders in tact (as noted above, some networks announced an abrupt season end by cutting season orders as soon as production was shut down) but also that, in lieu of a standard pilot season, there are a few mini-rooms that have sprouted up to develop a few more episodes for those new shows that may get a season order, despite their pilots not having gotten shot. With fall schedule is expected to get nailed down in virtual up-fronts in May (the period in which networks present their fall season schedule to advertising companies ready to make their seasonal ad-buys) these mini-rooms may become a trend in this unusual pilot and upcoming fall season.
Beyond TV Writing
We know what’s happening in TV but… what about features? In recent weeks, a number of my writers have been commenced on film projects that have been in contract limbo in a little while. Amazing how quickly those contracts get signed when work stoppage is happening! So feature writers, accustomed to working in the solitude of their home or office, are taking advantage of this time to continue pushing forward on their feature writing gigs and assignments uninterrupted.
There is no question, industry meetings, be they for general or staffing purposes, have slowed down, despite an early ramp up this year, mostly in preparation for a potential writer’s strike (for more on the potential strike, scroll down). However, even though staffing has slowed down, in part because we don’t yet quite know what the fall season will look like, they are happening all the time. A few of my writers did let me know that they were able to meet with prospective covering executives and showrunners on video platforms, while a number of my other clients were able to keep their general meetings with execs and producers.
Some days ago Tracking Board released an extensive breakdown of who’s continuing to hear pitches and who’s sitting it out on the buyer front, which clearly states that, at least on the record, many studios, networks and streamers continue to hear pitches via videoconference or phone. Accordingly, most of my writers have been able to keep pre-scheduled pitches, although I am finding that not a lot of new pitch meetings are being put on writers’ schedules. Which may not be a bad thing: most writers know that a pitch is likely to go over significantly better live and in person, and are therefore seeing if, in favor of such face-to-face meetings, it might be advantageous to wait until they can bring their pitches into the room.
Talent & Literary Agencies
While the battle between the Big 4 (CAA, WME, UTA, ICM) rages on, here are the latest developments in what feels like the ever-evolving agency landscape:
Paradigm, the last holdout from what is known as the 5-12 agencies (agencies #5 to #12 under the Big 4), did finally sign its franchise agreement with the WGA around mid-March. It also laid off 20% of its workforce, including a number of reputable lit agents. Shortly thereafter (or around the same time? things are happening fast!) other agencies started announcing layoffs, pay cuts, and other “cost cutting measures.” Those agencies included: WME, ICM, APA and Verve, though we are expecting to hear about more changes among agencies in the coming days, as all are being hit hard by the stoppage of film and television production. With not many immediate new gigs for their actors, directors, producers and, indeed, writers, agencies, who rely heavily on ongoing new revenue, are expected to make even more changes in the weeks and months ahead.
WGA/AMTMP Negotiations and the Impending Strike
As some of you may remember, the WGA and the AMPTP (Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers) were supposed to sit down starting March 23rd in an attempt to negotiate a new contract before the current contract, extended for 3 years during the 2017 negotiations, expires on May 1st. At stake? A number of issues of incredible importance for the livelihood of TV writers: New media contracts (i.e. pay rate standards for writers on shows and movies distributed by new media companies such as Hulu, Disney+ and HBOMax. Note that Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and Apple TV+ are not a part of the AMPTP), as well as residuals, both issues that directly and immediately impact writers’ livelihood and bank accounts.
Back when we thought that this was all still on track and the biggest thing to worry about, and expected contentious negotiations with frustration on both sides (though I am, naturally, on the side of the writers), the industry anticipated that a new contract between the two entities and addressing these issues would not be easily reached. It was expected that the WGA would ask its members for a vote to authorize a strike should a new agreement not be in place by May 1st. While it was expected that negotiations would still continue a few days after the deadline, a strike was not, shall we say, unlikely. Despite the fact that the 2007-2008 strike lasted 100-days, and cost the industry 7 Billion Dollars, I was hearing from a number of writers and friends in the industry that the odds were on a strike happening.
But everything has changed with COVID-19. Negotiations will now be delayed until negotiators are able to sit down face-to-face, and the WGA has stated that writers may continue working under the existing contract despite its upcoming expiration on May 1st. Furthermore, the current work stoppage, and the roughly 120,000 jobs already lost in the industry since productions and rooms were shut down, as well as the 20 billion dollars expected to be lost, may have quelled the hunger for a union strike.
TV & Streamer Viewership
Remember when I said that there is some good news ahead? This is where it comes in, and it amounts to much more than silver lining: TV network viewership of scripted content is up for the first time in over a decade, specifically on Friday and Saturday nights, which is the TV network programming equivalent of no-man’s land. The numbers for streamers. According to The Hollywood Reporter are up too: “Time spent on streaming platforms grew by 34 percent over two weeks at the beginning of March,” This is HUGE.
And what it means is this: During challenging times, people are turning to content to find escape, distraction and laughter. Which, despite the challenges broken down above, is great news for writers everywhere. Even though we may be going through tough times, even though writers’ rooms and productions everywhere are mostly shut down, and even though we don’t quite yet know when and how normal life is going to come back, this is a reminder that scripted content is of huge value to the world, a desirable product, and more in demand now than its been in a long time, despite the fact that this is being written at the end of an expansion decade (Peak TV, anyone?). While things can be scary and uncertain, there is no doubt in my mind: things will get back to normal. And when they do, writers, and all that they create, will once again be highly in demand.