TWIC/The Industry NOW: COVID-19

As unforeseen world events continue to unfold, how are they affecting screenwriters, TV writers, and the industry? 

Week ending 3/13/20

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I should write about this week: The writer who came to me thinking she wants a screenwriting career, when what she really wanted was to get her movie made? Or… the writer who wasn’t sure how to process the myriad notes he got in writers’ group? But what I’ve been talking about with writers most – like everyone everywhere I presume – is COVID-19, its effect on the industry, the writers working in it and, by extension, the repercussions for an already-wonky staffing season and contract negotiations down the line.

The tough thing about writing about these things in real time is that in days, things can change dramatically enough for this to be old, outdated news. But since this has been on everyone’s mind, let’s take a deep dive into all that’s going on, and the affects that it will have on screenwriters and TV writers.

There has been a fair amount of turmoil in the industry before COVID-19  became a worldwide reality: Because of the upcoming expiration of the WGA’s contact with the AMPTP on May 1st, staffing for this upcoming season got going wayyyy early this year, with some of my writers starting to go out for network staffing as early as February. Back in 2017, when this same contract came up for renegotiation, but was then extended for 3 years, we saw staffing start early as well; then, network staffing, usually something that happens in Q2 (i.e. April/May/June) started really picking up in March. This year, we started even earlier. Add to that that not all working writers are back with their agents; in fact, and despite the fact that all but one of the mid-level agencies (Paradigm) have signed new agreements with the WGA, many writers previously represented by agents at the Big 4 (CAA, WME, ICM, UTA) are still holding out for those relationships to get reinstated, so in many ways managers have been powering this staffing season as much as agents have.

Traditionally, networks and studios staff returning shows first, filling up any newly opened positions in the room for its next season; on the pilot front, i.e. shows that the networks liked enough to produce a pilot of, but have yet to officially pick up, showrunners meet with writers starting as early as March as they begin to envision what their writers’ room would look like if their show goes. In most cases, those showrunners are unable to make offers and lock in writing staff until their shows are officially picked up and announced as part of up-fronts, the annual presentation made by networks and studios to advertisers in NYC in early May, in which new primetime lineups, including exciting new shows, are presented. That’s when most pilots get their series orders (except for those that got early orders or have been ordered to go straight-to-series already) and showrunners are able to to get the writers in their rooms firmly situated.

With a potential strike in May, we knew that showrunners of existing shows as well as pilots hoping to get picked up started meeting with writers early this year. But then we hit a snag: As COVID-19 became an undeniable reality, studios and networks opted to (wisely) cancel their 2020 live up-fronts in NYC in early May, hoping that they will be able to find virtual platforms through which to display their fall lineup. And right after that happened? Within days, with more COVID-19 cases confirmed nationwide, the industry swiftly halted productions, in order to help contain the virus. The problem? Most pilots are shot in March and April. That means that many of the shows already announced to go to pilot (i.e. ordered to shoot their pilot episode) may not actually have a pilot to present come up-fronts. And how this will effect the new fall line up is beyond us. 

Want more on this? Check out Deadline’s Pilot Season 2020 in Turmoil

The work stoppage has been serious: At the time that this is written, the majority of TV production and a significant amount of feature production has come to a halt. Not only are we talking networks and studios; Netflix, too, has announced that it is shutting down production in the US and Canada. As a result, many of this coach’s working scribes have been sent home for the remainder of their current season, some to write their episodes remotely, while others have seen their season orders abruptly cut short. Meanwhile in Hollywood, premieres are being cancelled and BIG movie releases are being pushed, all of which can end up costing the industry well into the billions

With COVID-19 running rampant (or at least the impression that that’s what’s happening), many industry companies and firms have limited their social engagements, from industry lunches to large meetings, if not shut down their offices and instructed their employees to work from home entirely. What is usually an industry powered by very face-to-face encounters complete with regular breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks meetings, is now becoming a much more cautious environment.   

How this will effect the upcoming contract negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP (Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers) remains to be seen. Negotiations have been scheduled to commence on Monday, March 23rd, but at this juncture, due to COVID-19, we do not know whether these negotiations will continue as planned. And another factor to consider: if the industry at large is now forced, by circumstances beyond its control, into a work stoppage, how does that effect the WGA’s position and ability to force the industry into another work stoppage if their very valid demands are not met? The circumstances for writers and the key points being negotiated as part of these discussions have not changed. Everything that writers are fighting for in this contract renegotiation is of critical importance, same as it was before we arrived at where we are – work stoppage and all – today. It will remain to be seen, however, whether world events have any effect on upcoming negotiations, including the potential for a strike, should an agreement between the two parties fail to be reached.

All of which is to say… There’s a lot we still don’t know, lots of speculation, and plenty we are still waiting to see and hear as it unfolds. I will be sure to write follow ups to this blog post if and as needed. That said, if you have any questions pertaining to this, don’t hesitate to write them in the comments section or send them to me via my contact form; I am happy to try and mitigate any confusion and uncertainty, and keep you guys informed!