What will the world look like in six months? In a year? In two years?
For screenwriters, this is more than just your typical exercise in tea-leaf reading. With the gestation period for most feature film and TV projects being one to three years, we have to be confident enough about what the near-future holds to set our characters in a world that future audiences will recognize.
In “normal” times, this is rarely an issue. We can usually be confident that the world three years hence will look pretty much like the world of today, save for a minor tech advance, sudden fashion fad or technical updates that can easily be incorporated during the production process. However, every now and then, the world experiences a “shock” or “inflection point” that sets everything on its ear and requires a major psychic readjustment. For example, anyone in August 2001 writing a heist film that required the thieves to string a cable between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center would have, after September 11th, had to seriously reconsider the mechanics of their story. In 2014, had you been working on a drama about a gay couple trying to get legally married in Nebraska, you would have found your story mute after the U.S. Supreme Court made gay marriage legal nationwide in June the following year. Hey, how about a comedy about a showy, foul-mouthed Reality TV star who, through a twisted series of circumstances, gets elected President of the United States? Oops….
The current COVID-19 pandemic is not only a major humanitarian and economic tragedy, but it may very well be an “inflection point” that makes the others we’ve experienced in our lifetimes look trivial by comparison. In terms of its long-term cultural impact, it could be as momentous as The Great Depression, World War II or even the Civil War. Future generations may look back on pre-COVID and post-COVID America the same way we look at the antebellum and Reconstruction Era South, immediately recognizing two wholly different sets of values, philosophies and rules of social order. How stark these differences will be is going to depend on a lot of factors: how long the pandemic lasts, how many lives are lost and what medical interventions – if any — actually prove successful.
The sad fact is, that although people – and government leaders – are desperate for America to return to “normal,” we really have no idea what “normal” is going to look like one month, one year or especially three years from now. Will restaurants ever be as we remember them – if they exist at all? Will high schoolers ever experience the joys – and complications – of proms, team sports and even formal graduations? What will dating look like if we have to maintain “social distancing” for years to come? What about Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners? Church services? Office work? Air travel? Will masks become as ubiquitous as smart phones?
True, there may be a vaccine as early as fall and within a year we may have little or no cultural memory of 2020 at all. (This is what happened following the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.) Or, as some experts have recently warned, COVID may mutate so rapidly that we may never have a vaccine, in which case this highly contagious, extremely deadly virus may be part of our lives forever (Jesus…!).
So how do we write about “normal” life when we have no idea what people are going to consider “normal” if/when our scripts will be produced?
As spec writing is always a crapshoot, perhaps it makes sense to mitigate the already sizeable risks we take when committing ourselves to an original project by choosing a story, subject or setting that’s less likely to become “dated” or otherwise problematic when it comes time to actually take the script to market.
Here are a few ways you can COIVD-proof your spec script:
1. Set Your Story in the Recent Past. If you have a contemporary story – be it a drama, romance, action film or comedy – set it twenty, ten or even just five years in the past. Throw in enough “period” references – music cues, “dated” technology, pop culture references, etc. — to tickle the nostalgia bone and justify your “artistic choice.” Numerous movies and TV series like Stranger Things (Netflix), The Goldbergs (ABC), Fresh Off the Boat (ABC) and Better Call Saul (AMC) have either wallowed in nostalgia or simply tossed in the occasional flip-phone or MySpace reference to signal their period settings. Hulu’s recent limited series adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere was set in 1997 for no apparent reason other than 1997 was when the novel took place. (Except for a few fashion choices, Little Fires could have just as easily have been set in the present day.) Set your story in 2012 and you won’t have to worry about “social distancing.”
2. Set Your Story in the Near Future. Jump ahead to 2030. Add some sci-fi or “speculative fiction” elements to, again, justify your “artistic choice.” If you don’t want to go pure science fiction, just play with the periphery details. We saw this done successfully in Spike Jonez’s Her (2013), the Adam Sandler comedy Click (2006) and the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger action classic The Running Man, all of which could have just as easily been set in their relative “present day.”
3. Set Your Story in a “Foreign” Land. Although COVID-19 is a global problem, there are parts of the world that have been relatively unaffected by the virus. This includes parts of Asia (China excepted), Africa, South America and, most certainly, New Zealand. Consider resetting your tale to one of these locations. Not only will you not have to contend with COVID-related issues, but you’ll simultaneously satisfy many producers’ desire for films with “international appeal” and “diverse” casts.
4. Set Your Story in an “Alternative Reality.” Even if you have an otherwise conventional story, you can make it a bit more interesting – and COVID-proof – by overtly setting it in a “What If?” universe. This is particularly viable in today’s streaming TV market, where audiences have already accepted the “alternate universe” settings of such series as Watchmen (HBO), The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), The Plot Against America (Hulu) and For All Mankind (Apple+). No reason to think an “alternate reality” feature film wouldn’t work just as well.
5. Write a Pure Sci-Fi Piece. If your have a knack for sci-fi, this is the time to go for it. Not only has technology made Star Wars-level VFX common, even on TV, but by writing a story set in the far future or, even better yet, in outer space, you completely avoid the need to address our current medical, economic and political unknowns. Just remember to follow the standard rules regarding sci-fi for first-time/unproduced writers: Keep it small, keep it contained, have a small cast. In the spec market, “clever” beats “expensive” every time. Films like Moon (2009), Ex Machina (2014), Looper (2012) and Robot & Frank (2012) are good examples of this style of tight, efficient sci-fi screenwriting.
6. Write a Period/ Historical/Costume Drama…or Comedy. On the flip side, if you’re into Roman gladiators, Medieval knights, Japanese Samurai, 18th century pirates, ladies in hoop skirts or guys in Zoot Suits, here’s your opportunity to shine. Better a cough portends tuberculosis than coronavirus. As with sci-fi, when writing period or historical specs, keep it small, simple and clever. Some recent exemplars to emulate include Harriet (2019), The Favourite (2018) and Brooklyn (2015).
Trying to predict the future is always a fool’s errand. But no more so than it is today. If we’re lucky, this entire discussion will be moot in a few months and we can all look back and laugh at the hysterical doomsday predictions. But if we don’t dodge this bullet – if it ends up hitting our cultural spine and disabling us for life – you can prepare your career trajectory accordingly. Then, even if the virus does, indeed, suddenly vanish “like a miracle,” the worst you can end up with is a potentially great script that just happens to not be set in the here-and-now. – Allen B. Ury