“Never let a crisis go to waste.” So counseled Rahm Emmanuel, former Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama and later mayor of the great city of Chicago. While unabashedly Machiavellian, Emmanuel’s dictum echoes the famous shibboleth that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity.” In other words, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. (Thank you, Joseph P. Kennedy.)
All of which brings us to the present Dark Times. While the COVID-19 virus mows its way through the world like a cosmic scythe, we’re all advised to hunker down in our hovels and wait for the Angel of Death to pass. (Ironic that the plague is hitting us at the time of Passover. Has anyone tried marking their doorposts with lamb’s blood? Asking for a friend.) For most people, this is a time for intense boredom and frustration, not to mention financial and emotional hardship. But it needn’t be all gloom the doom – especially not for creatives.
If there’s one thing that writers and other artists crave is “Me Time,” time free of obligations, responsibilities, and other distractions that sap our energies and cloud our creative thinking. Well, with most of America shut down for what looks to be months on end, we’re finally getting what we’ve always wanted. (Albeit not quite in the way we wanted it.) Why not make the most of it?
For screenwriters, this is the time to write that script that’s been percolating in the back of our minds for years. For TV writers, this is the time to craft that TV series bible and bang out that pilot we’ve never had time to focus on before.
Of course, before we dive into any new project, we have to consider the commercial battlefield in which we will likely be fighting once the “All Clear” is given and companies start buying again. When it comes to selling original material, timing is everything. And, like shell-shocked survivors of an atomic war slowly emerging from their fallout shelters, we are likely to find that the immediate post-COVID landscape is far different from the one we enjoyed before we all dived into our hidey-holes. The economy is likely to be in tatters. Many stores and restaurants that were once neighborhood staples will have vanished. People will be emotionally exhausted and will likely still be wary of congregating in large groups for fear of a dreaded “Second Wave” of infection.
How is this likely to affect the kinds of products Hollywood produces? History offers us some guidance.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, with up to a quarter of the adult population out of work and war clouds gathering in Europe, Hollywood focused on escapist fare like the frothy musicals of dancer Fred Astaire and the spectacles of director Busby Berkley. The 1930s also gave birth to the so-called “Screwball Comedies” of directors Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and Preston Sturges, as well as the anarchistic farces of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. People’s fears and anxieties were made manifest in fanciful monsters like Universal’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man (All of which, we should note, were set in Europe, not the United States), while Warner Brothers cranked out urban gangster movies that both glamourized the criminal life and taught us that, ultimately, crime does not pay.
In stark contrast, after the trauma of World War II, Hollywood turned to much darker fare. The 1940s gave birth to “film noir,” crime thrillers that explored the shadowy side of human nature, as well as socially conscious “message films” like The Best Years of Our Lives (veterans’ issues), The Lost Weekend (alcoholism), The Snake Pit (mental illness), and Gentleman’s Agreement (anti-Semitism). This sudden shift in mood can be attributed to the fact that, having defeated Hitler in Europe and Imperial Japan in the Pacific, America was feeling pretty damned good about itself and, having been untouched physically by the wars overseas, could afford the luxury of serious self-examination.
Where is America likely to be post-COVID? Probably closer in mood to the country in the 1930s than the 1940s. Having been pummeled by nothing but bad news for literally months on end, people will be looking for escapist fare and other forms of “feel good” entertainment. Producers are likely to be looking for romantic comedies, broad farces, inspirational-faith-based stories and perhaps even historical dramas. Horror is always in fashion, but in the year ahead, you’re best advised to steer it toward the supernatural and exotic. Action projects, particularly action comedies and heist flicks, are likely to find traction. But disaster movies are definitely cinema non grata, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t waste your time writing a movie or TV pilot about a viral pandemic. For one, the market will be flooded with such projects and, two, no one wants to experience this same nightmare twice. After surviving cancer, you don’t rush to see a movie about cancer.
Next, let’s talk about platforms. Prior to Plague 2020, there was already a market shift away from traditional theaters and even broadcast TV networks in favor of premium cable and streaming services. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated this trend, with hundreds of millions of Americans having no entertainment choices other than what they can get through cable, satellite, and the Internet. Once normalcy has returned, we can expect premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and STARZ, as well as streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+ and CBS All Access to continue to dominate the market for new product. There’s even Jeff Katzenberg’s new Quibi platform, which will be delivering series in bite-sized 10-minute-or-less morsels directly to cellphones and other mobile devices.
This means that, if you’re writing a feature, make it physically small (but visually interesting) with juicy parts for one or two “name” actors. Clever plotting and witty dialogue are key. If you’re creating a TV series, make sure your concept has a very strong “hook” – no generic crime, law or hospital shows, please — serialize the story, and plan your season around only eight to 10 episodes. When it comes to concept, the crazier the better. Everyone in streaming is looking for something Twitter-worthy.
Note that reality shows, competition shows, and documentaries will be tough, not because of market demand, but because selling such shows usually requires producing some kind of “sizzle reel” that demonstrates the commercial viability of the subject and personalities involved, something that is difficult to do when you’re stuck at home sitting on your ass.
So now it’s time to write. Which means, well, actually writing. Every day. Seriously. Creating – and sticking to – a daily schedule can be difficult. Creativity and martial discipline can often find themselves at odds. But forcing yourself to write is the only way to get it done. (It’s always easier not to, I know.) Don’t delude yourself into thinking that, with the virus likely to hang around until late summer, you have ample time to fashion one or even two drafts. You don’t. Writing a great script inevitably takes many months – sometimes even years – so you have to make the most of the current “down time” while it is still available. And, yes, what you produce will have to be great, because thousands of other writers are currently doing exactly what you are, and they going to be fierce competitors.
These are indeed difficult times. But to haul out one more cliché, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Just be sure to wash your hands first. – Allen B. Ury