Cold Courage writer Brendan Foley reflects on his personal experiences of Covid-19 under lockdown in California and looks ahead to what the crisis could mean for the TV community around the world.
A good day starts with an early morning masked walk with my wife Shelly on the mean streets of Santa Monica, past blooming roses and spikey cacti. The streets’ grid pattern means you can see the joggers coming, mask-less and puffing like elderly freight trains, emitting invisible cartoon clouds of virus to replace the pollution, which has vanished with the cars. This results in walkers and joggers crossing roads to avoid each other, left, right, up, down, like a 2020 version of Pac-Man.
A bad day starts with the news of the passing of some friend or acquaintance or industry connection from this bloody pestilence. A few days ago it was a school friend from Belfast. He was the first openly gay person I’d ever met, a wild man who, if he had led the Charge of the Light Brigade, would have gone back and asked for a re-run, best out of three. When he was targeted by a bunch of bigots many years ago with a Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign, he ran his own counter-campaign called Save Sodomy from Ulster. Rest in peace, wild man.
Both the new normal of a short walk or remembering someone lost to an invisible foe are shared experiences for millions, all over the world. And such shared experiences have long been at the heart of TV drama – giving the audience a way in to a world beyond their own.
I’m working longer hours, dragging myself out of bed earlier to go on those Pac-Man walks and get a jump on the day. The temptation to lie in bed watching box sets is great, but I am saved by deadlines
We will also have the shared experience of BV and AV, Before and After Virus. Maybe not quite as earth-shaking as BC and AD, but one of the biggest shared experiences of any of our lifetimes.
Before the lockdown, the TV drama business was booming. Streamers were feeding an ever-hungrier and ever-growing audience. Terrestrial broadcasters were nervously developing ways of competing in high-end TV without always relying on their formerly deeper pockets. Studios were gambling on ever-bigger reboots of feature franchises, where the definition of success had more to do with marketing budgets and selling Happy Meals than telling new stories.
And then there was AV, after virus. Or strictly speaking just V at the minute, because no one is too sure what AV will look like or when, if ever, it will arrive.
For TV writers, some of the lockdown experience has depended on where they were in the production cycle when the world started to change. I was fortunate to have a slew of work at various stages of completion. I specialise in writing international English-language drama co-pros and had projects ranging from imminent release to just an idea on a page.
Cold Courage, a really fresh series I worked on for Viaplay, Lionsgate and Luminoir, about two Nordic women encountering murder and subterfuge in present day London, was due to get its premiere in competition at Series Mania, which was of course duly cancelled. Instead it had its live release on 3 May across Scandinavia on Viaplay, to a great reception. Streamers such as Viaplay have an ever-growing place in ever-more people’s new lifestyle, and Netflix has put on some 16 million new subscribers in the last quarter. People are hungry for good new stories at home and good series always start with good scripts.
Navigating the ‘geometry of germs’
But further back in the food chain things are less rosy. Movie theatres, desperate to find some safe way of re-opening, are testing social distancing theories in an environment which is essentially the ultimate shared crowd experience. I hope they find some way forward, but the challenge facing them goes far beyond the geometry of germs.
It is about what people will want to do – experiences that bring them joy rather than nervousness. And so far, people feel safest at home, but still hanker for new stories and the world outside. At home, each of us has the same experience in microcosm – we start eating more food out of tin cans and start consuming more series from back catalogues and catch-up. But every streamer and broadcaster knows that the world audience is, most of all, hungry for the new.
One step back from distribution is the world of TV production – the instant lockdowns left producers wondering not just about the morality of shooting for ‘just one more week’ at the start of the difficulties, but the even trickier question of when and how to get the same cast and crew back in place safely at the end of the process.
Luckily human ingenuity in our business is at its height. Some shows will be easier to restart than others: a cooking show with no studio audience; the late-night hosts who now tell their jokes to greenscreen silence like desperate stand-ups at a failing audition, or to canned laughter from long dead audiences.
Video calls stop being productive after an hour or two, so individual writers have to dig into their own store of creativity Home Alone. Luckily most writers have been social distancing for years without anyone noticing
Drama is much trickier – bigger crews, complex sets and more costly stars. Some producers are discussing cast and crew being in effective quarantine together, before and during a shoot. Iceland – which has things a bit more under control than most of us and a large, convenient ocean to help with social distancing – is experimenting with reopening some production. Others will follow, hopefully with enough precautions in place not to send us all scurrying back indoors for months.
Further back still in the production chain, things look better. In terms of development, if my own experience is anything to go by, business is booming. Production companies, usually focused on physical production with development as a second string, are now taking a very active role in pushing development as far as they can during this hiatus so they will be in the best possible shape as the industry starts to make new series to feed the machine. Working out shooting schedules based on having all scripts in advance is much more cost-effective than working one at a time.
Over the last six months I have worked with broadcasters, producers and distributors in the UK, Finland, the US, China, Poland, Denmark, France, Germany and Italy on drama series, ranging from series bibles, to scripts to entire seasons. Writers rooms have gone online, and are often smaller than in days of yore, with most series going for six or eight episodes for first seasons.
For me personally, this has meant that more of the weight falls on me as a head writer. Staying in touch with other writers and producers through Zoom or Skype, nudging projects ahead is the new reality. I’m working longer hours, dragging myself out of bed earlier to go on those Pac-Man walks and get a jump on the day. The temptation to lie in bed watching box sets is great, but I am saved by deadlines. Other writer friends with less immediate paid work are also avoiding lolling by writing that series they love but could not previously sell as a logline. I’m hopeful that will lead to some great, creative series out of left field in the future.
One of my development series, Fairytale Detective, a funny-quirky take on Hans Christian Andersen as a sleuth – Roald Dahl on steroids, rather than Danny Kaye on valium – was chosen for MIPTV’s 2020 development showcase in Cannes. Getting selected is, for any writer, a big deal, and may itself represent some years of unpaid work. But, of course, Cannes was canned.
Pushing the virtual pitch
Yet the MIPTV folk worked very hard to produce an online version of the event and I spent a couple of weeks turning a live pitch into a recorded online pitch and sizzle reel. The process reminded me of why I am a writer and not on an IT helpdesk, despite my mastery of the phrase “Have you tried turning it on and off again?”.
The results of the online pitch session, while not as effective as a big room full of distributors and broadcasters in Cannes watching me leap about, did result in read requests and interest from some distributors. All part of the emerging Brave New World, for a while at least.
Whether in a writers’ room or a pitch meeting, it is hard to engender the same creative buzz in a Zoom room as around a real table. Video calls stop being productive after an hour or two at the most, so individual writers have to dig into their own store of creativity Home Alone. Luckily most writers have been social distancing for years without anyone noticing.
Motivation while at home in lockdown is hard, whether you are a writer, producer or an exec. Be kind to yourself if it takes a bit longer than usual to get a draft to where it needs to be. But not too kind. We all need an occasional boot up the backside to stop wallowing in the Slough of Despond and to get a good work routine going. Such boots are much more effective when self-administered. To my fellow writers, I say: step away from the remote control and back to the laptop. To paraphrase Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross, Put that chocolate down. Chocolate is for closers only.