Wide Angle

It’s Actually a Great Time to Try to Sell a TV Show

How Hollywood is adapting to the pandemic.

A hand wearing a pink medical glove holds a script.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Agustin Vai/iStock/Getty Image Plus and Mendaliv/Wikipedia.

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On Thursday, March 12, the day Hollywood shut down, Tessa Blake was crammed in a van with seven colleagues driving around New York. Blake, a television director, was in the middle of her seven-day prep before shooting began on an episode of the CBS series Bull, and as she drove around town scouting locations, she watched her line producer spend the day on her phone digesting the new, worse information coming from the media, from her colleagues, and from her bosses. The reality of the coronavirus, Blake said, swept over the industry “like a tsunami,” and decisions were made very, very fast. “We flew the lead actor out for my episode on Thursday,” she recalled. “He got to New York at 8 at night, we got the call to cancel shooting from the line producer at 11:30, and they flew him back the next day.”

Now Blake, like everyone else in Hollywood, is sitting at home. Those who work in production, like Blake, are wondering when they’ll be able to do their jobs again. But in conversations this week, agents, writers, and scouts across the industry suggest that even amid the pandemic, the machinery of Hollywood deal-making churns on, generating new deals, new material, and new scripts, in anticipation of the day—in July? August? The fall?—when the starting gun fires and directors, actors, and below-the-line workers can get back on set. How that can be done safely, no one quite knows. In the meantime, though, “Business has even stepped up a little bit,” said one scout, “because this is the part of the business that still can happen.”

Recent deals have been led, unsurprisingly, by the streaming networks. “It’s who you think,” said an L.A. agent. “It’s Amazon, it’s Netflix, it’s Apple.” Hulu has been investing heavily in new material, with, according to multiple sources, three big book-to-film purchases in the past few weeks—including Zakiya Dalila Harris’ novel The Other Black Girl, which won’t be published until 2021. “That’s a big book,” said the scout, “and they snapped it up.” The market is active enough that even companies with stacked-up development slates, like HBO Max, are shopping, said one Hollywood literary agent. “They have FOMO, so they’re still taking Zoom pitches from writers.”

And, as the scout noted, even during a pandemic, “Writers still have takes.” Book submissions are up, several people in the book-to-film pipeline confirmed. “That first week everyone was working from home, we’re all in our pajamas, dazed, wandering from room to room,” said a development executive at a premium cable network. “But I still had a gigantic memo of agent submissions that Friday! I guess people are trying to justify their jobs.” MGM just bought Andy Weir’s new novel for seven figures. Currently, action is heating up on a big submission written by David Wright Falade and represented by Endeavor: Nigh-On a Brother, a Civil War drama about a biracial sergeant in an all-black regiment. “It’s being compared to Cormac McCarthy, but not as dark,” said the exec.

Agents are sending out their writers to Zoom-pitch, and even submitting screenplays rather than the traditionally easier-to-sell pitches. One Hollywood agent said he’d just sold a years-old script one of his writers took out of a drawer and polished up.  “I’m out with six different things from writers,” he added, “and I don’t normally go out with scripts because they’re so hard to sell, but right now people are reading and buying.” Another agent agreed, to a point: “People’s lives are complicated,” she said. Producers keep telling her “I have so much time to read!” and yet, when it comes down to it, “they’re not reading more quickly.” And who can blame them? She laughed as she mentioned her own reading pile and how she just ended up watching TV the night before. “For once I don’t feel bad about that.”

Complicated lives lead to complicated new work routines in a business built on personal relationships and the fabled power lunch. “I never thought I would say that I am dying to take an executive to lunch, but here I am,” one talent manager joked to an agent friend. The new era has yet to find an adequate substitute. “I had a lunch scheduled with an agent and his assistant said to my assistant, ‘Do they want to have a Zoom call instead?’ ” a senior executive at a premium cable network recalled. “And I was horrified. Internal department calls, sure. But I don’t want to have a Zoom lunch.” And while the pandemic has famously sent ordinary citizens back to their telephones, the coronavirus might be the one thing that can separate Hollywood deal-makers from theirs. “I mean, I am on the phone. I’m on the phone with you. But it’s all email now,” said an agent. His assistant is in her house, not manning his office phones, so the usual daily dance of running through a call list and knowing who’s waiting for him on the next line has been disrupted. “If I really want to talk to someone,” said the executive, “I email.”

No one knows when the next season of television will start filming, but it’s being written right now. “I was hired for a new job the day before the world shut down,” one experienced comedy writer said. “I’m going to work in my garage every day, in a writers’ room on Zoom with some people I have never met in person.” Another writer on a returning network drama has found that his writers’ room is benefiting, in some ways, from the quarantine, because his showrunners—usually so swamped with meetings and postproduction that they only have an hour or so to pop in—are spending five hours a day with their writers mapping out the new season. (The dark joke among writers is that now that networks have experienced the joy of not having to buy a bunch of writers snacks, they’ll never want to go back.)

On March 12, the CW’s Charmed was shooting Episode 20 in a 22-episode season. Showrunners Craig Shapiro and Liz Kruger then had to organize remote postproduction on the five episodes already in the can in a matter of days. “It was like planning D-Day with two days’ notice,” recalled Shapiro. “The logistics were extremely challenging.” Sound mixers worked from a small, unmanned studio; editors synced their computers up with Shapiro’s and Kruger’s. “All these people still have a job, and are getting paid for this job,” said Kruger.

The final three episodes will make up the first part of next season, which, Shapiro and Kruger said, is still scheduled to start shooting at the end of July. Universal and CBS, said one agent, are sticking to July shoot dates; a more cautious Warner Bros. suggests August. “It feels so impossible to predict,” Blake, the Bull director, said.

One thing’s for sure: When production finally begins, “it’s going to be a total CF,” said an agent. Leave aside the logjam as productions that were interrupted jockey with new shoots for studio space, below-the-line workers, equipment, and actors. Many networks and studios are still in arguments about how to pay for the production that was interrupted when everything shut down. According to multiple sources, the Directors Guild has told members they should be paid in full for unfinished episodes; needless to say, studios disagree. Warner Bros., sources said, is in dispute with the DGA for declaring their productions to have been halted by force majeure, a little-used clause in contracts covering, essentially, an act of God. “I’ve never had anyone invoke force majeure before,” one New York agent said excitedly. “We’re living through a force majeure!”

What will it look like when production finally resumes? TV and film sets are notoriously up-close-and-personal spaces. “When anyone gets a cold on a set, everyone else gets it immediately,” Blake pointed out. “How do you keep everyone safe?” It’s a question everyone in Hollywood is asking, and no one quite knows the answer. “Is it masks and gloves on everyone? Do you quarantine as a group?” asked Blake. “On episodic television, a new director arrives every episode, new actors arrive almost every day. Sometimes, we’re casting right before we fit people for wardrobe. We’d have to alter how we do things considerably.”

“Maybe we’ll reach a point where every day you’re tested as you step onto set,” suggested Craig Shapiro of Charmed. “If you’re cleared, you get to work.” One script supervisor expressed how dubious many of her fellow below-the-line workers are about what sets will look like once production resumes: Studios “will set the time, and the new ‘safety’ and health regulations that will be put in place,” she said bitterly. “We only shut down when we did because of actors. They don’t give a crap about us.” She speculated that studios will continue hiring younger, less experienced crew members, “who don’t know the rules as well and are less likely to complain.”

And when this is all over, what kinds of stories will viewers want to see? Several agents and executives suggested that buyers, currently anxious and holed up at home, are looking for escapism and comfort. “I have a couple of books that are post-apocalyptic, in a certain sense, due to climate change,” said one L.A. literary agent, “and I’ve completely pulled back on that, because it feels tricky.” The senior exec at a premium cable network suggested that stories about family felt particularly apt, “because we’re all sort of experiencing family in a different way now.”

There’s material floating around about the pandemic itself—a diary from Wuhan, China, serialized in the New York Times; David Quammen’s follow-up to Spillover, about epidemiologists fighting animal-to-human disease transmission; a book about the Trump coronavirus response from the Washington agents at Javelin—but no one seems interested in it yet. The premium cable executive had even heard that someone was shopping a Young Dr. Fauci story and said that for weeks now everyone she talks to has been asking, “Who’s playing Fauci?” “But not, like, in a real way,” she hastened to add.

And will there be any appetite for pandemic stories on the part of viewers? Everyone was dubious. “The television shows that do ripped-from-the headlines things—the Chicago shows, the Law and Order–type shows, they’ll do coronavirus,” said the comedy writer. “But bigger projects—once you’re out of it, do people want to go back to that time? I think it’s all going to be lighter fare. Because the world’s so dark. Like how we got I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched during Vietnam.”

What’s tricky about the prospect of acquiring any pandemic-related material, one development exec said, “is that we don’t know how it ends.” He considered for a moment. “I do think that someone like a Netflix will probably take a flier.”