Over five popular seasons, the story lines of “Better Call Saul” have unfolded across nail salons, fried-chicken joints and other strip-mall staples of American life.
When new episodes begin premiering next year, though, the locations that give the “Breaking Bad” spinoff its texture could be reined in or done away with altogether. The culprit? The novel coronavirus, which is limiting where the AMC show can film, potentially altering both its style and substance.
“Like a lot of other people, we’re going to have to be very creative in where and how we shoot,” said Mark Johnson, the veteran producer who oversees the Vince Gilligan hit, whose writers just began collaborating on the series’ sixth season. “A lot of places just won’t let you in.”
Across the entertainment industry, casts and crew are starting to return to work after a five-month hiatus. In states with loosened restrictions, including Georgia, New York and “Better Call Saul” locale New Mexico, production has cranked up under tight controls that have altered how sets operate. Instead of crew members mingling as they once did, they’ve been divided into “pods” that limit which production departments can associate; lighting may not consort with sound, for example. COVID-19 officers monitor the health of cast and crew to determine who is allowed on set. “Zones” have been set up on a set, with cast and crew given access only if it is deemed absolutely necessary.
These changes might seem technical, but they hint at the far-reaching effects the coronavirus will have on the final product. Interviews with 12 executives, writers, agents and producers across the Hollywood spectrum suggest a dramatically transformed world of screen entertainment. Until a vaccine comes along, the coronavirus will change what Americans watch as dramatically as it has where they work, shop and learn. Forget the new normal — movies and TV are about to encounter the new austerity.
Crowd scenes are a no-go. Real-world locations will be limited. On-screen romance will be less common, sometimes restricted to actors who have off-screen relationships. And independent films — that tantalizing side dish in the U.S. entertainment meal — could be heavily scaled back.
“A lot of people believe this is just about getting back to work,” said Mark Gill, a producer and former head of Warner Independent Pictures, the studio unit responsible for independent hits such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” “They don’t realize the massive cultural impact we’re about to face.”
For most of its history, Hollywood created entertainment based on a simple premise: Shuttle in large numbers of people and move them around at will. That’s true of crews, of course. But it especially applies to extras, low-paid day laborers who pack sets and off-camera “holding” areas, in turn lending the work its real-world atmosphere via dense crowd scenes.
Such scenes have been part of some of the most memorable moments in Hollywood history. From “Ben-Hur” to “Braveheart,” on-screen entertainment has become indelible thanks to hundreds of people you’ve never heard of packing tiny spaces, then moving as one when the cameras roll.
Yet because of the virus, these hires are suddenly impossible. Many don’t want to risk their health for a $100 paycheck and shot at background glory, and producers don’t want to take on the liability even if they did. “Braveheart,” for instance, used some 1,600 extras, many from the Irish Army reserves; industry experts say the movie could certainly have not been that way today.
“Those of us in the entertainment business are not used to being told ‘no,’ ” said Lucas Foster, a longtime Hollywood producer who counts the 2005 romantic-action hit “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and last year’s Oscar-decorated blockbuster “Ford v Ferrari” among his credits. “And when it comes to things like crowds, there’s going to be a lot of ‘no.’ “
Foster understands the challenges personally — he’s one of the first producers to have made a movie in the age of COVID-19.
In March, the Los Angeles resident was in Australia, several weeks into preproduction on a new version of “Children of the Corn” when the pandemic began to spread. Millions of dollars had already been committed to the movie, adapted from the same Stephen King story that yielded the 1984 cult hit movie. So rather than shut down, he decided to proceed — cautiously. Foster created a production “bubble,” consulted doctors regularly, procured large amounts of tests, and engaged in elaborate workarounds in realms like crowd scenes.
He said it worked, but only with major accommodations.
“I had to figure out how to do a crowd with no more than a few people at the same time. And with very specific camera angles. And by taking actors who would normally be close together and making them not close together,” Foster said. “In the end, I’d get the scene I needed but it looked different than it would have before the pandemic.” (Computer-generated crowds, he and other producers say, only work for distant shots; anything requiring close-ups needs the real thing.)
It helped, he noted, that many of his actors were children, who are believed less susceptible to the effects of the virus, and that much of the movie was shot in cornfields and other vast outdoor spaces, a luxury not all films have.
The added cost required to implement all the safeguards, some producers say, could also result in a lower quality finished product. Films and TV shows achieve their level of shine through an endless period of refinement, as actors and directors frequently attempt 10 or more takes of a scene. With everything going longer — and thus costing more — during the time of COVID-19, they may not have the luxury.
One producer of multiple studio hits said he expects the number of takes to drop significantly as budgets balloon for virus-related reasons. He also expected a diminution in night scenes, which tend to be more involved and expensive than day scenes. He said some productions will be able to make the switch, but not all will be as lucky.
Also unlucky, Hollywood insiders say: movies where characters seek to get lucky. Many veterans say romantic scenes will be a major challenge in movies. Two agents separately reported they had high-profile clients who have told them they wouldn’t shoot love scenes during the pandemic.
“I think every agency right now is looking down their client list to see which actors have spouses who are also actors, because then we could try to get them cast, too,” said one of the agents, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by their company to speak to the news media. “I’m joking. Sort of.”
The added wrinkle is even if the actors trust each other in real life, many of their characters would still have to take precautions on screen.
“How do you send two characters on a first dinner date when people aren’t really going on first dinner dates?” said a veteran creator of romantic comedies who asked not to be identified because they did not want to be seen as criticizing colleagues who are attempting new projects. “You can send them on a socially distant walk, I guess.”
Writers say that leads to a broader dilemma: how much to incorporate the pandemic into their stories in the first place. On one hand, they say, they don’t want to pretend the virus doesn’t exist. But acknowledging it poses its own challenges.
“Do you really want your stars wearing masks because that’s what characters would do? Do you want to have people engaging with each other in groups no larger than six? Do you want to write stories where everyone is at a safe distance?” said Mark Heyman, the co-writer of “Black Swan” and “The Skeleton Twins” and creator of the CBS All-Access historical drama “Strange Angel.” “Because a lot of those things won’t be very much fun to watch.”
Yet if creators don’t want to do that, he said, it could mean those shows or movies would get shelved for fear of audiences judging them inauthentic.
Heyman was working on a series set in a high school for Netflix when the lockdowns began. That’s now been put on pause. “It’s not easy to make a show about high school,” he said, “when there is no high school.”
To avoid reminding viewers of the pandemic, creators may take an approach that will lead to an unusual trend.
“I think over the next few years you’re going to see a lot more movies set in the past,” Foster said. “Even movies written for the present will be changed. They’ll make it the ’90s because then you don’t have to deal with these questions. And then you can just put in some cool ’90s music, so everybody wins.”
A few creators have gone the other way, leaning in to the pandemic.
Writers on Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show,” set at a news program, have torn up existing scripts to make the pandemic a part of the story line, according to a person familiar with the show who was not authorized to speak about it publicly. But with a lag time of months between shooting and airing, creators risk looking out of date by the time episodes release to the public. A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment.
Horror filmmakers have also tried to embrace current events, sensing an opportunity.
“The horror genre is very suited to the pandemic and lockdowns — we’re always trying to create a feeling of being trapped, anyway,” said the horror filmmaker Nathan Crooker.
When quarantines hit this spring, Crooker gathered nine noted horror filmmakers and had them shoot an anthology film — short fictional movies connected by a larger virus theme — and titled it “Isolation.” He required filmmakers to use only the materials and people they were in lockdown with, even prohibiting Zoom and other technologies.
“I think we’re going to get a very cool effect that mirrors what people are going through,” Crooker said of his work. “But I don’t know that every movie that gets made would want to look like that.”
One consequence of the virus could turn out to be the movies that don’t get made at all.
Some of the most beloved films of the past two decades, including “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Whiplash,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Fruitvale Station,” were independently financed. But before rolling cameras, such productions require insurance policies to protect them from workplace lawsuits, as well as completion bonds, in which a guarantor assures they will step in with funds to finish the movie if production is halted.
Experts say no company will cover COVID-19 with either policy, effectively preventing production.
“COVID is an absolute disaster for the independent-film industry,” said Sky Moore, a partner in the corporate entertainment department of the Los Angeles law firm Greenberg Glusker who has spent several decades putting together film financing deals. “The lifeblood of independent-film financing is loans, and loans need insurance. Now you have this massive hole in the middle of all of it.”
Moore believes the toll will be vast.
“I think 50% of the independent industry goes away,” he said.
(Movies financed by large studios do not buy these policies; Netflix or Disney would just absorb a shutdown or lawsuit as the cost of doing business.)
Even if they can work around the insurance issues, many independent films won’t get made because they simply won’t have the money. “It’s already hard to get funding for a lot of these movies,” said Shaun MacGillivray, a producer who makes large-scale independent documentaries. “And now you’re telling investors the budget is going to be 30% higher?”
The independent-film world is trying to push ahead, slowly. The Sundance Film Festival, the epicenter of the indie-film business, where companies like Hulu and Netflix sometimes pay more than $10 million for an independently financed movie, will hold a partially physical, partially virtual edition in January, albeit at just about half the length.
“We are reminded daily of the power of what is made newly visible to us, the importance of what we look at,” Tabitha Jackson, the director of the festival, said in a letter to staff this summer explaining why the festival needed to go on. “My hope for this edition of the Sundance Film Festival is that through a multiplicity of perspectives held by artists and audiences in their various communities we will also come to feel the power of where we look from.” Left unspoken: What happens in 2022, when the well runs dry because new movies can’t be insured and produced?
Whatever entertainment can get made, experts say, will have a more hermetic look. Even television shows, once shot exclusively on a set, now often rely heavily on the authenticity of locations; a “Law & Order” episode feels like it does because detectives are popping into pizza places and apartment buildings.
“We don’t want everything to be a chamber piece,” said Johnson, the “Better Call Saul” executive producer. “But if many shows look different, I think that’s OK, because the world looks different.”
Then, considering the challenge further, he added, “And if that doesn’t work, then at least our show has a lot of deserts and open roads.”