Bonnie Hammer: COVID-19 Is A Global Story. How Will We Tell It? (Guest Column)

Bonnie Hammer and her two children, Kimae Heussner and Jesse Heussner - Publicity - H 2020
Kate T. Parker

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been using my time in quarantine to address one of my biggest failures as a mother: My son, Jesse, had never seen the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica

In addition to being one of the best and most consequential science-fiction TV series of the past two decades, Battlestar Galactica was one of the first shows I greenlit as president of the Syfy channel in the early 2000s. The show tells the story of a small group of humans who, after surviving a deadly attack that devastated their home worlds, search for “Earth” aboard a fleet of starships.

And while the show served as a powerful commentary on our world after the attacks of 9/11, its questions and themes are more relevant than ever as our society faces this global pandemic.

The show asked whether humanity could stand united against an existential threat. It asked whether we could accept the true cost of total war. The world of Battlestar Galactica was one in which it was impossible to know who walking among you could become the instrument of your doom.

But Battlestar Galactica is more than just a parable for what’s happening now. It’s also a prophecy for what will come next.

For as long as humanity has had the capacity, we’ve used art to make sense of tragedy and crisis. While the plague ravaged London, Shakespeare wrote the poem Venus and Adonis. From the horrors of the Spanish Flu pandemic came Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and out of the Great Depression came a wave of grounded, family-driven, populist stories that championed poor, working class heroes such as those in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. After the dawning of the nuclear age, Japanese writers penned a screenplay about a city-leveling monster named Godzilla. The musical Hair was created in a reaction to the Vietnam War and Angels in America to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  

However the stories manifest, fiction often reveals more about who we are and what we’ve been through than even the most rigorous documentary or visceral news report. Fiction itself is a facade: by providing the illusion of distance between the audience and a given story, viewers paradoxically engage deeper with important themes and are more prone to (often unwitting) introspection.

After all, fiction invites us all to take a leap of faith. And once we’ve taken that first leap, we are usually much more willing to take another — into a perspective we didn’t think we could share or a situation we otherwise would not have been able to recognize.

Just as Battlestar did in the early 2000s, and as art has done throughout history, the next generation of great movies and TV series will tell the story of our current crisis. 

But we don’t yet know what that story will be, or even how, exactly, it will be told.

Will the story of COVID-19 be one of unity or division? Will we remember ourselves as the people who sung from the balconies or as those who retreated in fear to social and political bubbles?

Will COVID-19 be remembered — to borrow Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s phrase — as the great equalizer? Or will it be remembered as a crisis that both revealed and widened the inequality that exists in America and the world? 

Will the technology we deploy in this moment help save us, through location tracking and data gathering? Or will it control us, through those very same methods?

Will this moment be remembered for how we fought against a raging virus? Or for how one disease further exposed another — hate. 

Will this crisis teach us gratitude or selfishness? Will it ultimately engender division or unity? Love or hate? Peace or violence? Once it has passed, will we turn inward or outward? When we look back, what stories will we tell?

In one sense, we already know the answer. This global pandemic hasn’t been experienced once but billions of times. We will tell all the stories — the ones that are as small as a strand of RNA, and as large as all of humanity.

We’ll share the stories of people who fell in love through words on webcams, and of those who fell out of love as sheltering became so suffocating.

We’ll watch movies about the heroic actions of our medical professionals, and about the inaction that made that heroism necessary.

We’ll hear about the passion and courage of those who marched together peacefully to bridge our society’s racial divide and about the callousness and opportunism of those who exploited a tragedy to advance their own agenda.

We’ll write about the countries that were willing to halt everything to protect society’s most vulnerable, and about those that were unwilling to halt anything to protect against the human cost of a broken economy.

This is a Rashomon tale and will be told as such.

Earlier this spring, in a letter to students at Syracuse University, author George Saunders wrote, “We are (and especially you are) the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this.” That’s what stories do.

And they will do that in new ways, using new techniques — some we’ve already begun to see, and some we can’t yet imagine.  

It’s possible that one of the slim silver linings to be found in this daunting moment is that it will allow us to do what our industry has needed to do for some time: democratize content creation.

If we hope to usher in this next era of storytelling we’ll need to listen, to reach beyond our own experiences and our own conceptions of what constitutes entertainment, and to make space for new perspectives in writers’ rooms, dressing rooms and boardrooms.

If we can do this, we can emerge from this crisis not only with iconic stories, but also an emergent new generation of voices, ready to capture the imagination of audiences around the world.

Of course, in this moment, the most important job belongs not only to those trying to broadcast the story of our era but to those who write it. The actions we take or fail to take right now will define the story of our time. And when the world is able to move beyond recovering and grieving, it will start watching.

To borrow a phrase from my son’s new favorite TV series, “So say we all.”

Bonnie Hammer is the chairman of Universal Studio Group.