How TV's Writers Rooms Keep Working Amid a Virus Crisis

A few days into the pandemic, Zoom emerged as the top app for harried screenwriters in the time of COVID-19.
John Hlavin
CBS All Access writing staff for 'The Man Who Fell to Earth.' From top left to right: Jane Maggs, John Hlavin, Jenny Lumet, Lauren Neal, John Lopez, Alex Kurtzman, Avi Ballo, Joe Testa

They're not much to look at — typically bland conference suites tucked away on studio lots or office parks. But in the TV world, there is no more sacred ground than the writers room. Inside is where the magic happens: a safe space where writing staffs convene to gossip, snack, argue and — if all goes according to plan — produce a season's worth of addictive television.

But all has not gone according to plan, to put it mildly. The sudden and dramatic onslaught of the COVID-19 epidemic has turned Hollywood writers rooms, like every other communal space, into potential breeding grounds for the coronavirus sweeping the planet. 

While studios have pulled the plug on the majority of shows in production — 60 greenlit pilots among them — work proceeds on a handful of series. Some broadcast, cable and streaming shows are already at work on next season — a move many studios did in an effort to better confront a potential writers strike. Others are working furiously to wrap up current seasons with the goal to hit the ground running whenever production does resume. All of them, however, do have one thing in common: their writing staffs have had to adapt swiftly to a new normal.

In the past week, as international travel restrictions were announced and social gatherings banned, Hollywood scribes turned to teleconferencing software like BlueJeans and Google Hangouts to conduct hastily rescheduled story meetings. A few days into the epidemic, Zoom emerged as the top app for writers in the time of COVID-19.

"We had to have CBS license Zoom because it works for free for 40 minutes and today’s session was from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.," says John Hlavin, co-showrunner of CBS All Access' The Man Who Fell to Earth.

The beauty of Zoom — which has been adopted by Sony and Warner Bros. as the teleconferencing software of choice — is that it allows writers to look at their scripts as they discuss them. (Warners, for example, sent all of its writers rooms Zoom sign-ups last week.)

"We started with Skype, which was fine," says Mike Royce, co-showrunner of Pop's One Day at a Time. "But Zoom was better for putting the script and people onscreen at the same time." 

Zoom also provides a workaround — albeit a clumsy one — for one of the key features of the writers room: the whiteboard, where plot points and character arcs are scribbled, erased and obsessively rearranged until the season gels into place.

"Normally, you streamline your ideas on the whiteboard or you’ll put up index cards," Hlavin explains. "But that’s a little trickier on the app. You have a blank page where you type on it and everyone can see it." The remoteness has its drawbacks. "It just isn’t the same as being together and reading peoples’ faces to see if an idea is landing or not," he says.

Julie Plec, creator of Netflix's The Girls on the Bus and The CW's Legacies, has already adjusted to using virtual whiteboards with Miro.com: "It's soothing watching cards move around and writers sliding them around with a point and click," she says. "And I thought it was a big deal when we changed from index to magnetic cards!"

The staff of Man Who Fell to Earth, which includes veterans Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman, were among the lucky ones. Amid a flurry of scrapped episodes and shuttered productions, their sci-fi series — which was set to start shooting at the end of 2020 — was told by CBS TV Studios to proceed with scripting.

The 10-episode, straight-to-series order was about halfway through its writing process, headquartered at Kurtzman's Santa Monica-based production company, Secret Hideout. Those meetings now take place in a Zoom window.

"It takes about 10 or 15 minutes to get past the weirdness of the fact that you're all in these little screens," Hlavin says of the marathon sessions, which include six writers and two writers assistants. "And four of us on the call have kids at home, which takes a little management — but beyond that, conversationally, it’s not that hard."

Still, a screen with 10 to 13 writers can be overwhelming for anyone. Multiple staffs are also splitting into mini-rooms, with senior-level exec producers doing Zoom sessions as lower-level members working offline on script punch-ups or other room duties. Some showrunners are also scheduling one-on-one Zoom sessions with members of the staff in an effort to ensure everyone is getting the time and support they need.

The staff of One Day at a Time is hard at work putting finishing touches on its 13-episode fourth season, the first on Pop since Netflix, its original home, canceled the series in 2019. Six episodes of the multicamera comedy have shot already, the first of which premieres March 24. The fate of everything beyond those six remains in the air. The series recently filmed its last produced episode without its typical live studio audience. 

"The plan so far as we know is to deliver what we can deliver and hopefully start up again when it's safe — but timing is ... one day at a time," says Royce. "We have all the drafts written and now we're revising drafts of the last three or four episodes." 

One Day at a Time is one of several shows waiting to hear what could become of the remainder of their seasons. Many broadcast shows that have been shut down — like Plec's Legacies — are considered unlikely to resume production on those few remaining episodes. Those unproduced scripts could also wind up being incorporated in scripts for next season — which is among the questions rooms that are lucky enough to be up and running can address now. 

Ask writers what element they miss most about being together and the answer is inevitably the camaraderie. "In a writers room you can have a lot of fun tangents and breakdowns where you're discussing anything but the script — which is half the fun sometimes," says Royce, whose credits also include Everybody Loves Raymond. "With teleconference, you feel like you're wasting time if you talk about something else. It's good in terms of efficiency but less fun in a comedy way."

One Day meetings now kick off with everyone relaying "whatever crazy thing happened that day and whatever each of us is going through," he says. "History is changing before our eyes so there's a lot to discuss upfront before we start."

There are advantages — dreary commutes from Studio City to Santa Monica are now just the few steps from kitchen to home office — but certain rituals and creature comforts of the writers room are proving hard to replace: the 3 p.m. Starbucks runs, the communal candy stashes, the rubber band projectiles.

"There’s so many funny room bits that make the long hours of production worth it," says Adam F. Goldberg, creator of ABC's The Goldbergs and its spinoff Schooled. "I also miss the free Bay Cities subs."

Despite the occasional technical hiccups — "bad internet connections, sound and image distortion" — Plec says the transition to teleconferencing has been a source of comfort to her in our quarantined world. "Being able to see each other as a group in these cool Brady Bunch squares on the screen makes you feel connected in a way that being on the phone never could," she says.

Watching this forced experiment with keen interest are studio bean counters, who could see potential savings in doing away with writers rooms or reducing the number of days the full staff comes in. Says one studio executive, "Rooms are $30,000 a month to keep going for rent. Google Hangout is like $25. I assume most writers will say the product will be worse with virtual rooms. But if someone says it went well — that could be a game changer.” 

Royce doesn't entirely disagree. "I definitely could see a future in which we work four days from the office and teleconference the other. We have people who commute from Glendale to Culver City, and that's a shit-ton of traffic. If there's some way to incorporate remote work into our regular work, it will save everyone time and money and save the environment as well," he says.

As for Hlavin, he can barely see past August, when the final scripts for Man Who Fell to Earth are supposed to be delivered. "All of us got shaken up badly by this," he says of the global pandemic. "So we'll finish in August and hopefully start production before the end of the year. That was our plan — and as far as I know, it still is, pending where the world is."