How I'm Living Now: Gary Levine, Showtime Networks' President of Entertainment

Gary Levine- Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Subject

Levine, who is also the cantor at his synagogue, has been busy Zooming both his notes sessions and his Saturday prayers.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's top writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

As president of entertainment for Showtime Networks, Gary Levine has been riding out the pandemic from his home in Los Angeles. When he isn't reading scripts and watching cuts of the Showtime series that banked episodes pre-shutdown, he's kept busy cooking with his child psychologist wife and, as a cantor on the side, leading his congregation over Zoom. He spoke to THR about his new, if temporary, normal. 

Let’s start easy: How are you doing? 

I'm going a little crazy, like everybody, but given the fact that my family and I have our health, we still have our jobs, we've got a nice place to live, I count myself among the very lucky.

What does your day look like now?

Well, it's remarkable how busy we have stayed. There's still a ton of writing going on — all of our writers rooms are working remotely, but working. So, we've been receiving lots of material on our ongoing series and having note sessions, some by phone, some by Zoom. We're also busy editing the episodes that we managed to shoot before the shutdown in mid-March — and remarkably, through herculean efforts on the part of editors and sound mixers and special effects people and especially our producers, we managed to do what normally happens in crowded post facilities remotely. And now there's also the extra element of touching base with colleagues over Zoom — the things that naturally happened by the coffee machine, we're now having to schedule, so what was once informal is now a little more formal. Between all of that plus the development, it's definitely keeping me out of trouble.

You mentioned development, which presumably means you're on the receiving end of virtual pitches. I've heard from plenty of writers about the perks and challenges of pitching their babies over Zoom, but I've not yet heard from the other side.

It's not perfect, but it can be effective. I had the experience this morning of hearing a comedy pitch, and there's always a little extra pressure in a comedy pitch when the writer is pitching jokes and looking for reactions. Normally, in a room, you can kind of see when you're being looked to for that kind of reaction. But in Zoom, you're just on display for the entire time. So, I felt very sensitive to the writer's need for a response. (Laughs.) I do think it can work, but we've definitely slowed down the pitching process substantially. We're still reading spec scripts, but there's far less pitching than is the norm.

I assume until there's a return date, there's only so much new product that you actually want and need?

Yes, it's hard to imagine putting another jet on the tarmac when you're not sure when the runway is going to open again.

Do you foresee any of these pandemic habits carrying over into a post-pandemic world?

It's a good question. We tend to do a lot of our notes sessions in conference calls since people are in different states and we have production all over the globe. And now we've started doing more Zoom and FaceTime note sessions because we're just in that groove and, I have to say, it's nice to be face to face when you're talking about delicate, nuanced, sensitive matters. So, I do think there will be more video chatting with our writers and our artists going forward.

Are virtual writers room the future?

No. I think the writers are definitely hampered by the lack of a room. They're doing a great job, but there's an energy when you're sitting around a table together — when you're quarantined, if you will, together. It just creates a certain alchemy that they're approximating in these circumstances, but I don't think anyone is going to want to stick with that.

Sure, particularly with comedies. I'm curious how you're thinking about and discussing with your writers the role that the pandemic and its aftermath will play in the series themselves — at least those that are grounded in reality.

Listen, we are having lots of discussions about it. The lucky few who are doing period shows are not having to deal with it at all, but our view at the moment, particularly with the shows that were already underway, is this: Step one, let's finish the writing and realize the stories and the character arcs as fully and richly as we can, then let's go back, and now, in a post-COVID world onscreen, ask what changes, if anything, and that will be step two. And step three, in a post-COVID world, what must change in terms of production limitations, and those are still being formulated right now.

Gone are crowd scenes, I imagine.

I feel like in a premium cable universe, where there's a certain level of quality, scale and authenticity that people expect from our shows, how do you limit locations? How do you avoid crowd scenes? How do you avoid physical intimacy? There are a million issues in terms of what is scripted, and then separate and apart from that, there's what's going to have to go on behind the scenes to actually get us back in business. I will say there's been incredible cooperation among the different productions and different networks and studios. Everyone wants to get this right, and they want to do it as quickly but, more importantly, as safely as possible.

What have you learned about yourself in this period?

I've learned that I can pray and play piano at the same time. I'll explain. I am the cantor at my synagogue. So, every Saturday, I go there and wail away under normal circumstances, accompanied by some really wonderful musicians. Well, in a Zoom universe, where you can't be in sync with other musicians or other singers, I've got to fend for myself. I had to learn how to play all of the prayers on the piano so that I could accompany myself and then still hopefully chant with as much spirituality and meaning and passion as I normally do while I'm still figuring out if it's A flat or A sharp. (Laughs.) It's been an interesting process but I'm really enjoying it and I think having the congregation get together to Zoom on Saturdays is really a welcomed break from the isolation.

I can imagine. What’s been the easiest and hardest adjustment in all of this for you?
The hardest thing is that we have two grown daughters who are back east in Brooklyn. Aside from worrying about them being in the epicenter, it's just that feeling of … we always deal with the distance, we do a lot of FaceTime and now we're Zooming occasionally, but that feeling that you are barred from seeing them is different from, "OK, it's going to be a little while before you see them next," and that's definitely a weight we are bearing.

Sure. And how about the easiest?

The cooking. And we're a cooking up a storm. We have not had a single takeout meal in eight weeks. We're like earth mother and father homebodies where we're cooking every meal. And because my wife and I both work so many hours — she's a child psychologist — our normal lives are takeout lives, so we've just gone 180 degrees the other way and it's really kind of wonderful. We're making up for all of the takeout that we've done over the years. And it's fun to play with different recipes — my wife follows recipes, I don't, but we're each trying new things in our own way. And it's just proven to be enormously satisfying. And thankfully it coincides with wearing nothing but sweatpants all day because my waist is definitely expanding.

Being a child psychologist during these times must be fascinating — I say this as the mother of young kids who isn't certain how much kids should and do know about what's happening in the world around them.

It's very interesting. One of the funny things that she said was that in an interesting way, the more anxious her clients are as a rule, the more comfortable they are in some ways in this anxiety-producing pandemic — it plays to their strengths, whereas for the rest of us, we have to develop those muscles. (Laughs.)

What has been the most challenging decision you've had to make since this whole thing started?

The first challenging decision was to shut down [production]. The drums were beating gently but inexorably and we all felt that, obviously, we wanted to get as much shot as we could but we also didn't want to put anyone in any danger. Once we decided to shut it down, everybody shut down in pretty short order and there was real relief and clarity once that decision was made. And at the same time, [shutting down] the office. We were supposed to take a practice day of working from home on that Friday, and the day before, word went out, "It's not practice, we're working from home — and we're doing it indefinitely." I think that was the first one. And then we had to get everyone home — we had people we had to get out of Hungary and all different places. And now, it's facing the when and how to get back.

I imagine that'll happen in unison, too.

Well, there are no freelancers here. It's going to be based upon science, government regulations, guilds, studios and networks, so it's going to have to be a cooperative effort and a joint decision.

Showtime fare aside, what are you watching, reading or listening to as a reprieve?

We watched Fauda season three; we watch the Hillary doc series; we like Killing Eve; and I think Trevor Noah is doing a really nice job of making this all somehow palatable. I did have to watch the last few episodes of Homeland as a civilian, having seen them many times along the way — watching that thing come in for a landing as elegantly as it did was really a joy. I'm also enjoying the innovative artistry in this Zoom universe. The Met Opera [at-home] gala was really great — you put a conductor in the middle box and you've got some 50 musicians in boxes and they're each playing their part and somehow it's all coming together as this beautiful whole? I don't know how they did it. Similarly, I thought the Sondheim 90th birthday was really well done. And I just watched Richard Nelson's play, What Do We Need to Talk About?, which is fantastic. It's a really clever use of Zoom in a COVID-19 world with five great characters and beautiful writing.  
Who or what have become your go-to news source during this period?

The two poles are you get a little Cuomo in the morning and a little Trump in the afternoon, and that basically spans the spectrum of leadership. (Laughs.)

Is there a cause that's become particularly important to you in these times?

The food banks. We all walk and drive by homeless people in the best of times, and giving to food banks has always been our way of coping with that — and we've definitely stepped that up in these times. Also, I started out working in nonprofit theater and I ran the Williamstown Theater Festival for years and I'm still on the board and so I'm strategizing with them. They've canceled the season for this summer, and I love theater and the whole issue of when will hundreds of people ever be able to sit together again to experience live theater is a real issue for me, and I've been grappling with that at Williamstown, just as every theater in the country is grappling with it. That will also be a very complicated road back to what I hope someday will be normalcy.

Final question: What’s moved to the top of your to-do list once this is all over?

I will fly to New York and hug my daughters until they're sick of me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.