When film and scripted television production was shuttered by the global pandemic, Hollywood didn't panic (well, maybe just a little).
Showrunners, writers and producers pivoted quickly to Zoom, the popular teleconferencing app whose checkered grid of screens recalls The Brady Bunch and Hollywood Squares.
For the past two months, writing staffs have broken storylines and plotted out scripts without ever having to sit side-by-side in the same room.
And while Zoom's technical glitches are legion – from its much-publicized privacy issues to the frustration of people talking over each other – a cross-section of TV creatives reveals that the app has, more often than not, brought people closer together even as it keeps them apart.
"Right now people are particularly grateful for the chance to see other people; it gives them a little structure and contact to have an interview during the day," says showrunner Elizabeth Berger.
Berger and co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker, who also serve as co-showrunners and executive producers on This Is Us, created the Hulu series Love, Victor, which debuts June 19th. The show is inspired by Love, Simon, a feature film that Berger and Aptaker co-wrote in 2018.
When the lockdown hit, the showrunners found it easy to hire three new writers via Zoom interviews. In preparation for the start of a virtual writers' room,
Aptaker and Berger were gifted by the studio with a software program – Writers Room Pro – which emulates the white board and index cards normally used in a production office and allows the writers to work off the same script and make edits in real-time, while on Zoom.
"The pros of Zoom are that there's no commute; you just roll in and start working," says Aptaker. "But we found on these bigger conference calls, when there's 30 people on-screen and everyone's head is shrunk down to an inch by an inch, it's hard to stay present and focused."
And delays, as Aptaker says, "can be maddening," due to the variance in people's home internet speed.
For that reason, Aptaker and Berger came up with a plan to break the writers into smaller groups.
"We'll be assigning a particular story to 3-4 writers, then have them go off to work in a separate video chat, before presenting to a larger group," he says. "We think that will keep people focused and making the personal connection you really need."
After the first week of work in the writers' room had been completed, Berger wrote in an email: "We're making sure that we take extended breaks every two hours so that people have time to move their bodies, rest their eyes and recharge their brains.
"Zoom definitely cuts down on some of the fun of the room; there's less small talk, less debate about what's for lunch, and less people going off on tangents about the annoying thing their spouse or roommate did the night before.
"But we're hopeful we'll get there. Later this week we'll have a little virtual happy hour and hopefully get even more used to communicating with each other in this format. And nobody will have to worry about Uber'ing home, so at least there's that."
Sitcom writer Nancy Cohen (Alexa and Katie) has discovered that pitching ideas from the comfort of home offers a distinct advantage to the anxiety of a real-world office pitch.
"I can put my notes right beneath the camera, under my laptop – it's like having a teleprompter," she says. "Instead of being in a room and having to look down and up, down and up, between my notes and the person I'm pitching to, I can look straight at them."
Executive producer Veena Sud (The Killing) was fortunate to have just wrapped production on The Stranger, a short-form mobile series she created for Quibi, before Hollywood shut down. Since then, Sud has adapted to a remote world of pitches and general meetings.
"It's all become Zoomland at this point," she says. Like Cohen, she appreciates the laser-focus of remote pitching: "Because we are all close up; there's no ringing phone, no assistant walking in to distract you… everyone is there for a purpose and they've blocked off that time."
Sud observes that Zoom meetings do tend to dispense with the usual Hollywood chitchat that normally eases people into a real-world office meeting. "You're in a situation that requires immediate business," she says.
"Because what's happening in the world right now is so enormous, you can't small talk it… it's a pretty tough thing to chit-chat about in five minutes and then be done with it.
"We're all saying, 'How's your family, what'd you have for breakfast, are you baking bread?' – and that's all we can talk about. If this continues to be a way of life for us – we will evolve rituals for how we do this."
Part of the fun of Zoom calls is the intimacy of seeing how co-workers and bosses choose to present themselves in their home environments, which often include surprise cameo appearances by crying kids and hungry pets.
"There's definitely something surreal with pitching on Zoom to a celeb you've grown up with, whom you've never met in real life, and all of a sudden their 5–year-old comes in and toasts a waffle," says Aptaker.
Sud, whose log house is always a topic of interest for callers, says, "There's no escaping who you are when people see your house on a Zoom." She favors her kitchen/TV/dining area: "It's an open area; I'm on the island and I can have my snacks."
Cohen says, "I write in bed on a laptop. I prop up the computer on two firm pillows. My background is the paintings behind me on the wall. I've had people compliment the paintings."
Berger says, "We're going easy on everyone as we hope they're going on us… since I don't actually have a home office, you'll see me pop up in lots of odd places at our house." That said, Zoom etiquette comes with a few "don'ts" to avoid.
"You can sit on your bed – but move the camera so we can't see the bed," advises Aptaker. It shouldn't need to be said, but Aptaker also reminds writers to be sure "to remove any dirty laundry."
Writer-producer Chris Brancato (Narcos) once made the mistake of going for a swim and forgetting to put on a shirt for his Zoom call. "Wear a T-shirt or otherwise your writers may think you're completely naked," he advises.
And Erin Wagoner, who writes on the Fox show Bless the Harts, observes that, "If you're going to eat on camera – be sure to mute yourself."
If pitching and general meetings are pretty straightforward on Zoom, supervising a writers' room is more complicated.
Brancato – who also created the crime-drama series The Godfather of Harlem for EPIX – finds that, "Zoom is far less efficient in terms of generating material compared to when we're all together; there's something about the synergy of being together in a room that's hard to replace."
Before the pandemic hit, Brancato had been planning on moving his staff to New York for the upcoming season, and faced the pressure of a May 25th production start date; now everyone's hunkered down in L.A., start date unknown.
Brancato limits Zoom calls with his 8-person writing staff to two hours because, "it's not practical to sit on a Zoom call for 6-7 hours a day."
"Most of my writers have children; the work days are shorter; they're dealing with a lot of stuff, as am I."
Like Aptaker and Berger, Brancato finds Zoom most efficient with fewer people on the call; he's taken to splitting his staff into groups of two and three. "There's something about a smaller group being focused on a particular story issue that allows things to move faster."
For comedy writers, who thrive working by committee in large boisterous groups, Zoom can be a buzz-kill.
A writer on a network series, who wished to remain anonymous, says, "A lot of comedy thrives on the big-room dynamic, feeding off each other and building on each other's jokes and laughter; but when you get 12 people on a call, the call just freezes."
She continues, "Shouting out jokes is more awkward… if multiple people try to pitch a joke at the same time, you can't tell who's talking… there's a lag that halts the momentum."
While nonetheless grateful to be working, she says the showrunners have also adjusted working hours. "They're sensitive to the fact that burnout is easier on Zoom… you have to work harder to focus on this tiny little box in front of you."
If there's one genre perfectly set up for off-site development, it's animation. Marci Proietto, Executive Vice President of Animation, 20th Century Fox Television, says, "Animation is uniquely positioned because animators don't need to be in the same room with people; we draw everything."
For Proietto, who oversees shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy and Duncanville, logistics included sending writers, artists, animatics editors and graphic designers home with Avids, scanners, graphic art stations and whatever else they needed.
"It took two weeks to get everyone set up," Proietto says, "and everyone's working at 100% capacity."
For Mike and Julie Scully, the husband-and-wife producing team who run Duncanville, the biggest challenge is audio. With actors unable to access the comfort of a soundproof studio, the producers sent out what Julie describes as a "home recording studio in a box."
Nevertheless, actors still have had to improvise their own fixes, such as resorting to recording from inside a closet with a blanket over their head to prevent sound echoes off windows.
"A lot is going on under that blanket," says Mike. "They're watching clips from the show on a computer and viewing a script on an iPad while we're talking to them."
"No one," quips Julie, "grew up thinking 'I want to be a recording engineer.'"
The best thing about Zoom, according to the Scullys? "The commute." The worst? "The lack of spontaneity and digression that can lead to great comedy."
Duncanville fans were able to see some behind-scenes magic when Fox arranged a YouTube table read of the show's pilot, which raised money for the charity Feeding America.
The entire cast assembled on Zoom, accompanied by their character avatars. For the first time, viewers could see the faces behind the voices and enjoy, for example, the shifting expressions of co-creator and star Amy Poehler as she toggled back and forth between the voices of 15-year-old Duncan Harris and his mother Annie.
If animation has proven ideally suited to ride out the lockdown, so too have studio-based news, talent and sports shows, where viewers have become accustomed to seeing everyone from reality show contestants and judges to cable news anchors broadcasting from their homes.
Becky Brooks and Ryan Kadro, respectively the Head of Lifestyle and Head of News for Quibi's Daily Essentials (bite-sized segments created in partnership with networks like ESPN, NBC and TMZ ) had worked for months to design studio sets for their shows, in preparation for Quibi's April launch.
All of that work had to be temporarily shelved in mid-March.
Over the course of two frenetic weeks, the NYC-based Brooks and the LA-based Kadro outfitted hosts, editors and graphic artists with all the equipment they needed to produce their shows from home. "Our hosts had to have proper lighting and video equipment," says Kadro, "and we had to teach them how to record themselves from home."
Enterprising hosts adapted quickly. Will Marfuggi, host of Close Up by E! News, often does shows from his kitchen "while his daughter naps," laughs Brooks.
For Sexology with Shan Boodram, a sex advice show for millenials, the lockdown enabled host Boodram to capitalize on new opportunities.
Working from home, she launched a two-week spinoff titled Sexology: The Physical Distancing Condition: 10 episodes addressing questions specific to dating in a quarantine world. "We were able to pivot, think about the time we're in and really lean into it," says Brooks.
Brooks and Kadro have done everything on Zoom from setting up background shots to walking hosts through technical issues.
"I can't overstate how beneficial it is to have a video component; to be able to look at someone you're having a direct conversation with, it just keeps everyone that much more engaged," says Brooks. "If this pandemic had happened 5-10 years ago, just from a technical standpoint - we wouldn't have been able to react as well."
The duo also lead weekly Zoom content meetings with as many as 60-80 employees on the call. For one Quibi "all-hands" meeting, they had 265 staffers, which led to a profound discovery.
Kadro found that even on a call that large, "It's a more intimate experience than when you're there in person… Normally, you're in a large room and everyone's facing the same direction and you're only looking at the person standing in front of you.
"On Zoom (via the speaker option) you get to scroll through every person's face in that room. The intimacy is in being able to see the people taking part in this collective experience."
"It has," he says, "brought people in the company much closer together."
Even as production starts to show signs of revving up again, everyone interviewed felt that doing business over Zoom was here to stay in some form or another.
Veena Sud offered up some suggestions for improvements: "If there could be more ways to view a virtual room besides the gallery and speaker views; if there's a way to spatially re-orient the images so there's a better feeling of unity, maybe even eventually move it into VR (virtual reality)."
For now, however, even the most productive remote collaborations are tempered by the uncertainty of what lies ahead. "The question looming over us is that we're able to write content, but we're not sure when and how to safely produce it," says Aptaker. "It's a little hard to shake that feeling."