4 Reasons You should Re-consider Writing a Spec Script about the Pandemic.
Write what you know is one of the best pieces of advice a professional screenwriter (or someone working to become one) will ever hear about the craft. Which is why this pandemic turning our world upside down would tempt any screenwriter to believe this could be the subject of their next writing project. In one way or another, we've all been touched by this crisis, therefore isn't the experience enough to begin writing?
I've been a professional screenwriter and producer for over twenty years and have travelled down this road many times before working on projects "ripped from the headlines." Though I admit, this present crisis is like no other previous event in modern times, I still offer my caveat to those thinking the pandemic might lead to writing a great script that will change your career. At the very least, any writer contemplating going in this direction should definitely manage their expectations.
Here are 4 Reasons one should consider before writing a script on the Virus Pandemic:
1 Sometimes an event in the media is so traumatic that it takes many years before people become comfortable enough to experience it as "entertainment."
There is no doubt that the Corona Virus Pandemic is a huge event, impacting everyone in the United States and the world. One can also assume that something so life changing will take an emotional toll on many people. Consider this emotional impact when contemplating whether to write about this subject, hoping your finished work will quickly become produced. Will a sizeable audience be waiting to take in as "entertainment" something that still might be raw after their 24/7 experience for months? It might not even be the question of trauma; it might be more like - the last thing I want to think about for a while is the Corona Virus. The question that probably can't be answered right now is when will audiences be ready? It could be years from now.
2 To avoid a narrative that is creatively exploitative, simplistic, even inaccurate, the writer on a current event may need perspective, sometimes achieved only with the passing of time.
Today's technology allows most of us to see stories on TV or over the Internet about the pandemic. And the stories being shared showcase people directly involved in this crisis. This media exposure and access has led to the pandemic being covered in a way like no other event in history. The Internet, smart TVs, mobile phones, and apps like zoom, have given so many people across the nation the opportunity to feel connected with what's happening all around them. Across the world, and down the street, it's now possible to watch what's happening in a visceral and impactful way.
As a creative artist, how do you create entertainment about this event that will somehow be better, more impactful than the experience described above. How does one carve out a story that deserves to be told in a screenplay or TV series that will be profoundly different from the daily barrage of media covering the crisis? Can it be done?
The initial reaction to writing a movie or TV series about the Vietnam war suggests that perhaps it's a nearly impossible task to write about a current event artfully while in the middle of the event itself.
Our country's involvement in the Vietnam war began around 1964 and ended in 1975 with the final, chaotic evacuation of our troops from Saigon. During these years, TV news came of age when their coverage of the war helped sway public sentiment to demand the government end our involvement in the conflict. During this same time, the few theatrical films dealing directly with the Vietnam war failed to have a similar impact on the country. There were a few war movies released that ended up being influential, but they were about different wars, like "M*A*S*H" (set during the Korean War) and "Patton," (set during World War Two), with their creative content heavily influenced by the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.
It would take over four years after the official end of the Vietnam war before the release of what is arguably the best movie about our Vietnam experience. "Apocalypse Now" was critically acclaimed and nominated for best picture in 1979, and its reputation as a masterpiece of filmmaking has only increased with time. Though the film has moments of a "documentary" look and feel, mostly Francis Ford Coppola's vision is an artful approach, with scenes that are surreal, poetic, or a hyper version of gritty reality. There is no question that if Coppola had somehow begun production while the country was still in the middle of fighting the war, the result would be a much different movie.
"Apocalypse Now" would go on to lose the best picture Oscar to "Kramer vs. Kramer." The latter film was a well-acted, solid production about the changing societal mores involving divorce and child care. Unfortunately, when viewed today, "Kramer vs. Kramer" comes off as trite and dated, an artifact from a specific place in time, rather than the timeless masterpiece "Apocalypse Now" has become. I believe part of the reason for my assessment is that "Kramer vs. Kramer" was produced to be a cutting-edge examination of societal change close to the time it was actually happening.
3 The best narrative movie or TV series based on a current event may take some time to emerge.
This can occur for several reasons. Sometimes a more "personal" aspect of a larger event emerges later. This will happen when a real person (or group of people) and their experience finally surfaces, and is shared with creative people, leading to a movie or TV production.
Sometimes the story worth telling about an event can't be told for various reasons, whether it's because of government secrecy or to protect the people who would be in danger if the truth were to surface. Government restrictions probably made the brilliant HBO mini-series, "Chernobyl," an impossible story to tell in an unflinching and truthful way until almost 40 years after the event.
4 A project about the pandemic is not what the studios or networks are currently producing.
My final cautionary note is about the bottom line. And when we're talking about the Entertainment Industry, one should always be aware of the bottom line for those who green light projects - will it make money?
One of the biggest causalities of this pandemic has been the business of producing and distributing movies. But when the industry does come back online, it's probably a safe bet that what they will be seeking to produce will be pretty much where they left off. According to a recent Variety article, the 1995 movie, "Outbreak," (a film depicting a fictional outbreak similar to our present pandemic), is "the kind of movie that studios don't make these days." The author of the article, Brent Lang, goes on to write, "Even before the pandemic shuttered theaters last month, studios had abandoned those kinds of brainy, modestly budgeted offerings in favor of comic book adaptations designed for teenagers." So this final heads up to those considering the pandemic spec script or TV series - know that you might be writing a project that no one will actually be looking for when the industry goes back to work. At least not immediately.
For the record, here's how I'm spending all my hours in quarantine - taking a lot of notes about what people are going through during this crisis, hoping the details end up informing my work on a genre script and a novel, neither of which has anything to do with the pandemic. If I do my job right, what I end up writing won't remind the reader of any specific event they've recently endured but seeks to play off the fear and anxiety that has perhaps become a part of their permanent state of mind.