Showrunners on creative concerns for production in a pandemic

U.S. and Canadian showrunners joined the Banff World Media Festival to discuss COVID-19 challenges for the creative team and systemic racism in the industry.
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How to safely restart production is looming on the minds of Canadian and U.S. showrunners, as many questions remain unanswered on how to balance budgets and mitigate risks.

“Showrunners are going to be even more hands-on going forward, not only to protect your crew and production, but to protect your material,” said Elle Johnson, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker co-showrunner, who predicts the role will expand, rather than minimize. “No one benefits if you’re not shooting something properly.”

Johnson joined Diggstown‘s Floyd Kane, On Becoming a God in Central Florida’s Esta Spalding and Umbrella Academy‘s Steve Blackman on The Banff World Media Festival-hosted showrunner superpanel yesterday (June 21) as part of its four-month programming. The hour-long session was moderated by Playback associate editor Jordan Pinto.

Production in L.A. is currently in limbo as COVID-19 cases surge in the region, with series such as season two of On Becoming a God in Central Florida and season seven of Bosch, which Johnson is an executive producer on, in a holding pattern. Spalding says the positive side is that writing rooms have had more time to flesh out season scripts, which would have been still in progress when production was originally set to start.

However, the uncertainty about how to safely get back to work remains top of mind. “It’s a question the industry is asking in a really massive way,” said Spalding, who noted that among the measures she’s heard on set safety involves a COVID-19 team, led by someone qualified and knowledgeable in public health to make safety calls.

Also unclear are the budget concerns and the insurance impact. Kane, who is a producer on a low-budget feature prepping to shoot in Sudbury, said they’ve had to earmark just under $100,000 if there is a 14-day shutdown. He added that an industry friend set to begin production on a series in Canada estimated that COVID-19 measures on the project will cost $700,000.

Blackman said COVID-19 measures may account for five to seven percent of their budget in the U.S., but it’s currently unknown where additional financing will be supplied or if the creative team will need to find a way to absorb the costs.

Even on the post-production level, Blackman warned about the perils of working from home, where few home setups have the ability to work in 4K, saying that doing post on Umbrella Academy season two was a big challenge. He also added that European productions are a huge resource, since they’ve already started to go to camera and can share lessons learned on the ground.

And there’s the human element. Kane says Diggstown (pictured), which was recently renewed for a third season by CBC, is built on family dynamics, making it a challenge to block actors in scenes. “The big change for us will be looking at kissing scenes, fight scenes and people just hugging each other,” he said. “I would want to make sure my actors are tested before they do those scenes. People will find ways to figure this out, but I don’t want to lose that intimacy between human beings that we have with television shows.”

The pandemic has raised a number of questions for writers from a creative standpoint. How does your series address the pandemic? Should it? For some, like Spalding’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, it won’t be an issue at all, thanks to its 90s setting. However, she has been at work developing a pandemic-friendly project with a smaller cast to help mitigate production risks.

For Johnson, the writing room on Bosch has been deep in discussion on whether to set it during the pandemic. In the case of Diggstown, Kane says they’ll weave it into the narrative in ways such as court cases that are impacted by COVID-19.

The showrunners also addressed the challenge of overcoming systemic racism within the industry. Kane and Blackman echoed a problem in Canada where diverse below the line talent is hard to come by, after Blackman struggled to find non-white crew members for the Toronto-shot Umbrella Academy and Kane ran into a similar issue in Sudbury. Kane encouraged showrunners to “have those awkward conversations” with decision-makers on why there’s a lack of BIPOC talent, while Blackman said better mentorship opportunities on the crew level is essential.

“I feel like my duty as a showrunner is always to be reaching outward, not inward, and find voices that are different from mine to make sure when that crew photo is taken, it’s not all white faces,” said Kane.

The prognosis is not all bad, however. Blackman said there has “never been a better time to be in television,” with studios more willing than ever to take a chance on a junior writer or pair them with an experienced showrunner.

Their advice for future showrunners? Know every level of production, every job, and learn how to read a budget. Johnson suggested that once a writer is staffed on a show, they should take every opportunity to shadow roles, be on set and in the editing suite.

Kane cautioned, however, that showrunning isn’t for everyone. “I don’t think it is a job that every writer can do,” he said. “It demands so much of you, being someone who can manage people and who’s emotionally intuitive. You’ve got to have the right temperament.”