No crowds, few locations, and zero romance. Hollywood is about to get really strange
Over five popular seasons, the storylines of Better Call Saul have unfolded across nail salons, fried chicken joints and other strip-mall staples of American life.
When new episodes begin premiering next year, though, the locations that give the Breaking Bad spin-off its texture could be reined in or done away with altogether. The culprit? Covid-19, which is limiting where the show can film, potentially altering both its style and substance.
"Like a lot of other people, we're going to have to be very creative in where and how we shoot," said Mark Johnson, the veteran producer who oversees the Vince Gilligan hit, whose writers just began collaborating on the sixth season. "A lot of places just won't let you in."
Across the entertainment industry, casts and crew are starting to return to work after a five-month hiatus. But interviews with executives, writers, agents and producers across the Hollywood spectrum suggest a dramatically transformed world of screen entertainment. Until a vaccine comes along, Covid-19 will change what we watch as dramatically as it has where we work, shop and learn. Forget the new normal - movies and TV are about to encounter the new austerity.
Crowd scenes are a no-go. Real-world locations will be limited. On-screen romance will be less common, sometimes restricted to actors who have off-screen relationships. And independent films could be heavily scaled back.
"A lot of people believe this is just about getting back to work," said Mark Gill, a producer and former head of Warner Independent Pictures, the studio unit responsible for hits such as Slumdog Millionaire and Good Night, and Good Luck. "They don't realise the massive cultural impact we're about to face."
For most of its history, Hollywood created entertainment based on a simple premise: Shuttle in large numbers of people and move them around at will. That's true of crews, of course, but it especially applies to extras. The low-paid day labourers pack sets and off-camera 'holding' areas, in turn lending the work its real-world atmosphere via dense crowd scenes.
Such scenes have been part of some of the most memorable moments in Hollywood history. From Ben-Hur to Braveheart, on-screen entertainment has become indelible thanks to hundreds of people you've never heard of packing tiny spaces, then moving as one when the cameras roll.
Yet because of the virus, these hires are impossible. Braveheart, for instance, used 1,600 extras, many from the Irish Army reserves; this movie could certainly not be made that way today.
"Those of us in the entertainment business are not used to being told No," said Lucas Foster, a longtime Hollywood producer who counts the 2005 romantic-action hit Mr. & Mrs. Smith and last year's Oscar-decorated blockbuster Ford v Ferrari among his credits. "And when it comes to things like crowds, there's going to be a lot of No."
The added cost required to implement all the safeguards could also result in a lower-quality finished product. Films and TV shows achieve their level of shine through an endless period of refinement, as actors and directors frequently attempt 10 or more takes of a scene. With everything going longer - and thus costing more - during the time of Covid-19, they may not have the luxury.
One producer of multiple studio hits said he expected the number of takes to drop significantly as budgets balloon for virus-related reasons. He also expected a diminution in night scenes, which tend to be more involved and expensive than day scenes. He said some productions would be able to make the switch, but not all would be as lucky.
Also unlucky, Hollywood insiders say: movies where characters seek to get lucky. Many veterans say romantic scenes will be a major challenge in movies. Two agents separately reported they had high-profile clients who have told them they wouldn't shoot love scenes during the pandemic.
"I think every agency right now is looking down their client list to see which actors have spouses who are also actors, because then we could try to get them cast too," said one agent.
The added wrinkle is even if the actors trust each other in real life, many of their characters would still have to take precautions on screen.
"How do you send two characters on a first dinner date when people aren't really going on first dinner dates?" said a veteran creator of romantic comedies who asked not to be identified because they did not want to be seen as criticising colleagues who are attempting new projects. "You can send them on a socially distant walk, I guess."
Writers say that leads to a broader dilemma: how much to incorporate the pandemic into their stories in the first place. On one hand, they say, they don't want to pretend the virus doesn't exist. But acknowledging it poses its own challenges.
"Do you really want your stars wearing masks because that's what characters would do? Do you want to have people engaging with each other in groups no larger than six? Do you want to write stories where everyone is at a safe distance?" said screenwriter Mark Heyman. "Because a lot of those things won't be very much fun to watch."
Yet if creators don't want to do that, he said, it could mean those shows or movies would get shelved for fear of audiences judging them as inauthentic.
To avoid reminding viewers of the pandemic, creators may take an approach that will lead to an unusual trend.
"I think over the next few years you're going to see a lot more movies set in the past," Foster said. "Even movies written for the present will be changed. They'll make it the 1990s because then you don't have to deal with these questions. And then you can just put in some cool 1990s music, so everybody wins."
A few creators have gone the other way, leaning in to the pandemic.
Writers on Apple TV Plus's The Morning Show, set at a news station, have torn up existing scripts to make the pandemic a part of the storyline. But with a lag time of months between shooting and airing, creators risk looking out of date by the time episodes release to the public.
Horror filmmakers have also tried to embrace current events, sensing an opportunity. "The horror genre is very suited to the pandemic and lockdowns - we're always trying to create a feeling of being trapped anyway," said the horror filmmaker Nathan Crooker.
One consequence of the virus could be that movies that don't get made at all. Some of the most beloved films of the past two decades, including My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Little Miss Sunshine were independently financed. Before rolling cameras, such productions require insurance policies to protect them from workplace lawsuits, as well as completion bonds, in which a guarantor assures they will step in with funds to finish the movie if production is halted.
Experts say no company will cover Covid-19 with either policy, effectively preventing production.
"Covid is an absolute disaster for the independent-film industry," said Sky Moore, a partner in the corporate entertainment department of Los Angeles law firm Greenberg Glusker, who has spent several decades putting together film financing deals. "The lifeblood of independent film financing is loans, and loans need insurance. Now you have this massive hole in the middle of all of it."
Mr Moore believes the toll will be vast. "I think 50pc of the independent industry goes away," he said.
Movies financed by large studios do not buy these policies; Netflix or Disney would just absorb a shutdown or lawsuit as the cost of doing business.
Whatever entertainment can get made, experts say, will have a more hermetic look. Even television shows, once shot exclusively on a set, now often rely heavily on the authenticity of locations; a Law & Order episode feels like it does because detectives are popping into pizza places and apartment buildings.
"We don't want everything to be a chamber piece," said Johnson, the Better Call Saul executive producer. "But if many shows look different, I think that's OK, because the world looks different."