Warner Bros. TV Presidents Outline How Coronavirus Could Dramatically Change Production and Content (EXCLUSIVE)

By Kate Aurthur

Popular on Variety

Warner Bros. Television presidents Susan Rovner and Brett Paul hosted a conference call Wednesday evening to share information about the studio’s current thinking on production after weeks of coronavirus-imposed shutdowns. The call was attended by the studio’s showrunners, executive producers and line producers, as well as by people from production companies with whom WBTV and Warner Horizon has deals. 

According to a source familiar with what was said on the call, Rovner and Paul said its purpose was to lay out the studio’s overall approach to starting up production safely for scripted television in both general and specific ways. “We are all working as hard as we can so that when we are allowed to return to work, we’re all ready,” Paul said, according to the source. 

There was no timetable specified for when production might resume. But looming over their remarks was that many states are gradually opening up — or are laying out plans to do so — after precautionary measures in mid-March caused sets to shut down in Los Angeles, New York City, Atlanta, Vancouver, Toronto and every other production hub in North America. 

WBTV is the storied studio behind such shows as “ER,” “Friends,” and “The West Wing.” Under chairman Peter Roth, it’s currently the producer of “Westworld,” Chuck Lorre’s roster (“Mom,” “Young Sheldon,” “The Kominsky Method”), the entire Greg Berlanti catalog (“Riverdale,” “Prodigal Son,” and more), as well as many other shows on the broadcast networks, premium cable channels and streaming services. While the Warner Bros. presidents were mostly speaking hypothetically, the call shed light on some unexpected ways in which the coronavirus might change television, down to its plots. One such example: There was a suggestion that love scenes might need to be eliminated, because actors won’t want to be in close contact. The same was said of fight scenes that would require stunt doubles to violate the rules of social distancing.  

A Warner Bros. Television spokesperson declined to comment.

The WBTV call added to the growing number of behind-the-scenes plans that have emerged as Hollywood has begun to strategize about an eventual return to production — whenever that may be. The Australian soap opera “Neighbours” began filming this week, and in Sweden and Denmark film and television production resumed recently.  Last week, Variety wrote about a preliminary plan written by producers Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Chris Ferguson that would rely on the cast and crew adhering to strict quarantine protocols — sequestered remotely, while broken up into three separate pods on set — which, if it worked at all, would be best suited for film production. 

For Warner Bros. Television, the considerations for telling stories on TV are different, as are the safety concerns. 

On the call, Rovner and Paul took turns talking, tag-teaming with each other. No one else spoke, and no questions were asked. According to the source, the call’s overall tone was compassionate and practical. “Production is the lifeblood of Warner Brothers, and it is our priority to get back into production as soon as possible,” Rovner said. “But without a doubt, the absolute most important factor in this entire process is safety.”

“Things are evolving very quickly,” Paul said. He said Warner Bros. wants to create a “roadmap for our return” that’s grounded in “medicine and science.” He said, “And that roadmap includes the possibility that we could be returning to work in a pre-vaccine environment.”

Paul laid out what he called the “macro” — the circumstances under which a jurisdiction might allow production to resume. News consumers are by now likely familiar with the conditions Paul cited, which include an overall flattening of the curve, the widespread availability of accurate testing with rapid results, contact tracing, freely available personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and the readiness of hospitals. Paul said Warner Bros. is working with the unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to develop safety protocols, and added: “Those protocols will eventually be presented to various governmental authorities, and will likely play a pivotal role in our ability to start production again.”

Rovner got into the specifics, or the “micro,” as she called it, saying “we’re going to need all of your help, your input and all of your flexibility.” These plans are not directives, Paul emphasized, but “a starting point for thoughts and conversations.” 

Writers rooms and casting will remain virtual for the foreseeable future, Rovner said. Post production will also be largely remote, but for post there might be a “combination of virtual and a small office staff, with strict social distancing.” For the time being, there will be no studio audiences for multi-camera comedies.

Rovner said that “different states and countries will have different quarantine requirements,” and the studio is assuming that international locations will have 14-day quarantines. Writers won’t necessarily be able to visit remote sets for production, and in general, Rovner said, “we’re going to have to acknowledge and respect various comfort levels of people when it comes to air travel.” She urged showrunners to hire directors local to the production, and who can perhaps work on blocks of episodes. Series regulars should “limit flying back and forth during their days off,” and should try to stay local to the production. 

Since showrunners and executive producers were on the call, Rovner and Paul made a number of suggestions that will affect storytelling. For intimate scenes, Rovner said “we believe we’re going to need a plan for limited physical contact between actors,” and “intimate scenes may need to be reimagined or even reconceived.” Close-up stunts will also be affected, Paul said — stunts that are “hand to hand, face to face, requiring physical contact” like fight scenes, will probably have to be axed. But larger stunts from at least six feet away “may still be OK,” he added.

Rovner acknowledged the narrative impact these strictures may have, using a WBTV example. “Now we want to be really clear, no one is dictating that the Flash should now talk down bad guys from his bedroom via Zoom. That would be a terrible, terrible episode of ‘The Flash,’” she said. “But we are saying there are going to be very real challenges ahead, and it is not business as usual.”

Production drafts, Paul said, need to be handed in earlier than usual because of the amount of prep each episode will require. There will also be “reduced shooting time” because of “anticipated new COVID protocols and practices, which could include testing and temperature taking,” he said.

The Ferguson/Kavanaugh-Jones proposal is calamitous for guest actors and day players, rigidly specifying “there will be no day players.” The Warner Bros. presidents were not as draconian, but Rovner did say “we need to look at limiting the amount of guest actors.” But with crowd scenes, she said, “We believe it’s going to be very hard to have big scenes with many extras, both because of social distancing and because of local rules of how many people can congregate at one time.” She suggested writers work around crowd scenes, or, alternatively, use visual effects to create or add to them. 

As far as shooting goes, Paul said that outdoor locations might be limited, and getting permits will likely be more difficult. He suggested creating stories that use more of a show’s permanent sets or “swing sets” (sets built for a specific episode). He said that crew size will be determined by “social distancing requirements,” but didn’t get into specifics. 

Everyone on set — except for the actors when they’re shooting a scene — will be wearing face coverings, gloves and possibly even gowns. The sets will be closed to visitors. And craft services will be different, with meals possibly being staggered to accommodate social distancing requirements. 

As the call wound down, Paul said, “Our focus is on making the most of what we can do, while respecting the whats and whys of what we can’t.” Paul added that WarnerMedia employees have gotten sick: “And in our minds, one loss is simply too many, especially if we can prevent it, or help prevent it.” 

He said their plans discussed were “very much a work in progress,” and asked that they not be shared with the press.

In her closing remarks, Rovner urged producers to reach out to their shows’ production executives for any questions they had. She then added, “We would love to end this call just by saying thank you. We recognize the difficulties and the challenges that this brings to your staff and crew both personally and professionally, and to each of you, the leaders of our productions.”

As they ended the call, Paul said, “Last, just please stay safe. We miss you all. We cannot wait for the opportunity to see you all in person again.”