Michelle and Robert King, the creators and showrunners of “Evil” and “The Good Fight,” typically start each season of every show they run with dinner and drinks with the writers. One of the best things about having a writers’ room, says Robert King, is getting together to “chat about everything and anything.”
But this year, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, such outings have not been taking place. The industry has been upended and that includes television staffing season, which arrived not only as the WGA and major agencies were trying to come to an agreement, but also against the backdrop of the deadly pandemic that has idled production and forced writers’ rooms to connect remotely.
Last year the feud between the Writers Guild and the agencies meant that showrunners had to start searching for new staff members in nontraditional ways. In lieu of receiving scripts and resumes from agents, they began relying on recommendations from fellow showrunners and writers, the WGA-created staffing portal and social media. These practices have continued throughout the now more-than-yearlong standoff, but compounding it with remote staffing meetings with potential new hires has meant a more efficient use of everyone’s time and greater compassion for work-life balance — though hardly any showrunners would call the new pandemic practices ideal.
The Kings didn’t add to either of their current series’ staff this year, but they did work with showrunner Jennifer Cacicio to hire writers for “Happy Face,” the upcoming CBS All Access show they are producing. Cacicio brought in a few writers whom she had worked with in the past, and the Kings read submissions through their production company, King Size Prods.
“It’s peculiar to be hiring people and meeting people over Zoom,” says Michelle King. “But that’s what we have to work with, so that’s what we’re doing. And it’s been remarkably successful. The room has been in operation for a couple of months now, and they’ve been productive.”
The protracted stalemate between the guild and the major agencies, which so far has resulted in new guild agreements with UTA and ICM, “definitely made it harder when it was in full force,” says Berlanti Prods.’ Sarah Schechter. “But I think it forces a lot of people to think outside the box and that’s actually really valuable and I think a lot of good has probably come from it.”
The new staffing process has meant relying less on agencies to shortlist writers.
“People’s samples became truly their best advocate, which is perhaps a little bit more of a meritocracy,” Schechter says. “Ultimately, it always comes down to a writer’s talent and their voice and their thoughts on the show and their ability to contribute.”
Schechter staffed the CW’s upcoming drama “Kung Fu” during the lockdown period, and is in the midst of staffing another room from scratch. Zoom-centric life was “strange at the beginning,” when the world first shut down in March, she says, but even online, some aspects of conducting job interviews — remotely or in person — didn’t really change.
“You’re hearing about their background, you’re hearing about what they liked about the pilot, you’re hearing what they like about the show,” she says. “There’s a few of their ideas and what they consider to be their strengths and the things that they’re excited by.”
As a producer trying to court writers who often have multiple offers, there is a “slight disadvantage” to not meeting in person, she says — not to mention having the distractions of home life seeping into the background of video calls. But she and others, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” showrunner Bruce Miller and Secret Hideout’s Alex Kurtzman, don’t miss the lengthy commutes that come with setting meetings all over town.
“You can probably roll through more meetings a day on Zoom than you could in person, because you don’t have to travel to a meeting. So that makes a big difference in terms of volume,” says Kurtzman, who staffed several shows over the course of the pandemic, including “Star Trek: Discovery” alongside showrunner Michelle Paradise, and “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” which is being run by Akiva Goldsman and Henry Myers.
Miller added one new writer to the dystopian Hulu series this season, per usual, and says that availability was “much broader” because people know about more projects.
One showrunner, who preferred to remain unidentified due to the sensitive nature of the conflict between the guild and the agencies, says it seemed as though many reps have been “embracing” the new way that shows are being staffed.
“This just seems like a logical progression,” says this producer. “And I think instead of my agents resisting, they’re jumping into the fray and trying to join that conversation with writers who are in a more casual conversation — not studios with lists and writers assignments and all that kind of stuff.”
As the COVID-19-induced shutdown continues to cloud the industry and this most recent staffing season, there are a few silver linings as writers get comfortable in their online-only gatherings.
Kurtzman says there is a “unique intimacy” from discussing ideas via video, and virtual meeting software has created an environment in which writers who are more shy have been able to speak up more.
“We got to a place where it actually ended up being kind of great,” he says. But, he still sees this “new normal” of working as temporary, and that when writers are able to meet in person again, he will not take it for granted.
“We will always remember what this moment has been, and the challenges that we faced, and isolation that everybody feels daily,” he says. “The moment when we can all be together again, enjoying each other’s company, handing each other food, is something to really look forward to.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Language has been changed to reflect that the WGA stopped negotiating with the ATA in June 2019 and has since been negotiating with individual agencies.