What happened the last time Hollywood shut down?

James Luxford

The entertainment industry, like so many others around the world, is experiencing a moment in history unlike any other...

The Coronavirus outbreak has halted production on all major motion pictures, and most, if not all scripted television. Numerous movies have been rescheduled weeks or even days before their release, because there are no cinemas open to exhibit them. Late night hosts are broadcasting from their houses. Hollywood has ground to a halt.

It leaves many observers wondering what happens when society resumes after lockdown procedures around the world are eased. Will things simply pick up where they left off, or will certain aspects of the film and television industry be forever changed by a pause in production that could last months?  

 

We are of course in unchartered waters, as the entire world gets to grips with an event it is struggling to control. However, there is one moment in history that we can look to for some kind of hint as to what might happen: the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike. While obviously not as serious as a global pandemic, the 100-day incident already has some parallels with the way studios and networks are dealing with global entertainment.  

"Seasons were shortened and entire storylines altered to accommodate limited shooting times"

The strike commenced on November 5, 2007, and lasted for one hundred days. In that time no writers belonging to the Writers Guild Of America East or West could work on any writing for TV or movie projects, with the strike largely occurring due to a dispute over royalties for the then new platform of digital distribution. However, the cause of the strike is not as important to current parallels as much as the effect that it had. Your favourite shows and movies are often the subject of almost daily rewrites, where sitcom jokes are changed when they don’t land with a live audience, or movie scenes rewritten to accommodate other changes. Without writers on-hand, the stories we were told suddenly looked very different.  

In the television world, entire shows were sent off course because of the strike. Late Night shows scrapped opening monologues, as those jokes were pre-written, and many American TV dramas were altered, for better or worse. Hit show Breaking Bad gained a leading character from the strike. Incredible as it may seem, Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman was not intended to be a long-running character, originally due to die in the first season. However the strike meant that season would be reduced to just seven episodes, making creator Vince Gilligan and fellow creatives rethink the season’s arc. This change of perspective, and Paul’s stellar performance, convinced Gilligan to make him a regular and eventual co-lead of the show. Others were not as fortunate with these limited circumstances. Hit shows like Heroes and Gossip Girl had seasons shortened and entire storylines altered to accommodate limited shooting time. 

In the movie industry, some shoots didn’t have the option to down tools. Blockbuster shooting schedules are often very expensive and set in stone. Without the safety concerns of a pandemic that forced current productions to pause, many movies forged ahead with what they had. The most obviously affected was 2008 blockbuster Quantum of Solace, the follow up to the wildly successful Casino Royale.

The strike came as the film was being shot, meaning only Daniel Craig and director Marc Forster could do work on the script, which wasn’t ready in time for production and couldn’t have writers working on it during filming. “The rules were that you couldn’t employ anyone as a writer, but the actor and director could work on scenes together,” Craig recalled in an interview. “We were stuffed. We got away with it, but only just. It was never meant to be as much of a sequel (to Casino Royale) as it was, but it ended up being a sequel, starting where the last one finished.”

Other films impacted by the strike included 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, with Ryan Reynolds having to improvise much of his dialogue in his first incarnation of Deadpool (“every line I have in the movie I just wrote myself because in the script we had, it said, ‘Wade Wilson shows up, talks really fast’” Reynolds revealed). JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek film, the second Transformers movie and GI Joe: Rise of Cobra had similar limitations, going into filming with little to work with on the page.  

"There is a possibility that the delays experienced by this global event will reshape the type of movies we see getting made"

The strike even affected a whole cinematic franchise. Mad Max director George Miller was to take on an adaptation of Justice League, with a young cast including Armie Hammer (then 21) as Batman, Adam Brody as The Flash and actor/musician Common as Green Lantern. While it was one of many factors, the strike delayed Justice League: Mortal’s production and the film was eventually abandoned. Had it gone ahead, who knows what might have been—could we have seen Miller stay for sequels and abandon the exceptional Mad Max: Fury Road? Would Hammer have been too busy to have made the critically adored Call Me By Your Name? Would a successful adaptation have affected rival Marvel’s approach to their Avengers crossover?  

There are many ramifications, not all of them bad. While the COVID-19 epidemic will greatly impact the film industry, as it has the whole world, there is a possibility that the delays experienced by this global event will reshape the type of movies we see getting made, and the types of films we want to see. Just as escapist fantasy dominated the box office after 9/11, and darker dramas provided catharsis during the disillusionment of the financial crisis, so too the mood of the public will affect the tone of the stories it wishes to be told.  

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