The release came a week after CBS All Access premiered “The Stand,” a new star-studded limited series based on the Stephen King novel in which the world is seized by a virus, prompting death and bleakness. With a massive budget, the show is one of the big bets of the long-established streaming service.
On network television, meanwhile, hospitals continue to be filled with covid-19 patients and the doctors tending to them on hits such as ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and “Grey’s Anatomy” and NBC’s “Chicago Med,” routinely among the most highly rated broadcast shows.
Yes, Hollywood is turning this season into a very covid Christmas.
Entertainment-industry executives hope these pieces offer a more palatable alternative to the doomscrolling that has dominated 2020. If we’re going to be gripped by virus anxieties, they say, at least let’s do it with compelling stories and beloved characters.
But the content’s radical timeliness also raises questions: Are Americans ready for stories about a virus that has taken the lives of more than 300,000 Americans, kept many of us at home and created economic havoc for millions? Should Hollywood be moving so quickly to capitalize on the tragedy in the first place? Even creators are struggling with the issues.
“This is the problem,” said Michael Pressman, a director on “Chicago Med,” which has featured numerous pandemic plotlines at its fictional Gaffney Chicago Medical Center. “Good television these days is so much about the headlines, the here and now. But there’s also such a thing as escapist entertainment, and has there ever been a more important time to escape?”
Hollywood has a long history of dissecting calamity. The industry banks on Americans wanting to make cinematic sense of chaos; World War II and the Vietnam War, to name a pair of examples, generated dozens of films and television shows.
But those stories often came years if not decades later. This wave of covid-19 tales is hitting as the disaster is still playing out, turning these stories into polished real-time disaster films.
“Songbird” began humbly. Horror director Adam Mason was walking his dogs in Los Angeles at the start of the shutdown with helicopters circling overhead, trying to figure out what the pandemic meant for his wife and young children. He began thinking about favorites such as “Casablanca” and “The English Patient,” love stories against the backdrop of war. Soon he had conceived of a tale of a near future when the coronavirus has mutated and the country has descended into dystopia.
Set in 2023, “Songbird” walks a perpetual line between scary reality and an even scarier future. It is situated in a world where a small group of people naturally immune move freely around a desolate city while everybody else locks themselves indoors to live by deliveries or are sent to a horrifying “Q-Zone” if they test positive. Nico, a bike courier who has immunity, is in love with Sara, a young woman who doesn’t; it’s a long-distance relationship across five feet.
As much intimate romance as noisy thriller, “Songbird” can feel timely to the point of prophetic. The strict lockdowns in Los Angeles that Mason was imagining when the movie was made last summer came true, with the city now prohibiting much nonessential movement.
But the trailer’s release in late October prompted an online backlash.
“I’m worrying that some people are going to use this movie as a sort of rallying cry to resist lockdowns, since this trailer seems to be portraying that as the problem, rather than American irresponsibility concerning the pandemic,” wrote one user on Twitter.
“This feels wrong,” wrote another user, “ … like they are trying to benefit financially from the hell that is the pandemic.”
Mason said he gets the sensitivities around shutdowns but supports them and says he had no agenda.
“When I and [co-writer] Simon Boyes wrote the movie we had this naivete the pandemic would bring people together,” Mason said in an interview. “We were wrong.”
He added: “I understand that emotions are heightened now, but I’m not a political filmmaker. The movie I was making was a love story. I was trying to offer people some hope.”
The executive behind the release of “Songbird” says he hears the profitability critique but disagrees with it strongly.
“If I thought it was exploiting the current tragedy, neither I nor the company would have been interested in getting involved,” said Adam Fogelson, the veteran Hollywood executive who serves as chairman of STX Films. “The intention of the movie is to reflect the toll this crisis is taking on people, but more important, that human connection is what’s going to give us a future. That seemed like a worthy thing to support and bring to market.”
STX executives decided to make this movie available digitally first, given theater shutdowns. Fogelson said the movie was made at a reasonable-enough budget (under $3 million) that even if only a relatively small number of people choose to buy it, the film would still end up in the black.
“The Stand” was conceived and developed long before the pandemic. King’s epic Mother Abagail-vs.-Randall Flagg story of good and evil was published in the 1970s and saw its first on-screen iteration a quarter-century ago. Shooting on the new series was completed, eerily, on March 12 — the day after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.
But watching the first episode — in which a cough ominously signals mortality, bodies are strewn around and a country’s sanity and infrastructure come apart — brings to mind some of the pandemic’s worst images. That could be a lure to some but a strong turnoff to others.
Creators said they think the movie can function as a coronavirus fable and a more remote fantasy at once.
“I don’t want people not to see the world they’re living in,” said the series showrunner, Benjamin Cavell. “But if it’s not what they’re ready for or not what they’re craving, then it’s also not a story about a pandemic — it’s a Stephen King fantasy with people who have supernatural powers and levitate.”
Still, Cavell said he hopes viewers cut creators some slack.
“It’s very hard when making a show to know how we’re going to live nine months away,” he said. “Things that seem completely obvious weren’t. I don’t know.”
“Sometimes it just feels like a paralyzing challenge writing a contemporary series,” he said.
Not that others aren’t trying. The high-profile stories won’t stop after Christmas. “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson made a low-budget black-and-white romance set during quarantine with that show’s star, Zendaya, and “Tenet” actor John David Washington. That film, “Malcolm & Marie,” will premiere on Netflix in early 2021. And “Bourne Identity” director Doug Liman made a pandemic-set heist movie called “Lockdown” that will soon be on HBO Max.
There are multiple reasons for the quick turnaround, experts say. This crisis has played out not by sending creative people off to war but by marooning them at home with little to do but sit and write.
Mason said he felt the need to tell a story and release it quickly because that is what the story demanded. “Our goal was to offer postcards from the future,” he said. “And if we waited too long it would be the future.”
The boom is also happening as companies have the means to distribute these stories fast compared with past eras. Even “The Best Years of Our Lives,” considered one of the quickest turnarounds of a classic American wartime film, took RKO Pictures more than a year to distribute after the end of World War II. Vietnam staples such as “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” wended their way through the studio system more than a decade after U.S. forces left Southeast Asia.
But by tightly controlling production and distribution, streaming services can act faster. And since executives crave content generally and are eager to sate locked-down consumers specifically, they are cranking up their output.
These stories, they note, exist as a kind of entertainment first draft of history — somewhere between the breaking news of TV journalism and film’s typically luxuriant processing years after the fact.
Amber Heard, one of the stars of “The Stand,” said she would not be surprised if people appreciate the virus aspects of the CBS All Access show.
“There is an appealing element of leaning into reality while having enough distance from it that it’s still controllable,” she said in an interview. Watching heroes is cathartic, she noted, and so is the ability to turn off the TV.
Many of those working on these pieces say that the coronavirus has become such a part of life that viewers won’t blink seeing it on screen. “In fact, I think it can look inauthentic when it’s not there,” said Pressman, the “Chicago Med” director.
Some pointed to how Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic hit “Contagion” jumped to the top of the streaming charts in the spring, trumping more escapist titles.
But that happened, Hollywood veterans say, when people were trying to make sense of a new and confusing time. At this point, Americans may just feel fatigue.
Asked whether he saw many new titles following the lead of “Contagion,” the veteran Hollywood producer who made the film, Michael Shamberg, answered succinctly.
“I think we hit the curve at the right moment,” he said. “An early moment.”