To live in Los Angeles has always required a casual dismissal of existential threats. Earthquakes, fires, droughts—maybe tomorrow, but not today. The loss of your agent, power, status, or looks—maybe somebody else, but not me. It’s the stuff of our TV shows and movies—sometimes the source of our income and inspiration and the occasional nightmare—but it doesn’t put a stop to everyday life.
So, after nine weeks of shutdown, how is the city reacting to our latest crisis, the coronavirus?
In our family of four, we joke that I’m the “designated non-survivor.” I’m the one who does the shopping. But the thing that surprises me on these masked-and-gloved excursions isn’t the lack of toilet paper, or the scarcity of hand sanitizer, but how little the city I’m seeing from the front seat of a car resembles what we’re seeing on the TV news.
The shopping malls, tourist attractions, and business districts such as Century City are tumbleweed empty. But if you drive just slightly to the east—along Western Avenue, beyond the Whole Foods delivery zone, where the single-family houses melt into apartment complexes, and the retail-store signs shift from English into Spanish, Tagalog, and Korean—the streets are bustling with traffic and pedestrians. In a typical strip mall, the 7-Eleven is open, the Mexican and Thai restaurants are offering takeout; the laundromat, dry cleaner, auto-parts dealer, and marijuana dispensary are all open for business. So, too, are the autobody shop next door, the 20-minute oil-service depot, the Guatemalan bakery, and the Starbucks on the corner, where 25 cars wait in line for drive-through service. Even the food trucks are out, serving up tacos and carnitas. More people are wearing masks and gloves than not—but by no measure does one get the sense that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
In our family of four, we joke that I’m the “designated non-survivor.” I’m the one who does the shopping.
Even in my own neighborhood—Hancock Park—it feels like business as usual. The gardeners and pool men come and go, and the FedEx, UPS, and Amazon drivers disgorge cardboard boxes late into the night. The next block over is lined with panel trucks, where three houses are still being renovated, and the sound of buzz saws and nail guns echoes until dusk. And while we snicker at Georgia’s early reopening of tattoo parlors and the governor of Florida’s declaring that pro wrestling is an “essential business,” out here the home-car-wash services remain out in force, polishing, waxing, and detailing the Teslas and Porsche Cayennes in their shut-in owners’ driveways.
In show business itself—which is perhaps Los Angeles’s most essential industry—the coronavirus has presented Hollywood with yet another in a long list of crises. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not downplaying the awfulness, the loss of human life, or the severity of the coronavirus. But since the very beginning of filmed entertainment, the entertainment business has always faced one threat or another, from the introduction of sound, to color, to the advent of TV, pay cable, DVD sales—and, most recently, theater-quality home entertainment and streaming. And one way or another, Hollywood has always survived. And, more often than not, actually thrived in the aftermath.
Will audiences return to theaters? With almost certainty, yes—if for no other reason than our pent-up desires to get out of the house and socialize with friends, and the fact that even in the age of streaming, going to the movies is still an essential component of being a teenager, and dating. Theaters may need to be reconfigured, and the opening-weekend box-office numbers may no longer be the golden yardstick of success, but watching movies—in theaters—will survive.
In show business itself—which is perhaps Los Angeles’s most essential industry—the coronavirus has presented Hollywood with yet another in a long list of crises.
How soon will the industry get back to work and resume production? This is a thornier question, as there are so many moving pieces and considerations in play. Unions, work rules, safety issues: How do you put 150 people on a soundstage, where, for the camera crew and the actors alone, social distancing is nearly impossible? And even before anyone walks through the studio gate, how are you going to insure the production—and at what cost—in case one of your lead actors gets sick, or a second wave of the coronavirus runs rampant through the crew and you have to shut down or cancel the production? The studios have already floated plans to reduce the number of people on a soundstage, or isolate an entire cast and crew during production. The unions, health officials, and insurance underwriters will all have a say in this. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be fast. But it will ultimately be resolved.
Last year, in what was called “the era of peak TV,” Hollywood produced more than 500 television shows. When the pandemic passes, will the era of peak-TV production survive? I hope so. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if, when it’s over and the studios and streaming services look at what actually got watched (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Friends, Tiger King, and The Simpsons), they’ll decide to cut back on producing shows they can’t adequately promote and spend more money on fewer but more digestible hits.
Yet life goes on in Los Angeles. The sun is shining. The palm trees sway. The virus still lurks in the shadows. Attention-addicted celebrities continue to send out “We’re all in this together” selfies from their $10 million homes, and each day brings us closer to that night when Harry and Meghan—without real money, and without a real portfolio—find themselves invited to a celebratory dinner at the Chateau Marmont, seated a bit below the salt, dress extras at somebody else’s film premiere.
Until then, we drive on, in exquisitely detailed cars, hoping the latest crisis will soon be behind us, forever and always slouching towards Bethlehem.
Bruce Feirstein is a screenwriter in Los Angeles