When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Hollywood earlier this year, shutting down productions and throwing the industry into chaos, not even veteran TV executive Michael Ellenberg, the former HBO head of drama responsible for commissioning iconic series such as “Westworld,” “Big Little Lies,” “True Detective,” and “The Leftovers,” could have predicted such a robust, industry-wide call to arms.
“If you had told me today that Hollywood would have a vast series of testing protocols for all these productions and the White House wouldn’t? It speaks for itself,” Ellenberg said during a keynote address at Rome’s MIA market on Thursday.
But the founder and CEO of the production outfit Media Res, which this week resumed production on the Apple TV Plus series “The Morning Show,” noted that the film and television industry at its core is “a problem-solving business” uniquely equipped to handle a crisis.
“There’s a logistical genius in Hollywood that is fairly unparalleled in any other industry,” he said. “Slowly but surely, in tackling [issues] the way producers always do, you go piece by piece by piece. You look at every dimension of it. You adjust and tinker. Square pegs in round holes. Hollywood is better than most fields at solving it.”
Ellenberg was speaking on the first day back in his company’s L.A. offices since the start of the pandemic, with cameras set to roll on season two of the Apple series starring Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell.
The show’s executive producer said the creative team has “had to respond to the moment, and all the ways in which the world has changed in the past six months,” while crafting the second season’s story arc. The nuts and bolts of production have also been radically transformed. “It filters through everything from locations to stage work to how many people are on the set. It has a VFX effect. There’s almost no aspect of production that’s not colored by this.”
While the months-long hiatus caused by coronavirus introduced a unique set of challenges for the production, Ellenberg noted that adaptability is built into the nature of the television industry today.
“In the past, television was more, ‘This works, we now know what the formula is. So let’s do that,’” he said. “And I think what’s exciting about modern television, but harder also, is once you understand the formula…you’ve got to be very rigorous about breaking the formula a little bit and reinventing it every year to keep a series vital.
“It’s got to be fresh and new every year,” he added. “Even with the kind of cast we have and the talent we have, there’s a lot of competition for people’s attention. And audiences are demanding innovation, whether it’s the pilot or episode 205.”
When Ellenberg landed at HBO in 2011, he said, “you were seeing the beginning of this talent migration” as the film and television industry began to undergo a seismic shift.
“I didn’t go with a master plan. I figured I would do it for a couple of years, and then when I went back to film, I would know something about TV,” he said. “And then the whole world changed. Film and TV, really what’s been happening, they’re merging. That’s what’s been happening, and probably this pandemic period is accelerating that.”
Media Res is currently developing “Scenes From a Marriage,” a limited series adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman classic film, for HBO, though Ellenberg said that international co-productions would be a bigger part of the company’s focus moving forward.
“When we launched, I expected we’d be doing a lot of them. And then the explosion of streaming here has changed some of the need for co-productions,” he said. “I think there are fewer co-financing opportunities in the market, at least at the premium scale, than there were before. And there may be less need for it. Because the truth is, the streamers have had a lot of cash up until this point. We’ll see if it changes in this economic climate.”
Ellenberg said he was inspired by the “innovative” co-production model for Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope,” an ambitious joint venture between HBO, Sky and Canal Plus. “I think what’s key [with co-productions] is understanding what you’re looking for,” he said. “Besides figuring out the rules of the road, it’s really going in clear-eyed about what the need is from the partner, and then designing the relationship around that. The cliché, creative alignment—that’s essential.”
So is the need for “really unique material [that] moves the market,” he said, adding: “That’s sort of the financial model. And the creative, more spiritual model, is you can create a safe haven for artists, for creators, to incubate really original work…that’s a way for really original stories to be told, and original voices to be heralded.”
He continued: “The culture industry is much more drawn to provocative, cutting-edge material, from voices that normally, in the past, would never receive the kind of financial backing that the industry will give them now. That’s exciting. There’s a business model around originality. That’s the real truth. That’s the deep thing happening.”