Producers, broadcasters and distributors are venturing into largely uncharted territory as the COVID-19 pandemic upends production activities across the globe. With ‘Weathering the Storm,’ Realscreen will examine the impact of the disruption upon various sectors of the non-fiction screen content industry, and reveal how different companies and stakeholders in the business are coping with the changing landscape. Here, on a day when many sales execs would have normally been heading to Cannes to present their catalogs at another edition of MIPTV, we examine the impact on the distribution business.
For companies operating on a global scale, awareness of the gravity of the COVID-19 situation became apparent quite early on in the course of the pandemic, as their broadcast partners across Asia, Italy and Spain began to take measures to cope with the impact and spread of the virus on their businesses.
Like many organizations across the globe, London-based Passion Distribution, a division of Tinopolis Group, quickly shifted its operations to remote workspaces in an effort to protect the health of its team. In addition, CEO Emmanuelle Namiech says the company is working hard to ensure “it reviews working arrangements to best serve and support our clients” in these uncertain times.
“Given that we all have full access to all our rights management systems and back office services, we are able to fully function and perform all our usual activity from promoting shows, closing deals to servicing all our clients,” Namiech explains, adding that the sales and acquisitions teams have managed to conduct “productive” virtual meetings with a number of clients.
Despite the rapidly evolving global situation, distributors that Realscreen spoke to have found that, for the time being at least, business is strong, but the outlook — depending on whether you’re in television distribution or theatrical — is uncertain.
In particular, distributors are finding opportunities by turning to major broadcast networks that have been reeling from the International Olympic Committee’s recent decision to cancel of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Summer schedules that were once filled with around-the-clock sports-related programming have now been freed up, opening another avenue for distributors.
The appetite for acquisitions is higher as well. The sales division of Toronto’s Blue Ant Media, for its part, has seen an uptick in buyers who now have openings in their programming schedules due in part to delayed production deliveries.
Escapist content that offers co-viewing opportunities – from Orangutan Jungle School (main image) to Amazing Animal Friends and Best Cakes Wins (below) – have been the most in-demand products, though the company reports that finished foreign-language titles have also proven popular among buyers.
“Because we have a diverse catalog that spans high-impact documentaries, factual, specialist factual, scripted and kids & family content, we’ve been able to work with a lot of broadcasters to quickly find solutions and substitutes for these programming gaps,” says Ludo Dufour, SVP of co-productions and sales for Blue Ant International.
On the other side of the pond, London-based sales firms Passion and TCB Media Rights have been in close contact with production partners in an attempt to get ahead of the fluid situation by offering support while exploring current available opportunities.
“The focus is on showcasing our spring 2020 line up as well as our existing portfolio of programming,” Namiech states. “Our priority has been to ensure we put in place the most effective way to promote the shows they have trusted us with, generating revenues that will provide a much-needed cash injection whilst other productions are being paused.”
“This is giving us an opportunity to push our back catalog and finished shows to networks,” says TCB’s head of sales Simona Argenti. “We’ve also been pushing our content onto platforms like TRX, for example, that are helping us distribute content.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’ve got all the resources that can help us to serve the demand of content at the moment while making sure that we are front of mind with our factual catalog.”
Ellen Windemuth‘s Amsterdam-headquartered distributor-producer Off the Fence, meanwhile, has prioritized ensuring that non-scripted buyers are aware of what programming they’ve previously licensed and where they can quickly relicense without having to re-deliver.
“We’re brainstorming with producers on what may work and still satisfy the very high-quality mandate that most broadcasters have,” adds the Off the Fence founder and CEO. “If there’s anything that I can do to help or advise anyone, please let me know.”
“How are our sales? Well, basically, all the theaters are closed. None of our movies are [being] released,” says Abramorama president and CEO Richard Abramowitz. “At the moment, our theatrical efforts are impaired like everyone else’s.”
Brooklyn-based Oscilloscope tells a similar tale. The indie film distributor was in the midst of releasing the 2019 SXSW Audience Award winner Saint Frances, a dark comedy narrative feature from Alex Thompson, before every theater in the country temporarily shuttered, stopping the release dead in its tracks.
“We’re making the best of it. We were the first distributor to offer a ‘virtual’ cinema alternative to our theatrical partners,” says Andrew Carlin, director of theatrical distribution at Oscilloscope. “We collaborated with a DC-based theater called the Avalon to offer Saint Frances to their audience digitally.
“Once word spread among the arthouse community that we were experimenting with a digital release, we were flooded with requests. Over the past week, we’ve scaled up from one theater to nearly 70, and I expect that number to grow to well over 100. Theaters are now asking what other titles we can distribute using this method, which is very heartening.”
Abramorama, for its part, has followed in similar steps, pivoting from theatrical releases to digitally opening Tyler Chandler’s plant-focused medical feature-length documentary Dosed (pictured above).
“We’re making the adjustments that we need to make,” notes Abramowitz. “The films that we’re already distributing we’re managing … and we’re in constant contact with the filmmaker so that they have a sense of comfort so that when theatrical distribution and exhibitions is viable again, we’ll be ready.”
Theatrically speaking, both Abramorama and Oscilloscope are still open for business. Abramowitz is still planning on releasing the majority of Abramorama’s films in theaters with an eye toward June “with the thinking being that if the environment isn’t ready yet in June, we’ll just push back as need be.”
He continues: “I’m not sure where this is going to land, but I am sure that we’ll be poised to be right in the middle of it and continue doing the kind of work that we have done for films and our filmmakers.”
Still, no one knows when the global COVID-19 outbreak will come to an end. With every theatrical release slate currently in limbo, distribution companies will need to begin deciding in the very near future “whether to forgo theatrical altogether — or hold out hope that the exhibition business returns to some semblance of normalcy soon,” concludes Carlin.