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.
The novel COVID-19 coronavirus — the pandemic that has left a landslide of productions dropped and delayed over the last month alone — was just starting to make headlines in China as John Peterman was finishing up a job in Chicago.
Peterman, the founder and CEO of New York production outfit Ngenuity Entertainment, works as a freelance production manager and coordinator. In December, he was capping off his latest contract.
“As my job is ending, this virus is starting to begin,” he says. “I was literally out of work. I came back to New York with several interviews already in place and I started to sense that there was something happening because the interviews went well but people were like, ‘Hey, we’re not going to hire at this time because something’s happening in China that could affect us soon.’”
The trend escalated dramatically in the coming months, leaving some of the industry’s most vulnerable — largely those circulating in the ‘gig economy’ — without work.
“Production is shut down across the board, that’s pretty much what we’re seeing,” Lynn Hughes, independent producers and chair of the Women’s Impact Network at Producer’s Guild of America (PGA), says. “Folks who are not aligned with some of the big production houses or studios have been sent home.”
Hughes says a number of the PGA’s members who previously had full schedules are now faced with “very little to do.”
“A big chunk of our membership in the DC area are losing projects just because they can’t go into production, especially in the reality world,” she adds.
‘BLESSING AND A CURSE’
Jay Schlossberg, president of D.C.-headquartered Media Central, works with freelance producers to supply local camera crew, gear and production support to projects across the U.S., Canada and 114 other countries.
“Things started to cancel the week of March 9th — little shoot here, little shoot there. By last Tuesday, almost everything was canceled,” he says. “That includes cluing up in a number of cities around the U.S. but also in London, Berlin, Madrid, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and Tokyo — they were all this month. They all just went away.”
Schlossberg has a number of “strict protocols” in place for crews that are still operating, such as disinfecting equipment and practicing social distancing on the job, and says he’s doing what he can to support freelancers.
“There’s a lot of hungry people out there that are scared, all of a sudden everybody lost all their work, especially the freelancers. I know that production companies, their employees are going to be hurt too because production has stopped,” he says.
“On the one hand, we have all this time to concentrate on our projects and on the other hand we’re literally faced with a pandemic that has an uncertain future,” he says. “We’re so used to having our lives lived by a schedule. We have everything planned out, we know what the end game is. Now, I don’t know what the end game is.”
Now, Peterman spends his days working on a project that has been in the works since 2015, but gained new momentum at the end of 2019. “We were going to go full steam ahead with this and then the wind got sucked out of our sails and now we’re sitting here coasting,” he says. “What’s our next plan of action? When are we going to go back to work?”
Elsewhere, in the UK, London-based freelance producer Olivia Strong was contracted for a project from January to July, with filming expected to get underway in May and June.
“I work in documentaries, non-scripted. I normally have contracts from anywhere between a month to a year,” Strong says.
A few weeks ago, the small independent production company she was working for instructed the team to work from home. “We’re in pre-production right now so we can work remotely,” she explains.
Still, shortly thereafter, layoffs ensued. Strong’s contract was changed from five days a week to just two. The plan, she says, is to jump back into filming by June, assuming the virus has dissipated.
“[It's] obviously not great… You’re out of work, and there is no other work out there at the moment,” Strong says.
“The positive side is that as soon as we are ready to go again, there’s going to be a huge influx of projects that take off, across the whole industry — TV, film, everything. I just don’t know when that’s going to be… If I continue on a two day week, I could really use this time to develop. When else are we going to have this time to do it?”
Peterman echoes Strong: “I’m not going to put a timetable on it, but in the near future I feel confident our industry’s going to rebound, people are going to go back to work, and jobs will be filled up… We’re just on this balance beam and we’re not sure which way it’s going to go.”
Though some key industry players and government officials have provided some relief, more can be done to support the freelance production community.
“I’d love to see the industry step up a little more,” Hughes says. “I know it’s going to be hard on everyone, but I do see that there are some players who could help alleviate some of the hardship. What Netflix did this week was great.”
Since the start of her career, Strong has gone from contract to contract, and has never been out of work. Though she says working freelance has benefits, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the instability.
“When things go wrong in the economy, there isn’t a lot of support,” she says. “It’s not just me in this situation. Every production has stopped. I’m fortunate to have these two days a week… Time will tell. It is a really scary time.”
On March 26, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled new measures to support the country’s self employed, including a taxable grant worth 80% of their average monthly profits over the last three years, up to £2,500 a month.
Similarly, in Canada, the federal government established the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which would provide CA$2,000 a month for up to four months for workers who have lost their income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, for Cheryl Dillard Staurulakis (left), principal of Florida-headquartered Orama Filmworks, and Canadian filmmaker Phyllis Ellis – the team behind Toxic Beauty — documentary filmmakers are a vulnerable community at the best of times.
“It impacts Cheryl and I on different levels: developing a film, shooting a film, posting a film and then distributing a film. And then all the ancillary things; awards season, and how do you get nominated? All of those considerations. And then you come back down to, why does any of that matter in this moment when we’re facing one of the greatest health and economic crises and in our lifetime?”
Toxic Beauty is “signed, sealed and delivered,” Staurulakis says, though the pandemic has interrupted its campaign. The pair were also in production on a sports-focused documentary, with another film in distribution.
“Specifically for documentary filmmakers, producers and directors and writers… How do you develop a film when you don’t even know if you can get to where you need to go?” Ellis asks. “We have a film in production right now. How do you finish shooting a film? Do you wait?”
For Ellis (pictured below), the industry is concerned about the future, job stability and their livelihood — and the situation has left many on shaky ground.
“What people don’t understand is when production stops… Let’s say you were going to shoot in April, but now it’s been pushed to June and it may be pushed to October, the entire team, the entire army of people gets pushed, but they don’t get paid,” she says. “That puts a lot of pressure on an industry for sure.”