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.
Producers — particularly small, independent outfits — are coming to grips with a new reality as measures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus have put largely all jobs on standby.
Juggling responsibilities to staff, freelancers, broadcasters, distributors and the myriad other players in the production sphere has become, to say the least, complicated.
Daniel Oron, co-founder and executive producer of Toronto’s Go Button Media, says the company is focused on “continuing the supply chain” for broadcasters.
“If you look at our industry, basically there’s a supply chain of television, right? It’s much like any supply chain. It’s conceived somewhere, then it’s developed, then it’s manufactured, then it’s sold,” he says. “We can’t, as an industry, flick a switch and then instantly go into production that day we’re allowed out of the house.”
The objective for Go Button, and other producers in the same boat, is to (as much as possible) keep development and production firing on all cylinders.
“How do we produce content in spurts over the next cycle of, say, 12 to 18 months that allows broadcasters to continue to function without relying wholly on their library or acquisitions that they are picking up from their competitors or other networks around the world?” Oron (pictured above with co-founder Natasha Ryan) says.
The onset of COVID-19 came “as a bit of a shock,” says Tom Brisley, co-founder and creative director of London-headquartered Arrow Media.
“It was getting worse and worse. And then we all had the note to work from home,” he says. “But actually, the company had been doing some fairly good preparation beforehand.”
“We haven’t had to drop any productions yet,” he adds. “We’re maybe a week late with a couple of episodes but in the bigger pictures, that’s nothing.”
The company’s first — and “biggest” — challenge was to transition its 30 edit suites to remote working.
“Once we got over that, the next challenge was to make sure there was no slippage with the delivery of programs… The other most important thing above everything else is the safety of all of our teams,” he says.
The company had crews working in South Africa, Canada and the U.S., all of whom were brought back to home base.
Go Button’s Oron says working remotely was a “no brainer,” but there were a few steps to take — such as moving edit suites, transitioning computers and setting up video conferencing.
“We’ve had to delay one shoot. We’re very fortunate that a large percentage of one of the productions that we were in the middle of filming has already been completed. So we were primarily focused on post,” he says.
The company put together “a plan B, and then a plan C, and then a plan D” for each of the shows that were in its production and post-production pipelines.
“We started talking to the stakeholders about a number of steps that would help us still deliver the shows, not have to pull the plug on them. Some were small creative changes, some were postponement of dates,” Oron says.
In Minneapolis, Intuitive Content undertook a similar protocol.
Patrick Weiland, SVP of programming and development, says the Andrew Zimmern-owned prodco had pulled the plug on field production early and moved post-production teams to work remotely. Now, Intuitive is turning its attention to development.
“We’re trying to backtime when we could get those projects back into pre-production and what that timeline is. Every single day it’s a moving target for us,” Weiland says.
Though most of the company’s staff are working remotely, Weiland (pictured below) says navigating its relationship with the freelance community has been “the toughest part.”
“This task to sideline them and furlough them during this time… Our goal has been to get them back as soon as possible,” he says. “You’re trying to lead a company, do creative, and try to take care of all your employees, and many of them have families they’re trying to feed, people are scattered… We work with people all over the country, so that’s been really tough.”
At Toronto-based Cream Productions, president Kate Harrison Karman (pictured below) says a number of the company’s projects were in post-production, so it’s largely “business as usual,” other than the shift to staff working remotely.
“The biggest thing across the board with our crew, our internal corporate staff, the freelancers that are with us and have been with us on and off for a long time is just being transparent,” Karman says. “We haven’t laid anybody off. We have no intention of laying anybody off. I think [it's] just making sure everybody knows if this lasts eight weeks we may start to slow down a couple of shows. That’s just the reality of this.”
Like many other production houses, Natalka Znak, founder and president of Los Angeles- and London- based Znak and Co., has moved some staff to part time, while others, such as editors, are working remotely. But strategizing for the near future is a challenge.
“Our thing in the short term is just trying to manage the business that we already had and making sure we’re not going to lose it,” Znak says. “All of those shows that we were producing that are all in our year-end figures, where are they going to end up? Are they all going to come back? How much are we going to push them? How do we secure the business we already thought we had? That’s our immediate problem, while trying to think of anything new we can be pitching and securing in the more medium to long term.”
IN THE LOOP
Staying in communications with broadcasters is critical for production companies working to maintain the flow of content.
“They’re in uncharted territory too, so the most important thing for us is to keep communication going so we can keep moving,” Intuitive’s Weiland says. “Luckily our partners are amazing. We’re all weathering this together.”
Znak & Co. was about to shoot a show for Netflix, which has been delayed, along with a number of other projects.
“All the broadcasters we’re working with are trying to work with us. We’re hoping we can just push everything down the line a little bit,” Znak (pictured below) says. “Of course, nobody knows how long this will be.”
She adds the company is negotiating to “pull up” projects that broadcasters have shown interest in or are close to commissioning, so that teams working remotely can start early pre-production on shows to “cover the gap.”
Despite the delays, Cream Production’s Karman says the situation has opened the door for productive conversations with broadcasters.
“Is there a way that we can help our networks? We’ve been lucky to have some long term relationships that have turned into some very candid conversations over the past couple of days that allows us to be proactive of, ‘What can we do for you quickly? Can we look into the stuff we have in our libraries?’”
Arrow’s Brisley echoes Karman, Znak and Weiland, adding it’s important to be honest about which projects are forging ahead, and which might slip.
“With the broadcasters, essentially it’s keeping them absolutely in the loop. They don’t want to hear, ‘It’s all going to be fine.’ They want to hear the truth. Because they’ve all got to plan their schedules and they’ve got to work out changes that they need to make,” Brisley says.
Ian Rumsey, director of TV production at UK-based ITN Productions, says the company has a “duty” to make programs about the crisis, while also making programs that entertain and “give audiences the chance to escape” the situation.
“We have great relations with broadcasters and are in constant communication with them,” Rumsey says. “We are really trying to help them maintain their schedules as well as they can – with daily shows and by making programmes quickly, as well as thinking in the longer term. It’s important TV keeps operating in these times, across all genres.”
‘WE GET BACK UP’
For many production companies, despite the grim outlook, there’s hope for the future.
“The short term impact, we’re taking a hit obviously with production stopped. Long term, our outlook is very optimistic,” Weiland says. “We know there will be a big demand for great non-fiction programming in the coming months as soon as this is done. There’s so much consumption of media going on right now. There will be a lot of pent up demand from buyers.”
Oron adds: “I think like every industry, this has both galvanized and united a lot of people and entities within an industry…We get hit and then we get back up and we keep going.”