People/Biz

Weathering the storm: Unscripted agents talk ‘necessity-based innovation’

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 ...
April 17, 2020

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. 

Though the ways of doing business have changed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, some agents in the unscripted and alternative programming sphere are emboldened to propel content creation to new and exciting heights.

Alec Shankman, co-managing partner and head of A3 Artists Agency’s alternative programming division, is optimistic for the future.

“It has allowed us to pioneer self-shot television, it’s allowed us to encourage our clients to dig deep to find those kinds of creatives that can work in new and different and innovative ways, and it’s created this era of necessity-based innovation that is going to be with us post-corona,” Shankman says.

KEEPING BUSY

perry__babetteBabette Perry (pictured left), head of alternative television and broadcasting at Los Angeles- and New York-based Innovative Artists, says agents have a “responsibility.”

Though perhaps the level of impact varies across the sector, major firms are not immune from facing the financial ramifications of the pandemic. on April 8, Variety reported Creative Artists Agency (CAA) was enacting company-wide pay cuts, while firms such as Endeavor and Paradigm have reportedly laid off staff or cut jobs. The Los Angeles Times reported March 20 that United Talent Agency would be cutting employee salaries.

“It’s really important for us to have leadership at this point and to be there not only for our clients and for our colleagues, but also it’s super important for us to be there for the industry,” Perry says.

Perry says one of her main concerns is the “mental state” of those working in the industry.

“Many people are losing their jobs and I’m very sensitive about that because I know what it means to lose a job,” she says. “I want to make sure that we’re able to employ people and to get people [working], and when I say that I mean our whole entire industry because you know they’ve taken [a] beating.”

The executive says she’s working harder than ever, with a number of development deals in motion for her producer clients.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this busy in my life, and because we have to create the business now we can’t wait for the phones to ring,” Perry says. “It’s up to all of us to roll up our sleeves.”

For Shankman, the most obvious impact has been the shift to working from home.

“My team, which is 33 people at this point, is spread across Los Angeles, New York and London,” he says. “We are all working out of our own houses and we have all come up with a variety of ways to stay in each other’s faces and feel as real and normal as possible.”

Keeping things “normal” has included leveraging myriad video technologies such as Zoom and FaceTime for conducting business meetings or hosting virtual cocktail hours.

Bill Thompson, head of alternative television at Los Angeles-based Verve, says the transition has, for the most part, gone off without a hitch.

The key to overcoming “hiccups,” he says, was getting support staff coordinated.

“On the unscripted side, it’s been seamless. We, like every agency, have had to transition to working remotely, but we do Zoom meetings. We haven’t cancelled any of our meetings — we do the same staff meeting every Monday, we have departmental meetings. It’s been a seamless transition,” Thompson says.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

For many agents, the pandemic has created new opportunities to produce innovative, talent-led programming.

“Our clients are still developing and pitching projects. They just really want to know how the buying community has changed any of their mandates,” Thompson says. “Obviously, you can’t be in production right now.”

shankman, alec photo by david laporte 1673For Shankman (right), the clients under his remit  — unscripted television, digital media, podcasting, gaming and esports — remain “heavily unimpacted.”

“Fortunately, for any of our [unscripted] clients that are in post-production or pre-production, we’ve been able to maneuver them from editing from home or figuring out other socially distant, socially safe ways to continue their efforts,” Shankman says. “Physical production is probably the biggest area that has been hit, but in a lot of cases it’s simply been delayed versus cancelled, which is nice, so we’re figuring out new and different timelines that folks can operate off of to carry out those physical production needs.”

Similarly to Thompson, Shankman says the pandemic has allowed clients to explore self-shot footage, or dig into old clips that can be re-worked to “create opportunity in places where there otherwise wasn’t any.”

“The new corona-friendly type of production is very much in demand by all of the networks and streamers,” Shankman says.

Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates, one of Shankman’s clients, is currently filming the aftershow Josh Gates Tonight from his home office following episodes of Expedition Unknown and Legends of the Wild on Discovery Channel. The network also recently greenlit a special hour-long episode of the talk show in honor of Earth Day.

“We are actively speaking with all of the traditional networks and streamers on a daily basis as they all maneuver this as well — their buying cycle and what it is they’re allowed to greenlight and what they aren’t,” Shankman says. “It’s not that every network is chasing this type of new programming or back catalog programming, but a lot of them are.”

Innovative Artists’ Perry echoes Shankman: “When I speak to the buyers the networks and I talk to clients and I have conversations with everyone, everyone’s really hungry right now. They’re really hungry. And when you’re hungry, you’re just very productive and we’ve had to recreate the business. How many times have we seen our industry change? It’s changed so much in the last 20 years.”

img_1260Thompson (left) says the key is to be smart about what’s possible, and what isn’t.

“It’s about how we can use technology, how we can be smart, how we can pivot and be nimble and transform during this time,” he says. “We’re in the middle of four different deals right now during this time. We’re busy in unscripted work. Our clients are still pitching, the buying community is still actively hearing pitches, just via Zoom.”

BACK ON TRACK

As production hits a standstill across the world, the industry is looking ahead to a post-coronavirus entertainment landscape. For many in the business, unscripted content is poised for a quicker rebound.

“Out in the field, follow-along type shows, smaller-set environments or situations where you can really limit the amount of people that are around, that’s going to be a lot easier to get up and running more quickly,” Shankman explains. “A lot of those shows, they’re already figuring out the right ways to maneuver this. So I think getting a lot of unscripted television back up and running is going to be pretty easy and there’s going to be even new and different ways to maneuver where a lot of these folks can self shoot, a lot of these folks are doing it from their own home as opposed to the studio or in and around environments that they control like their offices or whatever the case may be, as opposed to an enclosed studio that they don’t have influence over.”

Thompson says his production company clients are “actively developing.”

“Unscripted television’s always been a cost-effective way to deliver content, and it would be a natural way of thinking that it’s an easier way to ramp back up, to get into production quicker. It costs less,” he says. “I think it will be a faster way to ramp back up content production.”

To take that momentum further, Perry says she’s been working closely with Innovative Artists’ scripted department.

“What we’ve done is we’ve looked at all of the comedians and all of the actors, and we’ve asked their agents to let us know what their passion is because what we’re going to have to do is come up with these different formats and ideas,” Perry says. “Today our industry is about the voice, the authenticity, the likability and the credibility of the talent. So for people to buy into an actor doing, let’s say, a home show for HGTV, it can’t be someone that has a clothing line or a furniture line that now wants to sell a show. It has to be someone who actually rolls up their sleeves and has a hammer, does the flipping.”

‘KEEP GOING’

Despite the challenges, Shankman says the COVID-19 pandemic could push the industry forward.

“Within any problem therein lies opportunity,” he says. “I don’t know the timeline of it all but I’m very comfortable saying, as the world gets more comfortable leveraging technology, there’s probably just going to be more and more and more new types of content and new types of programming that we get to create using new technology than we ever could have thought possible.”

Perry echoes Shankman, adding there may never be a return to “normal,” and that the positive changes — whether it be content innovation, the use of technology or working remotely — could stick. Still, she adds it will take the industry working together to overcome the challenges.

“I don’t have a crystal ball but the short-term plan is to not do anything different, just to keep doing what you’ve done, keep going,” she says. “We never ever knew or will ever know where this industry is going, the future of this industry, because it’s so rapidly changing, but I do believe in my heart that we’re all just going to be better from this whole experience. I’ve already seen change. I’ve already seen really positive change just in the last four weeks so I’m going to be optimistic to say that we’ll be back on top.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.

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