RealTalk video roundtable: Crafting and casting content during quarantine

Realscreen presents the second edition of its RealTalk Video Roundtable series, with this episode examining innovations and challenges in producing and casting unscripted content in the midst of the COVID-19 ...
May 12, 2020

Realscreen presents the second edition of its RealTalk Video Roundtable series, with this episode examining innovations and challenges in producing and casting unscripted content in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the current rise in self-shot programming.

Hosted by Realscreen editor and content director Barry Walsh, the episode features Gabriela Tavakoli Bailey, VP of production for TLC; Lucilla D’Agostino, chief creative officer at MGM-owned Big Fish Entertainment; Phil Lott, co-founder of AMPLE Entertainment; Jacqueline Pitman, CEO and casting director at Pitman Casting; and Matt Sharp, CEO and founder of Industrial Media’s Sharp Entertainment.

In the discussion, the execs discuss their most recent, current and upcoming self-shot specials and series, and the process of greenlighting, casting and producing the content. They also share their thoughts on the durability of the genre once the pandemic subsides, and how projects and production processes emerging from this period might last beyond the present moment.

Now is the time for self-shot content

Certainly, the ability of unscripted producers and networks to move quickly and attempt to create content amidst the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis is a plus, and self-shot programming has served as a savior of sorts for schedules and existing unscripted franchises. Says Matt Sharp jokingly: “This is the panel that puts us all out of business,” adding, “Everyone’s got a camera on their phone that is probably better than the cameras we were all using five years ago. It’s a new world.”

For TLC, 90 Day FiancĂ©: Self-Quarantined — a self-shot extension of the immensely popular franchise — serves as both a way to keep the franchise moving and an opportunity to super-serve an audience that seemingly can’t get enough of the cast and the conceit. Tavakoli Bailey says it was a matter of a mere few weeks from greenlighting the concept to outfitting cast members with materials to shoot themselves. And as the original series was built on the idea of potential life partners fostering intimacy through FaceTime and other technology, Self-Quarantined is a “natural extension of the series.”

AMPLE’s Lott says that although his team has supplemented the self-shot footage used in its Facebook Watch pregnancy series Nine Months with Courteney Cox with drone footage and Arri Alexa material, it’s the self-shot content that cuts to the heart of the program, now in its second season. “You have to encourage [the cast] to shoot everything, otherwise you’re just sending them a list of sequences to shoot and that’s bad producing,” he says. “You get very intimate portraits of people’s lives but you have an awful lot of material to have to sift through.” For the first season, that meant between 40,000-50,000 hours of footage coming into the building for post.

Big Fish’s D’Agostino says the current situation is inspiring hard-to-get talent to rethink their passing on projects and is providing a chance to “get some shows on the air that might not have happened otherwise.” The Live PD prodco, already well-established in methods of remote production, is behind the new Amy Schumer Learns to Cook series on Food Network, which is “shot by her nanny and two robo-cams.”

From the casting perspective, Pitman says it hasn’t been challenging to find casts for projects looking for participants even in the midst of the pandemic. “People are home and they are looking for an outlet, some sense of normalcy,” she says. “Us calling them to be on a game show… they are super excited.”

…But what about after quarantine?
Pitman says that in her conversations with producers, “Even though it seems there is a pandemic type of programming happening right now, they don’t want us to get stuck on it.”

All panelists agree that the processes being learned on the fly in this period will outlast the pandemic and help producers and their network partners produce more efficiently, but the content itself will need to be able to evolve beyond the current situation in order to last.

“I think the organic nature that has developed out of quarantine will probably stay… There is an issue with this being evergreen narratively,” says Sharp. “We’ve started feeling from networks that people are starting to look beyond quarantine… I’m more interested in what’s the concept that lives in quarantine but propels beyond quarantine.”

“It’s making us savvier producers, and asking us if some of the ways we made things before were less effective than we can make them now,” says D’Agostino. “We’re making things differently and that will last.”

“If you’re looking at self-shot as a methodology of cost saving, you’re looking at it wrong,” cautions Lott when discussing budgets and costs involved in self-shot programming. “There’s an awful lot of machinery that goes into making post flow successful… Living beyond this period of time, this is going to be a very useful technique… but as a producer, if you’re just trying to swap a big expensive camera for an iPhone, that’s the wrong idea.”

“It’s a scary time but it’s also a little bit freeing and liberating mentally,” sums up Pitman, concerning the move to a more remote but potentially efficient way of working — which admittedly, the casting world embraced long before COVID-19. “All I have to do is make sure I have people I trust working for me to keep our product consistent, and I don’t have to micromanage. You can’t. You just manage.” – BW

Watch the second episode of RealTalk here:

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