Viewpoint: Argonon CEO James Burstall on planning for an uncertain future

In January, we suspected a storm was coming. By February 28th, we heard of the first deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and UK. We knew the storm was now ...
May 19, 2020

In January, we suspected a storm was coming. By February 28th, we heard of the first deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and UK. We knew the storm was now a tsunami and would soon engulf us.

Like all other indies, I have to confess that I felt genuine fear of the existential threat facing Argonon. Each day brought a new and unknown challenge that we had to deal with as a team. We set plans in motion. We took life-changing decisions. And while we now seem to be through the first phase, businesses across the world are contemplating the shape of the future.

For an industry as diverse, varied and complex as ours, there are still many questions left to answer and, inevitably, a great deal of uncertainty. However, my experience of the last few months of tough decisions as well as countless conversations with colleagues and industry peers has identified a few key areas that all production companies should take into account to navigate their way through a re-imagined future.

Plan, plan, plan
With so much still up in the air, the idea of making plans can feel challenging. It’s imperative for production companies to develop short, mid and long-term strategies that are both robust but flexible to maintain focus during this period. Consider setting up your own Cobra-style team (the British government’s crisis action group) with representatives from various areas of your business to give honest, detailed and razor-sharp opinions to inform important decisions that determine your direction. Don’t shy away from brutal realities – confront them, take tough decisions.

It’s important to be honest about challenges, decisions and actions. A roadmap through this is essential. Lay out and communicate every step and provide calm purpose.

Look deep inside
We undertook a 14-day process of “open-heart surgery” on the company. It covered what we could develop and produce, what we could edit, and what we could deliver in the next week, month, six months and beyond.

During this process, we learned a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses in our business model and we were forced to confront them – something I would recommend to all companies. Evaluate what you could be doing better as an organization and how you can re-imagine your old ways of working and introduce new ideas.

Argonon is an independent group and flexible thinking is in our DNA. We are also a multi-genre, multi-territory group and we thrive on being a mixed ecology of diverse voices and cultures. This pandemic has underscored our need to all work in concert.

Be agile
This period is forcing everyone to get more creative and innovative in the kind of content they are shooting and how it’s being produced. Companies of every size need to think like a start-up and be agile in terms of the kind of work they target. For production companies, this means paying close attention to which countries open up for shooting and consider getting filming going in those territories, making use of networks of local crews where you can. Start a daily international grid detailing where on the planet you might be able to start filming.

Don’t be afraid to look outside your usual genres. Devise ideas that can reimagine your back catalog of shows which could spawn new commissions. We pivoted our prodco BriteSpark away from formatted documentaries and into current affairs, producing two ‘Dispatches’ films for Channel 4.

Take an active role in your industry
One of the biggest positives that has come out of the pandemic is I have never felt more connected to my industry peers and feel really proud of the ways in which we have all supported each other. Producers and channels are more open than ever to share genuine thought leadership and best practice to help their peers through webinars, industry sessions or one-to-one conversations. We sought advice from fellow producers, channels, PACT, our insurers, and health and safety experts. Production insurance has become top of the priority list. Across the industry, people have been talking and sharing intel and it has become a heartening and resourceful hive mind. Think laterally, have detailed conversations with channels, and work out how to build protocols to make it safe to film.

Embrace technology
Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure – we will all be relying a lot more on remote working and digital communication. This includes post-production, an area of our business we previously would have thought impossible to “work from home” but in fact, we installed 32 editors remotely. We physically moved all of our staff in New York, London, Liverpool and Glasgow off-site and online in just 48 hours. All companies should be investing in technology solutions to facilitate remote working over the long term – whether that’s moving edits to the cloud where our working life now depends, or comms platforms to stay in touch. Though the speed and scale of Argonon’s move was staggering, the tech enabled a smooth transition.

Be human
Above all, be human. It’s likely that uncertainty and fear will continue for many months and the economic ramifications of the crisis will bring further pain for many industries. Open, honest and regular communication is essential at all levels. My amazing team has been a great source of inspiration and comfort to each other – it’s never been more important for people to ensure they have their own support systems to get through this challenging time.

Supporting our talent – and lobbying on their behalf – is vital. And like most businesses we’ve donated to industry charities to help those who are struggling and taken pay cuts to protect our teams as much as possible.

Across the industry, people have been talking and sharing intel and it has become a heartening and resourceful hive mind.

As for the future, whilst some of our programs are filming across international territories, we’re aiming to be fully shoot-ready across the group by the beginning of June. We will only trigger filming where we can protect our teams. The safety of our talent, on- and off-screen, is paramount. We are deep in pre-production on scripted and entertainment projects in the summer. We have just completed shoots in Australia, Guatemala and Sweden.

I would never have imagined any of us going through what we have this year. It has been painful for the entire industry and it is not over yet. For us, it has brought teams together, inside and outside Argonon, tested our resilience and our fighting spirit and forced us to reshape our business and our culture.

I am confident we will come through this, and in many ways, we will emerge even stronger.

James Burstall is CEO of UK-headquartered superindie Argonon, home to such production companies as Bandicoot, Barefaced TV, Britespark Films, Leopard Films, Leopard USA, Like a Shot Entertainment, and Windfall Films.

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