Outlook 2021: CAA’s Rosanna Bilow on unscripted’s “fire hose” of opportunity

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. ...
December 9, 2020

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. As the novel coronavirus put the TV and film industry on pause, stakeholders across all sectors re-calibrated — as Realscreen covered in ‘Weathering the storm’ — and, as we heard in ‘Back to business,’ returned to the job with a new playbook.

Now, with ‘Outlook,’ Realscreen is turning the page on a difficult year, and looking onward to 2021. Here, you’ll hear from execs in various sectors about the challenges and opportunities they foresee for the industry in the year ahead. In this edition of the series, we speak to Rosanna Bilow, an alternative television agent at Los Angeles-headquartered Creative Artists Agency (CAA).

Starting next week, Realscreen will hear from producers with their thoughts on what the future holds for non-scripted content.

The pandemic accelerated the appetite for unscripted. How has that been reflected on your agency’s side and how much of CAA’s focus is on unscripted/alt/non-scripted as we look ahead to 2021?

Rosanna Bilow: We have so many clients that have seen it — although it’s obviously been very difficult — as an opportunity to change and to do something different and to get out there and seize this in a different way.

Everything from motion picture talent to big directors to musicians to writers to athletes, all those people are eager and excited to be in our business, and then obviously vice-versa — all the networks and production companies want to be in business with those people. So, it has really brought us all together, having to work to find all these people, these opportunities, and look at that from all sides, whether it be on camera or behind the camera.

Everybody has had to kind of jump in the water because, in some ways, it’s a fire hose of opportunity and we’re trying to capture as much of it as we possibly can.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing in unscripted content that will be at the forefront in 2021, and how are they guiding the long-term approach you’re taking with clients? 

RB: In terms of the types of shows that we’re seeing out there in the broader sense, I think it’s optimistic, it’s family friendly, it’s fun, it’s hopeful.

We’re not seeing COVID programming. We’re not seeing, “Let’s dive into things that feel like we’re living in a pandemic forever.” It’s what’s going to make you hopeful and excited, what’s going to make you laugh, the show that you want to watch with your entire family — or as much of your family that you can be with right now.

In terms of what we see these networks getting excited about, what we see them getting invested in, you’re seeing them want to dive into those spaces and then, in a good way, they want to see familiar voices and faces.

It’s bringing in so many of those other other departments, faces that you’re not seeing… We’re going to bring them to you in this world in a new way and let you experience that. And I think that gives people comfort. It’s exciting, and all of that is blending together.

How have you seen digital content evolve over the last year? What does digital content look like in 2021?

RB: We’re not separating it anymore as like, “This is just reality TV. This is just digital content.” We stopped putting them in different worlds because they’re all coming together. Our clients are working in both of them interchangeably.

Obviously, a lot of our buyers are in the digital world right now. All of that talent is moving over and flowing into all different kinds of spaces. It’s all growing, but it’s all growing as one.

How are fluctuations in the buying and commissioning market affecting your clients, especially as networks feel the financial pressures of the pandemic? 

RB: We have a bunch of buyers wanting more and more and more. They are really excited.

The buying market has been more aggressive, but then more specific of what they want. Perhaps that has a little something to do with the financial [pressure] that they’re experiencing internally, but the pandemic didn’t just mean, “Oh, we just need to buy a ton of content now.” It was, “We need to be bigger and better. We need to be more functional, we need to be more creative.”

You need to be able to give people that excitement. You need to be able to step it up and get them to really lean in and watch something in its entirety and get excited and talk about it among other people. So, the quality standard, even though they’re buying a lot, has even gone up further — what they want in a format, how creative it’s going to be, what type of talent they want, who’s showrunning, who’s directing.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re preparing for in 2021? 

RB: For our clients, 2020 was a hard year, even if they had a ton of business. It was still a hard year with how they were able to produce.

How we’re looking at our clients’ projects is to make sure that… we’re doing it strategically, that we’re really being thoughtful about each project, that we’re packaging each project in the right way with all the right elements.

That means that every project takes more time, more thought, more strategy. Being able to put all of that into each one is incredibly important, and that’s going to look a little bit different than perhaps it did in prior years.

Many agencies experienced layoffs throughout the pandemic, including CAA. Is the sector on more stable ground going into next year, in your view? 

RB: I can speak more to my group than the agency as a whole but… we always joke that we’re working harder than we’ve ever worked in our lives.

A lot of us are really seeing… this next year as an amazing opportunity and I don’t think any of us are shrinking from that — how much opportunity there is and being a part of that with our clients. We really are super hopeful for next year.

In addition to the pandemic, another big topic this year was diversity in front of and behind the camera. How has that been reflected on the unscripted side at CAA?

RB: I have been [working at CAA] for 20 years and this has been something we’ve been talking about for a very, very long time but obviously, with everything that’s transpired this year… We really have looked at, where are those opportunities to lift up these voices that aren’t being heard right now? Where are the opportunities for staffing so that there is an opportunity for more Black showrunners in our business? It’s about being really smart and strategic about lifting [people] up as field producers and supervising producers — just making sure that the studios and the networks know these faces and voices and creators as early as humanly possible, and to make sure they really have a very strong path to keep moving forward.

It’s really important in a moment where we’re all running right-left-center-backwards to get all the shows going, that we do have to make a moment to stop and make sure that is just as strong a focus as anything else.

Anything else you’d like to add?

RB: I think it’s a new landscape for 2021, but a really exciting one. The amount of interesting people that are a part of some of these unscripted shows right now and are building unscripted companies is, I think, pretty exceptional. I don’t know if we would have thought a few years back that Will Smith, Drew Barrymore, Reese Witherspoon — all these people would have very functional and big unscripted production companies.

This is really exciting. I know it’s a hard year but the look ahead is really great.

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