Pointed Arrow: John Smithson on nostalgia for the “old normal”

Regular readers of our print edition are familiar with the ‘Pointed Arrow’ column from Arrow co-founder John Smithson, which usually resides in our ‘First Look’ section. With the print magazine ...
January 12, 2021

Regular readers of our print edition are familiar with the ‘Pointed Arrow’ column from Arrow co-founder John Smithson, which usually resides in our ‘First Look’ section. With the print magazine currently on temporary hiatus, we are running the column that would have appeared in our January/February issue here.

While there is no escaping the devastating global impact of COVID-19, with all its tragic consequences, there is nevertheless a tantalizing glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

After what may amount to a year of working under lockdown conditions, dare we start to imagine how our businesses will look when a combination of effective vaccines, bigger and better testing, and effective treatments might finally wrestle COVID onto the ropes, and enable a return to some sort of normal?

I think our world of content creation has shown astonishing resilience and ingenuity adapting to the biggest crisis any of us have faced. We’ve adapted to a new reality of remote commissioning, COVID-safe production and remote editing, as if we have been doing it all our lives.

At some time in the future, we will be amazed to reflect that a business driven by creative interaction could thrive with little or no physical contact.

But I cannot be the only producer who has now had their fill of Teams or Zoom and is longing for a return to some form of the ‘old normal’.

I think the problem is inherent within the creative process — the buzzy creative energy between commissioner and indie, or showrunner and team. The electricity that happens in a physical cutting room between editor, director and execs.

Somehow video calls flatten this creative ebb and flow, and deaden the spontaneous. Being in the room, where you can sense the vibe, absorb the energy, and battle the creative tension just can’t be replicated in sterile pixel land.

So I miss the hours of passionate, lively and sometimes heated debate as you wrangle a problem, or the adrenalin of reading the room and landing the pitch.

I miss getting on a plane every other month to the U.S. or elsewhere to pitch ideas, get the latest intel on what’s working and what’s tanking and have a good old gossip session.

I find it unsettling that I’m about to start a couple of big projects with directors and producers I have only met on video.

I miss the gatherings, be it the big markets of Cannes or New Orleans, or the festivals, where, with colleagues across networks and indies, you can spontaneously chat and keep your ear firmly to the ground. Credit to all for keeping commissioner access and virtual markets as functional as possible in lockdown. The video conferencing software is improving, enabling greater informality and spontaneity as well as really valuable exchanges, but I’m not sure it can ever fully replicate the seductive appeal of a bustling room, chance encounters and high energy banter.

I don’t want to be overly nostalgic for how things used to operate. There’s been lots of positive lessons that will improve how we go about our business, from idea creation through to post-production, and I think this will have a substantial impact once we are able to work under less restrictive conditions.

But, with the greatest respect to everyone in our industry for adapting so brilliantly and keeping the show on the road — boy, am I ready for the new, improved old normal.

John Smithson is creative director of Arrow Pictures, a feature and high-end factual label created out of Arrow, the London-headquartered indie which he co-founded in 2011.

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