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Summit ’21: Executives talk managing through uncertainty

Executives from across various industry sectors discussed how they coped last year during the pandemic — the biggest challenges and what they learned most about the business — in a ...
February 4, 2021

Executives from across various industry sectors discussed how they coped last year during the pandemic — the biggest challenges and what they learned most about the business — in a virtual panel Tuesday (Feb. 2) at the 2021 Realscreen Summit.

The moderator was J.C. Mills (pictured), president and commercial director of Cineflix Productions, and the panel included Lauren Gellert, EVP of development and original programming at WE TV; Kevin Hill, head of television and digital development at Seven Bucks; Ryann Lauckner, president and chief strategy officer at Asylum Entertainment Group; Emmanuelle Namiech, CEO of Passion Distribution; and Edward Simpson, chief strategy officer for Wheelhouse.

Mills began by stating how COVID-19 ground everything to a halt, which created the chance for industry professionals to take stock of their companies and game plans. The pandemic was and still is an opportunity to pivot toward or away from specific strategies. Mills asked the panel what opportunities revealed themselves over the last 10 months and/or what issues they were unprepared for.

“We have worked really closely with our various partners and our business has really remained laser focused on what we do and what we do best, which is acquiring and creating IP. And then generating opportunities to monetize the IP,” said Passion’s Namiech. “We’ve had a really good opportunity to reimagine how we interact with our partners. ‘How do we launch our shows without physical trade markets, how do we reach our buyers, how do they want to do things?”

There was also the issue last year of not knowing what would happen next or how long the pandemic would last. And of course, these questions still loom large in the collective consciousness.

“I think as business owners and operators you’re used to a certain level of uncertainty in how you’re steering the ship,” explained Wheelhouse’s Simpson. “You don’t know the waters you’re in all the time, but you’re used to having physical laws about supply and demand and you know what the world is. What COVID did is, it took away all of those stabilizers and suddenly there was no certainty.

“And our skill sets were really put to use charting these unknowable waters,” he added. “That was kind of reassuring, in that we realized we had the skill sets to deal with this.”

As far as new growth opportunities that arose out of the health crisis, the panel was optimistic. Simpson mentioned his company’s recently unveiled new division called Wheelhouse DNA, which focuses on content creation for the 15- to 30-year-old demographic. “The focus is on digital content creators who have their own audience and their own revenue streams that are driven by advertising,” said Simpson.

The folks at Asylum were able to increase focus on an audio company they launched prior to the pandemic. “Last year was a really great opportunity for us to double and triple down on that and to develop out that slate, and to look at crossover for productions that maybe were intended to be TV productions but could actually be appropriately retrofitted for audio,” explained Lauckner. “But I think when it comes to core non-scripted production, I don’t know that it gave us some new opportunities as much as it helped us to focus on some of the things we put on the back-burner.”

Lauckner also highlighted the ability to build new business alliances and expand the off-screen talent base through remote production as a positive side-effect of the current circumstances.

“When we switched to remote it didn’t matter if I was 10 blocks from someone or 2,000 miles from someone,” said Lauckner. “I think it actually really encouraged us to fish in different ponds and now we’ve got showrunners coming out of the Midwest, in the South and the East Coast now, who we maybe would not have met. So, from that perspective, I think it’s actually been quite healthy for us.”

Panelists also discussed how saving money by not flying across the country or across the ocean to do business in person could potentially result in an increased budget to hire another staffer.

As for pivoting towards COVID-friendly development or production, it’s a mixed bag. For the panelists producing reality programming, it’s about embracing the unpredictability of the enduring pandemic.

“We had to embrace what was going on in our characters who are real people and living real lives,” said WE tv’s Gellert. “So you will see our talent in masks, you will see them breaking fourth walls with producers who are wearing masks, you will see socially distanced family reunions.”

“I felt lucky to be at a company that had multiple areas of revenue, and not necessarily being beholden to the most impacted area to the pandemic,” said Hill of Seven Bucks. “It was being able to make the choice pretty early on to not pivot to COVID development. The bigger sort of things that arose for us were we had just finished shooting The Titan Games, and that wasn’t intended to air until January of this year. And with the Olympics getting canceled the network came to us and asked if we could air in three months instead of 12. So, that’s a big endeavor. But it all worked out and we were able to deliver the show.”

As for the future of trade markets like MIPTV or Realscreen Summit, the panelists were once again optimistic that at some unknown date that element of the industry would come roaring back. “This is a business that people do love connecting, and they do love building their relationships, and they do love being together and sharing ideas and coming up with something while walking [around together] looking for music or a restaurant,” said Gillert. “And those are fun things that shouldn’t go away and hopefully won’t. Maybe they’re done less frequently. But I hope they don’t go away, because I do feel like there’s really something to that personal connection and that time away from your office.”

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