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Charging Ahead

A resilient and creative community of programmers and producers have found ways to restart shooting.  

How many times during the past few decades have we used the term “disruption” when talking about technologies that have shaken up the media industry? Just when we thought we had developed the resilience to adapt to the next upheaval, along came the coronavirus. COVID-19 has spared no industry, business, country or segment of society. It certainly hasn’t bypassed the international television production community.

In mid-March, in the early days of the outbreak, production halted, studios shuttered, lights dimmed, cameras and equipment were put away and offices closed, as countries and communities around the globe went into lockdown. Films and TV series remained unfinished. Staff and crew members were furloughed, or worse. The industry suffered setbacks but was not defeated.

Executives and their teams quickly adjusted to working remotely. Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype meetings became the order of the day. There was an urgency to get back on set or in the studio to finish productions that had been interrupted. At the same time, channels and platforms had commissioned new shows that needed to move into prep. Projects were in development, and that process had to continue. Systems and protocols had to be devised to guarantee the safety of cast and crews—with cost structures that were not too onerous.

The shows that could most easily return to production and presented the fewest risks to cast and crew were unscripted. As Lucas Green, the head of content at Banijay, explains, “Big Brother is a perfect COVID-friendly format because the house is like a biosphere. You have to do the classic precautions: all the housemates have to go into quarantine beforehand, do the tests and prove that they are in the clear, and once you’ve got the green light, they go into the house. You have protocols in place, and you have backups. But once you are in, it allows you to provide a huge number of hours of content in a safe environment, and there is no interaction with the production team. Big Brother could have been created for a pandemic environment.”

Other unscripted shows from Banijay were also able to head back into production. “If you’ve got those format engines, you can film them in blocks,” says Green. “Once you’ve got your protocols in place, you can generate the shows very quickly because that’s the beauty of a format. You’ve got a system and a schedule, and it’s much easier to reproduce in numbers.”

While unscripted shows are often less complicated to shoot than scripted comedies or dramas, getting them back into production has posed challenges that required alternatives to the usual way of making them. For example, Red Arrow Studios’ Kinetic Content in the U.S. found creative ways of producing differently, creating the spin-off series Married at First Sight: Couples’ Cam.

“The series, which is self-shot, follows the lives of nine fan-favorite couples from the U.S. series: the highs, lows, humor and drama of the couples’ everyday domestic lives,” says Joel Denton, the acting president of Red Arrow Studios International. “Each couple has access to their own camera equipment—using mounted cameras and diary cams—and they communicate remotely with producers to capture pivotal moments of their daily lives.”

Louise Pedersen, the CEO of all3media international, says the company has a number of shows that lend themselves to being produced with social distancing, among them Celebrity Call Centre and Gogglebox. “Producers are looking for ways of making big studio shows work with an audience, too—for example, our major new entertainment talent show with ModestTV and the BBC that stars the girl group Little Mix. Little Mix The Search produced the early audition episodes in lockdown, with live episodes to follow this autumn.”

At Red Arrow, Denton has seen a greater demand for studio-based shows, because “in this current climate, they are easier to shoot safely with just a few adaptations to the gameplay and the studio setup,” he says. “For example, in many instances, you can strip back or do away with the live studio audience.”

Whatever the show, safety protocols are critical. “We are quite strict in Europe,” says Banijay’s Green. “You have to mitigate the risks. It’s about collective responsibility, and our jobs depend on it. When you go to a studio now in Europe, everyone wears their masks. There are signs everywhere. We have one-way corridors. There are hand-sanitizing stations everywhere. You’re given a packed lunch. You bring your own coffee flask and water bottle. It’s a new way of working, but I think collectively you expect your colleagues and peers to abide by the rules, and you remind them. You help them get through it. That’s the only way we’ll get through it together, because nobody wants a second lockdown where a show has to be paused while you deal with an outbreak.”

Often shot on location, with bigger crews, more equipment, sophisticated hair and makeup requirements and the need to feed many people, scripted dramas and comedies are more complicated to produce than most unscripted shows. Immediately after lockdown, production teams began brainstorming safety protocols, limiting travel and the number of locations and devising flexible schedules. This planning had to be coordinated with health and government officials.

The countries that had done the best job at containing the coronavirus early on were the first to restart production. Iceland was one of those countries, where shooting halted in March but for no more than three weeks.

Einar Tómasson, Iceland’s film commissioner, explains, “The biggest reason people are looking at Iceland is that we’ve been dealing well with COVID-19, and people know there are few inhabitants in the country. It is possible to work in beautiful locations. You fly into Iceland; you go to your hotel, and you can book the whole hotel if needed. From there, you go to the location to shoot, stay there, and go between the location and the hotel. You’re not putting your people at risk. You’re not putting the people of Iceland at risk. That’s the beauty of being in a location-driven place like Iceland. It’s more complicated on the big sets you have in London, Los Angeles and New York, where it is more crowded and harder to get to work.”

Canada is also managing the pandemic well, but producers still had numerous obstacles to overcome before restarting production.

“Like everyone, in mid-March we had to put quite a few of our productions on hiatus,” says Jocelyn Hamilton, the president of Entertainment One’s (eOne) television division in Canada. “We worked diligently from March until July on how to get back into production. While we watched what was happening with the virus, we were also working collaboratively with the government, unions and other producers, not only in Canada but also around the world, to gain information and collaborate on what [production would] look like. We spent months and tons of conversations, Zoom or otherwise, talking it out. What do pods look like? How are we going to deal with craft services? We had a committee in the province of Ontario, and there was one in British Columbia, working on protocols that everyone would agree with. The unions and producers were on that committee, as were representatives of the city of Toronto and government on all levels, working diligently to figure out how to make this happen, with the number one priority being the health and safety of our cast and crew. Then there are complications. What is happening with insurance? How can we go back in a way that is not only safe but also cost-effective? By the end of June, we had come to protocols that were approved by the government, and a committee called Section 21, and we had negotiations with unions. Then, luckily, the government said the country was at a stage that allowed production to restart.”

Two of the production companies in the all3media group have been shooting in New Zealand and Australia. Pedersen says that Hollyoaks is starting back up in the U.K., as is Call the Midwife, among other shows. She says, “Things are beginning to get back to production with all the COVID-19 protocols and different ways of doing things that I think everyone is having to put in place. There is lots of regular testing and nurses on set, keeping people in bubbles, etc.”

One way to maintain the health and safety of casts and crews is to keep all members of the production together—for example, living in hotels near the set—so they don’t go home or out into the community and risk infection. Alternatively, people are grouped by jobs and only associate with one another and not with others in the production. These production models have been called pods, pools or bubbles.

As Red Arrow’s Denton explains, the systems used differ according to the production. “For a big scripted show like Vienna Blood, currently in production in Austria, considerable modifications have had to be made,” he says. “The crew is split into several operating groups and zones, which remain independent of each other, so if an infection occurs, it can be contained within one zone and doesn’t shut down the whole production. The kits and changing/makeup stations are individual to each cast member; only one actor will be in makeup or costume at any one time, and the areas are regularly cleaned after each use. Hygiene officers and a consulting doctor are on hand to check that safety measures are being implemented, and masks have to be worn by every cast and crew member throughout the day and changed every four hours. Regular testing of cast and crew will also be carried out.”

“In Canada, we all collaborated quite carefully to ensure that we put in place manageable and common-sense protocols, both in execution and cost,” explains eOne’s Hamilton. “We all work together on maintaining those protocols, such as doing cleaning and craft services differently, where everyone has to have individual meals. Hair and makeup are done differently. We have a COVID-19 supervisor and nurse on every production. We have what some people call pods or teams so that there isn’t cross-contamination—meaning, people who would have freely crossed through the set don’t. If you don’t need to be on set, then don’t be. It is all just common sense with a focus on the health and safety of everyone, first and foremost.”

Sky Studios paused 29 productions across Europe in March, says Jane Millichip, the company’s chief content officer. “We then quite quickly went into the mode of how to restart production.

“We’ve got three categories of crew, and the first is the people who can maintain social distancing on-site as much as possible,” Millichip explains. “That group includes set designers and builders, lighting riggers, catering. Masks are required, everyone has their temperature taken, and they work staggered shifts. Teams will be provided designated positions. Category two are those who have to work in close proximity to each other, not necessarily on camera. They are segregated in pools and keep to their pool. There is the use of PPE in circumstances where necessary. Category three is where people work much more closely together: cameras, lighting, sound, makeup and costume teams. These crews are expected to wear PPE, and there is more segregation. They work in pairs to reduce risk; for example, Actor A always works with Makeup Artist A. The use of screens and structures is considered, where necessary, to help keep social distancing. So it’s a mix of the increase in hygiene, distancing, enhanced PPE, segregation—separation by teams and separation on the set in terms of geography—and testing.”

Inevitably, complying with COVID-19 safety protocols is altering shooting schedules and production processes and inflating production budgets. On Red Arrow’s Vienna Blood, Denton explains, “The order of shooting has been amended a bit so that, wherever possible, scenes involving several cast members have been moved to the end. The locations have tended to drive the schedule more this time to ensure that movement of cast and crew can be minimized, and every location can be shot in one go. Whenever possible, the show will also use postproduction in order to enhance the results of the shoot through the use of green screen and digital crowd creation, for example. Of course, all this additional compliance comes at a cost; many series are having to absorb anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent in additional production costs. It all depends on the sort of show and where you’re shooting.”

Pedersen at all3media international adds: “The main extra cost is that it takes you longer to shoot, so you are adding extra days. All of that is a factor. There is a chance that we might see that come down a bit as people get used to this new way of working.”

“In Canada, we have more costs, don’t get me wrong, and we have figured out how to work with our broadcasters and/or our budgets and/or our systems to manage those costs,” notes eOne’s Hamilton. “When the shows were already in production, [we faced] additional costs because those budgets were locked, but we worked through managing that. In the case of new productions that were picked up during COVID-19, we put the costs into the budget, and we worked through the financing. Again, our broadcasters and the government funding that goes along with our financing, like the CMF [Canada Media Fund], were very helpful. But that’s a case-by-case negotiation, and we managed to work it out.”

All productions require insurance—liability coverage if someone gets injured or equipment is damaged or stolen. However, the uncertainty created by COVID-19 has upped the unknowns to the point that most insurance companies do not want to take the risk.

Without insurance, shooting cannot begin. In Europe this past spring, it was not only broadcasters, platforms and production companies that urgently needed to get back into production—thousands of related businesses and jobs were at stake. Governments had to step in to help, and Austria was the first.

“The government had to do something, and we have been the first country in the world to come to producers with this kind of compensation,” says Arie Bohrer, the film commissioner at Location Austria, which serves as the Austrian Film Commission. “They set up a €25 million ($29 million) security package, which gives foreign producers €2.5 million ($3 million) in compensation per project, in case they have to interrupt [production due to the coronavirus]. Normally no insurance company would have [covered this].” Austria also offers foreign producers non-repayable grants for 30 percent of their Austrian expenses.

“In Iceland, insurance has not been a problem,” says Tómasson. “The main problem is with production from abroad, especially the U.S. It looks like the U.S. insurance companies are not willing to insure. But we have productions from the U.S. right now, and they will be able to get insurance. Of course, they are smaller in scale, not like the big-budget studio films, but they are able to get it.”

Tómasson believes that as more and more shows complete filming without outbreaks, insurance companies will be more willing to provide coverage. “We have shown in Iceland that productions can go very well without any problems. And if we have a number of those projects, we are a proof of concept to make insurance companies more relaxed about Iceland. Of course, if you have an outbreak on set, and you have 450 people going into quarantine for two weeks, or let’s say an actor gets the coronavirus and is very ill and may be out for months, or even dies, that’s a big risk for the insurance company. But we have now been able to shoot projects in Iceland, so I believe we have a strong proof of concept.”

In June, the Australian government announced it would provide a A$50 million ($36.1 million) Temporary Interruption Fund to help restart production. In July, it launched the COVID-19 Budget Support Fund.

The U.K. announced a £500 million ($637 million) Film and TV Production Restart Scheme to help productions that were halted or delayed because of an inability to secure insurance. It also supports producers in the event of future losses due to COVID-19. Eligible producers can claim up to 20 percent of the budget for a delay and 70 percent for the abandonment of production.

In Quebec, the French-speaking province in Canada, the government is providing support in the event that productions have to stop because of COVID-19, explains Nathalie Clermont, the VP of programs and business development at Canada Media Fund (CMF).

She says, “The Canadian government is looking at different options for English-language productions, to offer compensation to producers if the virus is spreading on their sets. They have not announced anything yet, but they are well aware of what is going on in Quebec and all over the world. They are developing an approach because it’s a big concern for producers, banks and other financers.”

For all the disruption that the pandemic has wrought on the TV industry, there is one area that has been almost business as usual, with the help of teleconferencing. “Development has been one of the things that all our slates, in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, could continue throughout the pandemic because most of it is writing,” says eOne’s Hamilton. “We continued to option properties, and we’ve been full-on in development. We have some amazing properties that are ready to go out, but like anything, timing is the key. We are mindful of that as we bring things out to the market.”

Millichip at Sky Studios has seen the same. “Writers’ rooms and read-throughs have continued. Knowing now that protocols will need to be in place for some time has given us the kind of intelligence that is helpful for any show that hasn’t started production yet. For the shows in production, we’ve had to work out how to continue them, whereas for the shows going into production, we’ve had to think hard about how we will shoot them.

“It hasn’t changed our ambition at all; however, there is a logic to proceeding at pace with shows that are easier to shoot through lockdown. It might naturally be a smaller set, or the locations are considered safer. But that hasn’t stopped us from developing shows with big casts and multiple locations.”

Producing during COVID-19 has been a steep learning curve for broadcasters, platforms, production companies and distributors. It is likely that some of the efficiencies and best practices emerging from this challenging time will continue post the pandemic.

“In a crisis, you do question old habits,” says Millichip. “Do we work with slightly smaller crews on set? But then you may transfer more resources to the planning stage. I’m definitely not saying we don’t need half the industry. But with the increase in the need for planning, scheduling and logistics, do you put more resources into that part of the process and work with smaller crews on set?”

all3media’s Pedersen believes efficiencies are already showing up. “Over here, in terms of paying for these extra costs, broadcasters, distributors and other financiers have had to be very pragmatic and have had to say they will fund these costs in proportion to their financing plan. It feels like everyone is working together to get things moving again.”

Collaboration has been vital in managing the disruption caused by the pandemic. “Indie production is an incredibly resourceful, agile business—not just ours, but across the sector in the U.K.,” notes Millichip. “They have worked hard to help the broadcasters rather than get into a punch-up over budgets. How can we make this good enough for you and still be able to respond to the budget requirements? Clearly, the long-term concern for indies is how they will maintain their margins if those linear budgets have a permanent retraction of some kind. But we have to work our way through that.”

About Anna Carugati

Anna Carugati is the group editorial director of World Screen.


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