The coronavirus headlines are loud and dramatic. But beneath the noise, there are the people in China trying to get on with their lives, their work. On Monday 10th, people were due to return to work after Chinese New Year, but there’s by no means a uniform approach to how big businesses are dealing with the risks. According to CNN, some companies have set up quarantine zones and temperature checks, while others like Alibaba and Tencent are telling staff to work from home
For creative and production companies, some have managed to keep going by working remotely, particularly in the animation and VFX world. However, with commercial associations like the APA advising members not to shoot in China, production service companies are feeling the strain. There are longer term concerns, too; clients typically spend big around CNY, but the outbreak has dampened what is usually a buoyant time for retailers and restaurants.
LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Maureen Sherrard, creative producer at Shanghai-based creative agency Goodstein, and Chris Colman who is an executive producer at Final Frontier, a production company with a focus on animation and VFX and with offices in China and Argentina.
LBB> How is coronavirus impacting day-to-day work so far? Have you come up against any restrictions?
Maureen> We knew it was getting serious when our Shanghainese friends and their family cancelled our annual Chinese New Year dinner. That was on the 24th of January. Ever since we are bound to our home in some kind of a voluntary quarantine.
We live in a quite lively area in Shanghai and right now the streets are practically empty. We have a dog, so we need to take her out of course and we are outside to buy food and essentials everyday but it’s far from our normal daily routine.
We work from home, but most offices are closed until further notice. I guess it will stay like this until the numbers of new infections show a significant downwards trend.
Chris> For Final Frontier, given how international our business model is, it’s actually business as usual more or less. Our producers and EPs are at work in Asia - just not from our Shanghai HQ right now - as well as Europe and South America, and our roster of directors and studios are largely based overseas.
For the rest of the industry, as it stands now, officially most companies reopened on Monday 10th, but of everyone I’ve spoken to, hardly anyone actually went into the office. With all the travel restrictions currently in place, the majority of non-Shanghai based staff members are stranded in their hometowns having returned there for CNY, and many of those in Shanghai aren’t particularly enthusiastic about mixing with a lot of people just yet. Most have said they’ll work from home for at least another week (after February 10th), if not longer.
LBB> Do you have concerns about longer term impact on the industry?
Maureen> Absolutely. Every industry is affected. I have seen some production houses slowly commencing work but many of our clients follow the official suggestions of the government, to stay put and work from home. Everything moves way slower than usual.
Chris> Brands have already taken a big hit from lost earnings over the usually lucrative CNY period and given how uncertain the next two or three months are, they may not be feeling especially confident investing in new campaigns. That will obviously impact the whole industry in the short term. Until we know more about how long this virus will be present and impacting the day-to-day lives of people in China, it’s hard to say what the long-term effects might be on the industry.
LBB> Have you seen the advertising or production industry take collective action to keep things going?
Maureen> Not really. Not collectively apart from everyone being sympathetic to each other on our own WeChat groups. A friend of ours is collecting funds for the nurses in Wuhan and we try to support him but there is no solidarity to continue work as usual if this is what you mean.
Chris> Beyond words of support in WeChat groups, nothing concrete. The order was only issued a few days ago that all shooting within China is banned indefinitely, so there hasn’t been much time to process it all.
Besides, China’s production industry has never really united in any formal or meaningful way, certainly nothing close to the APA in the UK.
LBB> Now that remote working is more possible, have you found that technology has helped to keep things going?
Maureen> We are used to working remotely with freelancers and clients outside China so there is not so much difference. If you think about it, it beats a meeting room in a boring office building any day. I think this could be a starting point for a bigger experiment and the future of working as such. How important are offices to organise and distribute work really? How efficient is it to commute daily, punch the clock and work out of crammed rooms with bad air conditioning. I would argue, not much. People in China are used to working and organising themselves via WeChat so maybe employers could give their employees the option to work remotely after the crisis.
Chris> Much of our roster is overseas so they have not been affected. For studios and post houses located inside China, most have stayed off work since the CNY holiday finished, waiting to see how this plays out. Now it's confirmed it will go on longer, they're having to make plans. I know some post houses are having their artists log in to the company server from home using their own hardware, which might work in the short-term, provided they have very capable machines of their own.
LBB> What are the myths or misunderstandings about coronavirus from outside China?
Maureen> I’ve seen and read all kinds of fake news. It infuriates me that people share this nonsense without checking sources. Last week for instance three people from three different continents asked me if it was true that people were throwing their cats and dogs out of their windows because the virus can be transmitted from domestic pets to humans. Of course, this is utter BS. Instead of spreading fear, how about we all look at the facts and support with a little positivity instead of publishing news cycle after news cycle with depressing half-truths? In my point of view what spreads much faster than this virus is human stupidity.
Chris> I wouldn’t know where to start. The only thing I know for sure is that most of the mainstream media is sensationalist, fear mongering and, ultimately, poisonous. That's not a surprise, but it's still a depressing reality.
LBB> As creative people, have you been turning to creativity to process it personally?
Maureen> Yes, I think we have. We are writing on a TV show, completely unrelated to the virus and we had time to relaunch our website
. Apart from that, our home office has never been so organised and I find joy in spring cleaning which is a first in my life.