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The World of Production Navigates Covid-19

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LBB checks in with live action production around the world for an in-depth report on how coronavirus is impacting upon different markets
The World of Production Navigates Covid-19
If a week is a long time in politics, then three days is a long time in the coronavirus pandemic. At the beginning of the week, we thought we’d run a story on best practice for running safe sets and productions, but as we spoke to people around the world it became clear that the situation is evolving so fast that ‘best practice’ is changing all the time. It’s also true that what is possible in some countries is not in others, due to the severity of the disease and local regulations.

But through our conversations it became clear that producers were also keen to find out what their peers in other markets are dealing with and what they’ve learned. We hope you find the below helpful, useful and inspiring – with the understanding that the situation is constantly evolving. Think of this as a sampling – and we’ll be talking to companies from more markets as the situation continues.

We’ve decided to focus on live action production as it’s the part of the whole advertising industry that’s at the sharp end of Covid-19 and we know that VFX and animation are more easily geared up for remote working. What we’ll find is production companies and production service companies finding solutions, practicing reinforced hygiene and safety measures – but also producers who are sensible about the severity of the disease and when it’s time to press pause or find alternatives. 


APAC

In China, which was first hit by the virus, we saw the country go into lockdown. Thankfully new cases in the country seem to have slowed to a trickle – on Wednesday China reported no new cases. Across the industry, life and work are starting to go back to the regular daily rhythms, but when it comes to production and shoots, restrictions remain. 

Maureen Sherrard is creative producer at Shanghai-based creative agency Goodstein. “For some in our industry, particularly digital agencies, things have returned to normal and jobs are coming in. Clients however have had to postpone (or cancel) many campaigns, especially the ones involving events and filming,” she says. “There are still restrictions when it comes to shooting in China specially if it involves travel.”

Indeed, for now many new cases that are popping up in China have come from people who have returned from heavily affected countries like Italy or Iran. So, at the beginning of the outbreak, foreign production associations were advising not to travel to China to shoot – but these days the risk could come from these same international production companies.

Elsewhere in the APAC region, it’s a mixed bag. We know of one shoot that’s going on in Malaysia and in Japan, the message from our contacts is that the country is open for business, though local agencies have restricted their international shoots. Indeed, bars and restaurants in Tokyo are still open and lively and people are travelling on the busy metro. Shoots are taking place, with safety precautions in place such as requiring crews to wear masks, to sanitise and ensure good ventilation.

In Australia, production companies we’ve spoken to have expressed worry but also a determination to find solutions. One production company told us, for example, that they’ve had to tell their roster of international directors that they can’t push them to local agencies for the time being due to travel restrictions. Shooting locally and with local talent and small, nimble crews is, for now, one way forward.

Middle East 

It’s fair to say that different countries’ governments have responded at different rates. Rita El Hachem is co-founder of Lebanon-based production company Stoked. Mindful of their already-stretched healthcare systems and the explosion of cases in Iran, governments across the Middle East were quick to respond.

“Governments in our region took early measures to try to flatten the curve,” she explains. “Our health care systems cannot cope with huge numbers of infections. Hence most shoots have postponed or put on hold till life shows signs of going back to normal. Flight restrictions have been one of the most determining factors in the decisions to postpone the shoots.” 

In terms of measures, the local industry adopted a range of measures, including using small crews and shooting more outdoors. Two weeks ago, they were still making use of technology so clients and agencies could supervise shoots remotely, though shooting overall has now come down.

These days, Rita and her team are working with clients to find alternatives to live action, such as animation. Rita reckons that there comes a point when  companies will have to balance the need to keep working and to keep freelancers employed with the life-and-death impact of the virus.

“In my opinion though, to help slow down or even ideally stop the pandemic, production should as well slow down, hold off shoots. It is our moral responsibility,” she says. “Clients and agencies currently have a mandate to work from home. Their safety comes first. It should apply to people in production too. The challenge is that most people in production are freelancers, the don’t have monthly salaries to support them. They might want to carry on shooting to support their families. But we should look at the broader picture; this is an unusual time and with it should come unusual sacrifices in order to hopefully come out of it with the lowest number of victims and in the shortest time possible while we wait for a medicine or a vaccine.”

Unfortunately, in the Middle East this has all come at a time that is usually extremely busy for production. Ramadan kicks off at the end of April and the holy festival has become known as the ‘Super Bowl of the Middle East’. This time of year, production companies are stuck into big shoots for airlines, food and beverage brands as well as telecom companies. Speaking to one Dubai-based agency earlier this week, we’ve heard of one campaign that was ready to shoot but now needs a big strategic and creative rethink – showing families and friends sharing huge feasts together won’t be appropriate in the age of social distancing. 

“In our region the timing couldn’t have been worse. Not that there is a good time for calamities. This is the busiest time of the year ahead of Ramadan,” says Rita, though she has faith in the inventiveness of the industry and is keen to see inventive, interactive campaigns developed to entertain everyone who is stuck at home. “It is really challenging. But hey creative minds must thrive on challenges. Together we can find solutions.”

Meanwhile, South Africa is at a relatively early part of the coronavirus curve – though as of Sunday things have tightened up. The government and president Cyril Ramaphosa announced a raft of measures and restrictions and production companies have been following them closely. They’ve implemented remote working technologies to enable PPMs and casting, are keeping crews to a minimum, as well as hiring extra medics and sticking to shoots in non-enclosed spaces.

Craig February is a producer at production company Fort – and when we speak (on Wednesday) he’s about to embark on a shoot. He explains calmly the measures that have been put in place – the local industry has been watching learning from developments in areas which have been dealing with coronavirus for longer. “Potentially we did have a bit of a lead ahead of everyone else which maybe contributes to my calmness. But a lot of it developed from Sunday – I think a lot of people were coasting a little bit up until the president put stringent measures in place,” he reflects. “Since then I have witnessed the whole industry wake up and be quite proactive and I think we are borrowing a lot from each other. It’s almost like the whole community has come together to look at the best ways to move forward – it is very important that the economic wheels still turn throughout this crisis.”

The effects of coronavirus on South African production can be considered in two streams. When it comes to producing for local and regional clients and agencies, some shoots have been cancelled and others are proceeding with careful consideration of government advice. However, South Africa is a popular destination for European agencies – and as inbound travel from Europe has been banned, that is putting strain on that side of the industry.

Moonlighting is a production services company. They have successfully carried out remote production work and a virtual production village for London production company 1stAveMachine - which is testament to the feasibility of this technology. However, they are open about the ever-changing situation. A German TVC due to shoot next week, making use of the virtual village has been cancelled – a decision made through open conversation between Moonlighting and their client.

EP Shayne Brookstein, CEO Philip Key and marketing manager Beccy Kellond have a practical attitude. “We are already living in the 'future' with the possibility of people around who are infected but do not know it,” they say. “ A month down the line we will understand the symptoms and quarantine so much better… Things are changing on a daily basis and with the number of infected people in South Africa now rising daily, decisions are made outside of our control such as the City of Cape Town closing various locations on Monday night. We were becoming increasingly worried about ensuring the health of our crew, let alone the logistics of being able to guarantee that shooting permits would still be issued.”

There’s discussion in the local market about who should shoulder the risk for cancelled shoots – a topic that requires deeper discussion in a further piece as it impacts productions in all markets.

Europe

The story across Europe is one of the pandemic unfolding at different rates and, in this post Brexit age, there’s a grim irony in the notably patchwork governmental response across the continent.

First to Italy, where our hearts go out to friends and colleagues. Sadly, at the time of writing, we’ve just heard that Italy’s death toll has overtaken China’s and yesterday we featured a piece where creatives and production people spoke to us from the belly of the beast.

Understandably, the CPA, the Italian production association, voted unanimously to suspend all production until April 3rd. “We, as producers, ‘aggregate’ people in meetings and on sets from all over the world and therefore the fundamentals of our business were not able to guarantee the health and safety, the rules and regulations that the emergency of this pandemic is globally requiring all of us to abide by,” says Karim Bartoletti, EP of Indiana Production. But he’s remarkably measured – this has given the community that rare commodity, time. Time to spend with loved ones and time to think about the business. He’s also experimenting with creating his own content.

Elsewhere in Southern Europe we’re seeing a mixed situation. Patricia Lino is MP and EP at Production Portugal. They’ve seen some shoots postponed or cancelled, but they have projects on the books for October which are still planned to go ahead.

The production service company works across several countries in Southern Europe and, for now at least, Portugal seems one of the most feasible of their areas to shoot in. Malta has decreed a total shut down, and Spain has seen a shutdown of Madrid and Barcelona. While the Portuguese government has declared a state of emergency, borders have not been shut and only restaurants and cafes have been closed.

However, Patricia and her team are being cautious. “PSP is monitoring closely along with the world health global institutions  – so when it comes to the decision making moment – we need to assess the borders situation of the origin country of the job, flights available, virus curve (allow me to report that Portugal has one of the lowest number of cases per person in Western Europe), health conditions of the visiting crew, among others,” says Patricia. “We are advising our clients to postpone all jobs scheduled to shoot before the end of March.”

Like many production service companies, though, they’ve embraced remote working technology. “There is much work to be done, but we are convinced that through the power of creativity, to reinvent ourselves, together we’ll be able to inspire this social change, for example, remotely work.”

Elsewhere in Europe, there are countries that are just at the very early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak. Ukraine, for example, had its first confirmed case on March 3rd and (at the time of writing) has 16 confirmed cases. It’s also a country that is incredibly popular with international agencies and production companies looking to shoot.

The Ukrainian government and local production community has been quick to act though, learning from what has happened before, as Sasha Bevka, EP at Radioaktive Film in Ukraine explains. “We didn’t have massive outbreaks before our country decided to shut everything down on quarantine. But as soon as we heard that the situation in the world was getting worse, we applied the basic protective measures - we had sanitisers basically on every corner of our sets, asked people to wash their hands for 20 seconds as much as possible and began having extra medical staff on set.”

One of the big concerns is how individuals will cope with the financial strain of not working and Radiokative has been clear that anyone who is experiencing symptoms should not come to set or should work from home if they feel able, but they won’t forfeit their salary. Currently Radioaktive is working on jobs, in some cases working via virtual playback and, as far as possible, trying to keep things to small crews and studio work.

What’s buoying them along is that clients are looking beyond the immediate crisis. “Obviously we do not want to live in a world of cancellations, but what is promising, a lot of our clients, agencies and production companies, are still bidding work, preparing for the end of this lockdown… I think that this is the best-case scenario. As soon as this is over, jump back to work and keep the workflow going. This is the best way for our clients to save our industry, for us to keep our people busy and for the cycle of our industry to deal with this disruption.”

And that is something Sasha’s colleague, Darko Skulsky who is founding partner at Radioaktive echoes – and the country has earned this resilience. “Believe me, for someone who has built a company through a number of revolutions, wars, currency devaluations and now a pandemic… the key is to survive,” he says. “We will all bounce back quickly.”

Sitting in a midpoint between somewhere like Italy and somewhere like Ukraine, is the UK. As a hub for European advertising accounts and a highly organised production community, anchored by the APA, the UK is a strong player on the production scene. The local association has been communicating with members frequently, keen to get the message out that alternative solutions (in the shape of remote working tech, VFX and animation) are there and that producers are the skilled people to handle any problem. 

“Working together as a team is always the way to get through a project, overcome hurdles and garner the best results. I think we need to stand strong as a community,” says Andrew Levine, MD (and until recently head of production) at Stink.“ We all need to be responsible and thoughtful; we need to be aware of those around us more than we usually are. And we need to support each other. None of the decisions being taken are easy, or being made lightly, so everyone needs that extra bit of patience and understanding during the process.”

That sense of community is something that Carly Stone, EP and founding partner of production service company Madam echoes. “Our industry thrives on a community of sharing ideas and knowledge. Keeping a close eye on newsletters and checking in with colleagues worldwide is a source of intelligence that we can grow and learn from. In the UK we are lucky to have many trade associations who are advising including the APA and PACT who liaise directly with the government,” she says.

Just this week, the wider production community beyond advertising been hit by some undeniable blows as the BBC has announced that major soaps like EastEnders and Casualty have been suspended.

LS Productions, a production service company that works on advertising, music video and also editorial fashion shoots is measured and spending its efforts helping clients and focusing on the future, as well as figuring out how to support the company's family of freelancers and suppliers. “We are living in unprecedented times and going through something quite extraordinary as a business and as people,” says head of production Jo Coombes.

“At this point it feels as though shooting will be out of the question for a little while, which means our thoughts are turning to when this strange time passes - and it will, which is something we’re keeping front of mind. “

Similarly, Madam feel that they need to be realistic about what kinds of jobs are safe and are not committing to servicing productions in the immediate future. This week they had one confirmed job which would have involved a 50-person crew and small children in a small house, and they had to advise the client the need to cancel.

The key to solving  problems in this environment, thinks Carly, is a mutual understanding that these are new and uncharted territories. Communication between clients, agencies and production is key. “A universal understanding that schedules, budgets and people’s workloads are not the same as a shoot at any other time,” she says.


Production Persistence 


To round things up, everyone we spoke to showed remarkable fortitude and resilience while facing testing times. We thought it would be worth sharing some words of encouragement.


Andrew Levine at Stink
It’s bad now, and I’m sure there are a lot of people out there worried when their next job will be. I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say everyone is having the same thoughts… but we will get through this. I think we have to encourage clients to be brave. Keep developing scripts and ideas with agencies, work through the process of treating, bidding and planning with production companies, put schedules together based off the best information we have… make sure that the minute things ease we’re ready to go and projects can start pre-production. We need to work together to minimise the quiet period so the impacts on all of us are kept as manageable as possible.

Marie Owen, CEO, LS Productions 
Life throws massive curve balls, and now more than ever is a time to focus on resilience and support. None of us know what’s really going to happen next. Yes, we can debate who is right and who is wrong, but really, we must all just slow down, check in on each other and make sure we are all doing OK. I am grateful to have such a brilliant team, all pulling together to make sure we get through this really tough time.

Shayne Brookstein, Philip Key and Beccy Kellond at Moonlighting
What is encouraging is the wonderful things we see around us. So much faith is restored in us as human beings. Issues that seemed insurmountable a week ago seem suddenly insignificant. The virus is a great leveller and we do have to believe it will pass. How much is destroyed in the interim will be a factor of just how much generosity each one of us can find in ourselves to make the world a little easier for others.
 
Sasha Bevka at Radioaktive
Guys, we here at Radioaktive wanted to tell you, that life is stronger than all the viruses in the world. What we need to do is support each other during these tough times, chat online, spend more time with our families, (production people lack it during their whole lives, don’t they?), read books, wash our hands and wait till it’s all over, because there will be a moment when we all will gather again and will hug and kiss each other again. So, it’s worth it to keep yourself safe and healthy.  Enjoy the snow day .

Carly Stone at Madam
Research the possibilities of remote production practices and how it could work not only for these difficult times but also for future sustainability and change. Keeping positive and use this time to enjoy all the great things about our industry.  Watch more, read more, engage more, write more, as worrying as it can be, the situation can’t be changed. Don’t fight it, innovate and see this time for growth in your learning, development and maybe find new ways to transfer your skills to a different format. 

Patricia Lino at Production Portugal
It’s 2020, and technology and communications tools support us as never before. Working remotely is part of PSP’s DNA. We’ll work through this, ensuring a safe and smooth functioning of the company during this challenging time.

Rita El Hachem at Stoked
This shall also pass, and I hope when it does, the world will  be reborn more empathetic, sustainable and fair. Meanwhile on the bright side I am personally making up for all the time I spent away from my family, even home schooling isn’t too bad. Have this time for self-reflection, spending time with your families and rediscovering small simple pleasures.



Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash
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LBB Editorial, Fri, 20 Mar 2020 01:08:43 GMT