Pandemic Production Prospects, Possibilities, Concerns
Gavin Wellsman, creative director at The Mill NY
A hodgepodge of experiences, adjustments, contingencies, morale boosters and a sobering reality

For many, production has stopped in its tracks due to the coronavirus pandemic. Several agencies told SHOOT that they have postponed or canceled all projects. Others have stepped up their in-house activity, tapping into their homegrown production and post capabilities. Inventive use of existing footage has spawned new edit-only work. A number of shops have turned to animators and designers to bring new life to projects that were originally planned as live action.

While losing the physical proximity and communal nature of collaboration, creatives and artists have managed to stay connected through technology, working remotely, exchanging ideas and insights.

Emily Malito, L.A.-based executive producer at production company UNIT9, related, “Digital and virtual production are in our DNA and have allowed us to work remotely, around the world, since our beginnings.  But now more than ever, there are a few WFH (work from home) ‘rules’ we hold most important: 1. Staying connected--whether it’s Zoom, Google hangouts, groups texts or old fashioned phone calls--we’re constantly in contact, sharing ideas, live documents and projects in progress.  2. Keeping it human--we are proud to be an incredibly diverse group and with that comes different home lives and responsibilities.  Everyone has been affected by the pandemic in similar and yet entirely different ways.  So we strive to be kind and understanding, trust our team members, and trust their time management; and 3. Finding inspiration--everywhere.  We share content, personal projects, recipes, must watch documentaries (Tiger King anyone?), links to virtual concerts, and memes that make us laugh.  Sparking creativity and out of the box thinking--because not every conversation needs to be work talk, nor should it be!”

Gavin Wellsman, a creative director at The Mill in New York, found his studio’s artists suddenly working remotely, no longer in the same building where they could be teamed, scaled up or down accordingly to brainstorm and create in one room. While there’s no substitute for in-person interaction, Wellsman noted that staffers working from home are able to connect with the technology as if they were still on The Mill premises, operating machines on the same servers that can talk to each other. Then add in the continuing connectivity that The Mill ensemble of NY talent enjoys with their counterparts at the other Mill studios in London, L.A., Chicago, Bangalore and Berlin, and there’s the potential for productive collaboration to meet the needs of brands and ad agencies--albeit on projects that have evolved greatly from what was originally envisioned back during the time before the pandemic.

While some projects have “completely died,” said Wellsman, others are still in the pipeline and have adapted to a world where social distancing is imperative and live-action production as we’ve known it is no longer feasible at the moment. Clients are turning to visual effects, CG and other options. Though building CG animals takes a long time, there are creations in the archives that can be repurposed, altered here and there to be applicable to a pending project. Stock footage, the deployment of green screen, matching the lighting in existing footage for a complementary digital sequence are all fair game. Wellsman recalled a job that was shelved a couple of years ago which proved relevant today, with that original footage enhanced and added to by The Mill to yield a commercial promoting a customized automotive repair service for Lincoln owners with vehicles delivered directly to the customer’s residence. That particular spot has gained recent heavy airplay, dovetailing with the current stay-at-home marketplace.

Wellsman added that sharing projects across The Mill’s offices gives agencies access to a treasure trove of assets. “If there was a CG squirrel created in London two years ago, we can get that asset and reuse it for something else,” he conjectured, adding that The Mill has a current project which is sharing shots across its group of studios. 

“Most importantly, we’re working remotely and safely from home with everybody out of the office. We’re not taking any risks with our people.”

Furthermore, Wellsman feels that “once we come out the other side” of this pandemic, there will be filmmaking lessons learned from the experience, new insights into how to best work remotely and communicate across multiple platforms, sharing ideas and expertise from different disciplines. “Sometimes you can get bogged down by structure. There are no rules anymore working this way. It’s like when you are first entering this industry from being a student. You use every trick in the book to create something interesting. You are able to create work with limited resources. We may see great work come out over the next few months as people adapt and reinvent themselves.”

In line with that emerging ingenuity, SHOOT got wind of a couple of projects in the works that participants weren’t at liberty to discuss publicly. Suffice it to say that they were both experiential and digital, meaning that once completed, people did not have to physically congregate somewhere to experience them.

Still, much work has fallen by the wayside. And many projects don’t translate properly from live action to another discipline. When asked about creating content during the pandemic, a creative team at Stink Studios released a statement which cautioned, “Not everything will be able to pivot on a dime. A great book doesn’t always make a good film and a great live action idea might make for a tremendously mediocre 2D animation. It’s a good time for us to reintroduce our ideas to our executions and hey, while we’re at it, maybe even a consideration of the media that will be housing our creative and the content it will be competing with in this time period.

“While some projects can get out the door on time and on budget by slipping into another format, we should be critical about whether our ideas will accomplish the same goal when we drastically shift the execution. This might be a good time to pass the ball back up to the top and reread the defense instead of trying to force it into the paint every time.”

Tabletop shoot
Last week Alkemy X was able to produce a live-action tabletop shoot for a national insurance brand while adhering to the guidelines put forth at that time by the Governor’s office in Pennsylvania, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This shoot was part of an ongoing tabletop campaign with one of Alkemy X’s repeat clients. The campaign concept blends stop motion, props and hand models to tell pointed stories about different types of insurance. Each story is custom-tailored to the various offerings of the client. This was their third installment of the campaign, using the same production team which meant that those involved had developed a creative shorthand for this type of work. 

Props are a vital portion of this style of production, specifically sourced and created to tell each vignette. Their prop master is briefed by the creative director and then sources as many options for the story as possible. Typically, they can rely on overnight shipping from a variety of stores, but during this trying time, they gave themselves as much lead time on prop shopping as possible. 

While their previous shoots took place in an Alkemy X studio, they opted for an indoor skatepark located in a nearby Philadelphia area warehouse that would offer more space and safe distancing among the five crew members on set. They had three wash stations; one at the door, another close to set, and one by craft services (where snacks were individually wrapped, lunches were delivered and all services were wiped down and sanitized periodically throughout each of the two shoot days). The crew was very respectful of each other’s space and everyone was required to take their temperature before heading for work.

Meticulous measures were taken to cut back on onsite personnel and interactivity. The prop stylist was able to serve dual roles as a hand model. The creative director provided feedback remotely via Google Hangouts. They opted to not have any PAs on set, so everyone lent a hand in building out the camera rigging and light stands.  While live-action production is no longer business as usual, brand messaging such as this was possible at that juncture though the COVID-19 climate, restrictions and responsibilities continue to change. Like others, Alkemy X has established remote workflow contingencies to protect the safety of staff and clients.

Building morale
Genevieve Robles, director, talent experience at F&B NY (Forsman & Bodenfors), shared ways that the agency stays connected with its people, helping to boost morale during these challenging times. She said staffers are “communicating often through a  bi-weekly all-agency weekly newsletter, keeping everyone together and sharing what we know.” Furthermore, there’s a master document, “Resources While Working Remotely,” which is regularly updated. It includes a tab for everything the agency offers medically, including what to do if you have to call a doctor, how to set up a telehealth appointment, and how to connect with a live nurse. “We try to go as far as we can without offering medical advice, since we are not doctors, but we try to give free and easy medical information,” she related. 

“The rest of the ‘Resources While Working Remotely document,” continued Robles, “is about empathy and meeting people where they are. We are finding that people have all kinds of various situations.  Some people are balancing homeschooling and trying to work, and they might be doing that alone or with a partner. Some are now the main source of income if a partner or spouse can’t work. We are also focused on our employees who might be home all alone; those who don’t have a history here in New York and haven’t gone home to their parents.” 

Another tab in the “Resources While Working Remotely” document features mental health resources, including whom employees can talk with if they are feeling anxious, while another is focused on health/wellness like workouts to do at home.

Finally there’s a tab for parents, on tips for homeschool best practices. 

Additionally F&B NY created a workplace group so that people who are working from home solo can jump on a call and connect with each other. 

On Tuesdays and Thursdays the agency has an all-agency Google hangout. 

F&B also instituted a weekly survey which is distributed among all its offices (New York, Minneapolis, Toronto, Montreal and Stockholm). “This helps us to get data about how people are feeling,” explained Robles. “We ask questions like, ‘do you feel connected to the team? Are you connected to your manager? What are you currently juggling?,’ etc. The survey is anonymous but gives us information on where there may be gaps in what we are offering.” 

London-based independent production house MindsEye launched HomeStudio, a community of home-based filmmakers who can work during this time when larger scale film shoots aren’t feasible. HomeStudio brings together a lineup of directors who have their own equipment, DPs with studio space, and stop-frame animators who can turn out content in this period of imposed self-isolation. This isn’t a roster of talent that a company has signed in the traditional sense; rather it’s a collection of talent that’s being made available to agencies and brands.

Charlie Philips, co-founder and managing director, MindsEye and HomeStudio, said the lineup includes a husband-and-wife directing/DP and food styling team, a self-isolating brother and sister (director and DP) who’ve turned their garage into a studio, and a directorial duo who live together and double up as a DP and art director in their spare time. 

Joining forces with MindsEye’s sister company, influencer marketing agency Billion Dollar Boy, HomeStudio also bills itself as able to offer influencer creators from around the world to produce content, working remotely with their own kit to shoot, edit and deliver films.

Hughie Philips, co-founder and managing director, MindsEye and HomeStudio, said “People want to work and they want to keep creating. As producers we are adaptable. This is by far the biggest challenge we’ve faced as a company and as an industry; we’re keen to find any way possible to keep people busy, working and ensuring great content is being produced. HomeStudio is already pitching on several productions, from small to large, including a global campaign with filmmakers from six different countries--and we’ve only just opened.”

Stark Reality
However, ingenuity, imagination and improvisation can only go so far when production and post companies are suffering from poor cash flow, a situation which is exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. While a number of entrepreneurial shops may be able to tap into the U.S. government’s coronavirus relief package, most notably the special small business loans program carrying favorable terms, many companies would settle for--or at least welcome with open arms--getting paid in a timely fashion by marketers and ad agencies for services already rendered.

Small shops advancing funds, often bankrolling multi-national brands and agencies only to wait an inordinate period of time for payment from them is nothing new. But what’s been perceived as an ongoing inherently unfair business practice turns into an existential threat to production and post houses in a marketplace where business has decreased substantively, if not outright disappearing, during a pandemic.

As earlier reported in SHOOT, AICP has put a handle on the amount of outstanding receivables owed by brands and agencies, documenting the immediate and potentially grave risk to production and post houses.

In a live poll of over 500 AICP member participants during a Zoom Town Hall last month, the issue of outstanding receivables was the most immediate concern, of the many issues discussed. It was found that 28% of companies reported that they are owed in excess of $1 million, while 23% are owed between $500,000-$1 million and 34% are owed between $100,000-$500,000. The members were also polled on how late these payments are: 29% reported that payments are 45 or more days late (per their contracted terms), and one-third are 30-45 days late. Extrapolating across the industry, conservatively, this is well in excess of $200 million.

“Marketers and their agencies need to ensure that production and post partners are paid immediately for work already completed,” noted Matt Miller, president and CEO of AICP. “Cash flow for most live action production companies is, like work, drying up, with postproduction slowing as they finish recently produced work (which is mostly being done with great ingenuity remotely) so it’s more urgent than ever that these payments are made.”

During the meeting, AICP members relayed concerns for their employees; the ability to keep staff on payroll; and to keep their largely freelance employees (as well as staff) covered by health insurance. These issues are a huge challenge in general, and in particular when companies are entering a period of uncertain bookings, with so much money owed to them from marketers. Even the most resourceful creative problem solvers feel it could be insurmountable.

“Bad behavior is now highlighted, as rolling cash flow is not covering up for scofflaw clients or agencies that have used small business creative resources to bankroll their projects,” said Miller. “When we come out on the other end of this global crisis, marketers and their agencies will need the ingenuity of the production and post community more than ever to create communications to reach customers and stimulate the economy. Corporations must step up and fulfill their contractual obligations, so that this industry can stay afloat planning for work to serve their needs and get back into full swing when it is safe and practical to do so.”

In another poll during the AICP Town Hall, 39% of the respondents said that they had “no jobs” in the works at all, with 25% saying they had three or more jobs in the works.  This could mean bidding (some saying for scripts to be carried out as soon as practicable and months in the future); post work being completed; digital production companies (animation, visual effects, and design) in full production; or working on contingency plans for previously planned productions. To continue workflow in all of these areas, staff is required, so it’s crucial that any cash that is owed makes it to the member companies so they may continue operations.

“To keep these receivables outstanding is nothing less than irresponsible and shortsighted for marketers who want to maintain a healthy first-rate creative community and their infrastructure of resources, employees and vendors,” Miller affirmed.

A healthy production and post community is integral to the overall economy’s recovery once we are clear of the pandemic. Production and post talent will be needed to help brands connect with the consumer marketplace and bring it back to life. It’s thus in the interest of marketers and agencies to do what they can--and should do--to contribute to keeping the production and post sectors whole. 

Miller added that when the recovery eventually takes shape, commercialmaking and branded content production will likely be back or closer to a normal pre-pandemic level before their longer-form counterparts, including programs for TV and streaming services. Workers and crew members in the entertainment business will be relying first on commercials as the key source of employment, making it essential that commercial production houses stay viable in that they will help drive and build the critical initial momentum behind an economic comeback for the entertainment industry at large.


MySHOOT Company Profiles