Remote production, virtual set ups, newly-launched director rosters, and tapping into the streaming wars – service production companies have undergone radical transformation in the year of Covid-19, writes LBB's Laura Swinton
No business has been untouched by the Covid-19 pandemic, but for companies working in the production service industry, the challenge and pain of 2020 have been particularly acute. These are outfits whose whole model relies on facilitating shoots for clients who fly in from all over the world, so as borders closed and flights were grounded – and marketers’ budgets reigned in – production service companies all over the globe faced an existential threat.
By March they were seeing projects being cancelled – and even those companies operating in countries that were still open for business, like Japan, were frustrated as fearful brands, agencies and producers started to press pause.
Government support varied from market to market. In the UK, for example, companies were able to furlough staff with the state stepping in to subsidise 80% of salaries – while in Brazil production service companies were left to fend for themselves and some had no choice but to let staff go. Moreover at the beginning of the crisis, different markets were at different points in their production calendar, in the Middle East production service companies were just heading into their production peak ahead of Ramadan, suddenly facing the prospect of cancellations of huge holiday commercials. Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, companies were readying themselves for their quieter winter periods. As the reality hit, many production service companies were faced by the very real question of whether they’d have to shut up shop, reduce salaries or even lay people off.
Producers being producers, though, the old problem solving instincts soon kicked in. Production service companies have retooled, developed new ways of working and have even sought out new streams of business.
That’s not to downplay the severity of the situation that they faced and the uncertainty that they still face, but as vaccines offer hope that 2021 might see the world emerge from the pandemic, it does mean that many of these independent companies will greet the new world transformed and ready to take advantage of new opportunities.
The most universal change was the rapid adoption and development of remote production processes. This allowed clients to tune into live shoots from the safety of their homes or offices, and even enabled directors based in Los Angeles to direct shoots on the other side of the world. The vast majority of production service companies that we’ve spoken to this year have taken on and continually refined their remote production processes throughout the year.
The learning curve was steep and rapid. “Very quickly remote production set ups became the new feather to the arrow. We researched it all, talked to the key people, took part in demos and armed ourselves with everything to confidently be able to provide the solution,” says Pippa Bhatt, co-founder of UK company Madam.
Over in Brazil, Nick Story, founder of Story Films, reckons that this year of remote production will leave the industry changed irrevocably. From his point of view, Brazil has suddenly become a much easier option for potential clients around the world who may have previously been put off.
“Distance has almost become irrelevant,” says Nick. “It’s possible to shoot and direct a documentary or a commercial in Brazil without being here. We can fill every role on the shoot – we have DOPs and directors that understand the creative process and we can add a lot of value to the client for the director to deliver a vision. There’s a lot of creative talent in Brazil and we are able to manage shoots from start to finish in Brazil without having to go through the process of looking after visiting crews and helping them understand the realities of filming in Brazil. It’s much more efficient and cheaper for our clients. We can see that our clients are very happy.”
Meanwhile, in South Africa, Liam Johnson at Robot in South Africa is quite balanced about the positives of remote production, while acknowledging that it still doesn’t quite beat the creative heat of in-person collaboration.
“We’ve embraced remote viewing as a necessity. It works but still isn’t a good enough replacement for having the director, producer and agency creatives here to really craft the commercials. It works fine for now though. A great thing is that a lot of people have now had the time to work on their ideas, bringing film production into the tech space, launching app based call sheet and management tools which are great in terms of reducing carbon footprint.”
As one of the biggest production developments this year, LBB has been keeping tabs on remote production - you can check out all the relevant coverage here
Beyond remote production, some service companies have been exploring and building even more technologically-powered capabilities.
Virtual production options, such as shooting against powerful LED screens that allow actors to feel more present in a CG generated world or far off landscapes, first excited the industry when it was revealed that the Disney+ series The Mandalorian was shot in such a way. However, since the pandemic swept the globe, the utility and flexibility of such technology has accelerated interest and adoption.
“Producers are also crunching numbers to determine where they can employ volume LED wall studios to film on location virtually so as to simplify shoots in these already challenging times,” says Michael Moffett of international hub Production Service Network (PSN), who says that they have started to track local availability of such screens in their Global Production Capabilities
That’s something that Albert Zurashvili at Shelter Films is extremely excited by. “Kyiv can now offer a new LED studio that supports Unreal Engine and that tracks camera movements. It’s the same virtual technology that was used for the Mandalorian shoot,” he says.
Keep an eye out for an upcoming breakdown of the virtual production trend on LBB.
Other companies have found new possibilities by investing in other technologies. In South Africa, Liam says that the decision to open a drone company earlier in the year turned out to be a real boost – and helped keep a crucial member of the team.
“Unfortunately we did lose a key member of our team, our MD but managed to retain the rest of the salaries in the end. Eventually the MD and I opened a drone business that flourished during lockdown because of the nature of the work being at arm’s length,” he says.
Launching Rosters and Working with Directors
In the world of commercial production, one of the characteristic distinctions between a production company and a service company is that service companies tend not to represent or employ the creative talent, the directors, instead focusing on the logistical aspects of organising a shoot. But a couple of service companies we’ve spoken to found that the pandemic prodded them into building their own roster of directors. This allowed them to shoot with a director on the ground in their local country who would not need to navigate quarantines, which allowed them to bring new services to existing overseas clients as well as opening up production work in their local market. It also opened up the kind of content work they were able to take on.
For Liam, this move was something he had wanted to do for a while. Taking on up and coming directors and helping them to build their roster would open up new streams of social media content work. But it took the crisis to spur him into action.
“We actually scaled up. Having always wanted to be a creative company as well as a service company we decided now was the time to start representing directors who fit in with our brand and offer their talent to the world stage. We opened an office in Johannesburg and signed two directors up there to work in the local market with our local agencies as well as in Cape Town. The directors have been amazing, working on local projects as well as international projects via remote streaming while there are travel bans in place,” he says.
And in Spain, Nouri Films were also spurred into action when it came to bringing on directors. According to co-founder Michael Nouri, it was all a matter of timing.
"It was always the plan to launch a directors roster when my partner Antonella Perillo and I started Nouri Films,” he says. “Antonella has been a creative consultant for production companies and agencies all over the world for more than 15 years and manages highly creative international directors. With her as a partner we always got the idea to represent selected directors for agencies in Spain. Now is the perfect moment to launch our directors roster. We see ourselves as a niche production company which has a lot of international expertise not only to offer directors for production companies to collaborate on remote shoots.”
And even where production service companies didn’t start representing directors, they became more proactive at connecting international clients with local directors, as Pippa explains.
“Global alliances became even more important than before as prod cos around the world had a local director need more than ever before due to the travel restrictions. We upped our network of freelance directors and supported our overseas friends in their director searches so they could still shoot here in the UK. We are a solutions based business and the light shone very strongly on this ability to be able to problem solve and overcome the obstacles.”
One surprising trend is that production service companies became much more focused on their local markets. Those companies that had primarily worked with international agencies and brand clients found a new market on their doorstep – because of course local agencies were also looking for alternatives to international travel.
Shelter Films is a relatively new production service company and was barely a year old when the pandemic hit. Its initial clients had been international, but owner and CEO Albert Zurashvili said they focused efforts in their local Ukraine.
“We had plans to enter the local market this year, but the pandemic definitely forced this process. It was two times more difficult as all our competitors were focused on the local market as well,” he says. “Looking back nine months later we can say we definitely succeeded in this direction and now we have a separate department working with local Ukrainian clients.”
Madam too has found that its experience and capabilities have attracted more – and different kinds of – local clients. “We found different types of work found us. Our USP has always been that we are a service company borne out of a deeply rich heritage of commercial production. Having long standing careers as producers, executive producers and production company leaders has meant we can be the producer for our clients, not just a service producer. We started to see a desire for that on a local level as well as to our overseas clients and one example of that was as a live action production partner to an animation company here in the UK,” says Pippa.
Fellow UK production service company LS Productions also did a lot of work to show local agencies and brands how locations a couple of hours’ drive away could double for locations around the world. “We did not change our business model, but certainly worked to clearly communicate the benefits of working on productions here in the UK to all of our markets – particularly during the pandemic with travel restrictions and locations that can double for major cities, castles and estates. While it’s been a ride this year, we have managed to achieve a personal goal of mine - we brought a Christmas TV advert to the Scottish borders as the local production: TK Maxx’s ‘The Lil’ Goat’ produced by MJZ,” says executive producer / managing director Sarah Drummond
According to Michael Moffett, this is a trend he’s seen across his network, combining with increasing collaboration with local directors to powerful effect. “Production for local markets has busied a number of PSN Partners who also service foreign projects. This has set the stage for unprecedented collaboration that speaks to our industry sense of community. Some directors that are represented by US and UK production companies, but living in other territories, have been loaned out for local work as a way to keep their sensibilities sharp”
If marketing departments have been more circumspect with their spending throughout Covid-19, some production service companies that primarily work in commercials have been discovering a new, big-spending and content-hungry client. The streaming service. With audiences stuck at home, the streaming wars heated up, with new players HBO Max, Peacock, Disney+ entering the arena throughout 2020 hoping to take on the established platforms Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
Michael Moffett notes that commercials producers have seen an ‘uneven return to work’ when compared to TV and film. “We made a pre-pandemic decision to broaden our service range to include producers of long format series and features. The uneven return to work of commercial producers as compared with those of long format genres has kept us on the go all year. Overall volume may be down, but we’re encouraged by the diverse range of projects PSN Partners have executed this past year for producers working with leading brands and agencies, streamers and studios,” he says.
For LS Productions, a company that started off servicing fashion shoots before expanding into commercials, they’ve also invested time and talent into a longer term push for movies and TV. As Sarah explains, it wasn’t easy while firefighting the immediate challenges of the pandemic, but they believe it puts the company in a strong position as it greets 2021. “We made the decision to keep going after one of our longer-term goals we’d had at the onset of 2020: bring more film and TV work to the UK (benefitting all industry players, not just ourselves!). We knew it wouldn’t come fully to fruition in 2020 anyways so, to that effect, we brought Tara Halloran’s expertise into the fold as a sales and marketing consultant based out of LA. She’s got a long, impressive history in the film industry with niche knowledge of US-UK industry relations. It was by no means easy to pull our heads up from looking at the immediate ground (quicksand!) at our feet, but we hope that by asking for guidance from our network we’ve given ourselves a platform for next year and beyond.”
In the film and TV world, they are anticipating the opening of the first major studio and sound stage in Scotland, and are also looking forward to December 10th, when Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming film starring Meryl Streep, Let Them All Talk, is released. LS Productions was the production service for the UK portion of filming.
Zita Kisgergely at Flatpack Films in Hungary has also been working hard on longer format projects. “We are doing a lot of feature film development with great teams of writers and placing applications through the national film fund hoping for the best. We are currently developing a story set in 1920 Budapest, another fiction on a man suffering from amnesia due to an accident and a miniseries about a wonderful Hungarian artist with a fascinating life.”
Self-Generated Projects and Side Hustles
Many production service companies also took the time to devote more energy to their own scripts and ideas. These are often put on the back burner as businesses juggle multiple live projects, but with the aforementioned streaming boom there has never been a greater hunger for films and series.
Gabriel Chamoun is CEO and owner of MENA-based production service company The Talkies and they’ve been more proactive with self-generated projects. “We have been developing TV series for a few years now, we decided to dedicate a lot more effort to this activity; as writing and other development tasks can easily take place during lockdowns. Also, there has been a surge in demand for content on streaming VOD platforms.”
Nick at Story Productions in Brazil said that these self-generated projects became a central driving force that kept the company busy and moving forward during the toughest early days of the pandemic in Brazil. “After two to three weeks we realised we had to do something as we just couldn’t carry on like that. The first decision we took to get our team back to work was to finish a project that is our own IP (Formula Dreams, a docu-reality series about junior karting champions) and put our post-production team to work on finishing it. We went from shutting down to just buckling down to get the edit, the sound, the subtitles and the final colour mix ready. Going through that made us realise there were a lot of things we could still do.”
Some companies decided to build new ventures that had nothing to do with the film and production industry at all. Aurimas Pukevičius, EP at The Magic in Lithuania, says the team even started an online e-commerce platform, taking advantage of the booming demand.
At LS, staff have been encouraged to spend time developing their own side projects, particularly those who were furloughed. One example is their Manchester production manager who has been working on a cocktail brand https://www.crozierdrinks.co.uk/. The company has also been supporting staff working on their own short film. “Some of the team are working on a short film as we speak that LS Productions is contributing to by providing the staff resource,” says Sarah. “It will also pay off for us as a company as staff gain more experience in roles one or two levels up from their current position. Win-win. I myself have rejoined the Board of Screen Education Scotland, as again we look towards the future and how to promote more individuals getting into this industry.”
As anyone producing any kind of content this year will attest, keeping track of regulations and Covid levels in different territories has been like a game of global whack-a-mole. Some countries have continued live action shooting throughout the year, such as South Korea and Japan. We also saw some markets emerged as convenient alternatives to popular locations, for example Taiwan was seen as a safe alternative to mainland China.
Central Europe has long been a popular part of the world with producers, but given its low levels of the virus, some of the local service companies fared particularly well. “Oddly, Budapest, Hungary was amongst the safest places during the summer, so we didn’t really have issues,” says Zita. “Certainly, the authorities inquired in-depth about the incoming clients, but in our case they mostly came from Seoul, Sydney and LA and all the places were considered safe enough to manage with a simple medical protocol.”
Aurimas at The Magic in Lithuania noted that smaller, sparsely populated countries in Northern Europe also managed to keep business going. “Eventually low populated countries are doing better than major film hubs, because there are fewer people in general. Also if you add our Nordic, colder character in terms of our social life, we were less Covid-hit,” he says. “That’s where we are now and I hope next year is going to be easier to work and travel. But the good thing that Covid did is that it made us adapt fast and started something our company was not even planning to do in the near future.”
Voices of Authority
It’s an old cliché that companies involved in advertising and communications don’t always find the time to devote to their own brands and messaging. But with Covid-19, several production service companies have taken it upon themselves to really commit to communicating. After all, with so much uncertainty and constant fluctuations, service companies found themselves able to act as voices of authority when it came to safety protocols and intelligence about their local market.
This is something that LS has embraced, and Sarah says she hopes that it will form a good foundation for the business in years to come. “We are also working to future proof the business with what I’ve been calling ‘the gift of time’ - you have to find something to be positive about with 2020! We are working on a new company website that will make it easier for our clients to see where we can support them and their budgets, as well as the range of locations we can offer. This theme of streamlined communications goes beyond the website to other platforms now available through tech innovations and we hope for it to have a big impact, both internally and externally for our clients, in the years to come. “
For Story Films, their role as a researcher and local expert for clients came about as a by-product of their own internal research. And soon they found that producers, platforms and agencies were coming to rely on their bank of knowledge. In Brazil, a huge country where lockdowns and rules varied between different federal areas, there was a lot to keep track of.
“Everything had changed: our clients couldn’t come to Brazil and Ancine wasn’t issuing filming permits, so we decided to set to work to find out for ourselves what was happening on the ground across Brazil in relation to Covid-19 and share that with our clients,” explains Nick. “So we hired a researcher and started finding answers to questions like which airports are closed, can we go outside and film and how can we shoot safely during the pandemic. Keeping close tabs on Covid-19 in Brazil and its impact on the audiovisual sector really was a full-time job. Brazil is the size of Europe and each region was in a different situation, with different public health policies and safety protocols. We made a lot of changes. Instead of being just a production company, we became an information provider with a team constantly making phone calls to hospitals, to government bodies and industry groups, trying to keep tabs on the situation. We even started filming video interviews with industry players to understand the realities of filming in a Covid-19 world, and sharing that information with our clients.”
Aware that many clients were wading through long and complex documents, Nouri Films turned to - what else? - filmmaking to communicate clearly. They ended up collaborating with a Buenos Aires animation studio Franky to make a snappy film that would help crews remember protocols as well as reassuring potential clients. Production service companies upping their comms game and even turning to creating their own video content to help their community navigate the changes is a trend that's likely to leave its mark on future marketing strategies.
We are ready to shoot! Nouri Films Protocol from Nouri Films on Vimeo.
Ready for 2021
Everyone we speak to has had a tough year and has had to make difficult decisions – and no one is taking it for granted that the new vaccines will be a magic wand. There are still a lot of unknowns and no doubt more unexpected surprises and shocks lying in wait. Moreover, there’s no turning back the clock and these businesses have changed for good.
That being said, there is a sense of optimism too as companies have been pushed to radically transform. They’re leaner and more future-facing than ever and hungry to unleash their true potential on a post-pandemic world.
“I think that the pandemic has forced us to streamline our operation, and to diversify our activity, which eventually will make us come out stronger. It made us focus more on strategy than on day to day, and that’s always a good thing,” says Gabriel at The Talkies.
“We’re absolutely much stronger,” agrees Liam at Robot. “First of all, I am really proud of my team who pulled together and worked tirelessly to make sure that we get through everything. While there was anxiety everyone understood the task at hand and looked positively into the future. We worked with brands who trusted our capabilities even though they were going through an incredibly tough time and everyone we worked with seemed to embrace positivity and transparency. We are working to promote local talent to a global audience, the pandemic gave us a reason for people to take notice. I feel like our clients in Europe, UK and the US really want to come back now. It’s not the same old Cape Town, but a safe haven that has weathered this Covid storm pretty well!”
Looking forward, Pippa thinks that as a community the service production companies around the world have proven their ability to adapt and embrace news ways of working – and so she hopes that they will also now have the confidence to tackle other long standing issues.
“The ability of an entire global ad industry to be able to shift to a remote production mindset and set up in a matter of weeks is proof that we can act quickly and effectively as one,” she says. “The next change has to be to green production - we have no excuse but to be able to respond as quickly and effectively and we must all play our part in delivering sustainable production. There are no excuses.”
Ultimately, it's unlikely that every project will be a remotely-shot one and as the world emerges, it's likely that what will emerge is a production service industry with a broader range of options to offer. But the lessons learned seem to have fundamentally changed the shape of the industry and have proven its capacity to adapt. "I think we all have learned what’s possible to do remotely, how we can safe costs and everyones time by zoom meetings instead of traveling all over the globe and increasing the carbon footprint. But all depends on the project and it’s always been a people business. The opportunity of improvisation and creative inspiration on set inspired by actors, the spirit between agencies creatives and director is part of the creative process, which is not really happening on a remote shoot," says Michael Nouri.
"Any crisis brings opportunities . Also it makes us reflect, adopt and change to do things differently in future. It’s part of human nature to improve by learning, to be stronger and smarter than before. Life itself is a long lasting learning process."