As it gets closer to easing out of lockdown, the audiovisual industry is beginning to move beyond crisis management. Now what? We know there will be changes to the industry in the short and medium terms. But what about long term? How is the industry reacting to ― and anticipating ― these changes? What are the big questions that we need to ask ourselves moving forward, and who will answer them? This article is the third in a series about what’s next for Canada’s TV production sector as it slowly emerges from the shutdowns put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The first two articles in this series focused on television production and distribution. This third piece will take a look at what is commonly referred to as web series.
But first, a word on that label.
One of the first themes that came out of the interviews conducted for this article was a pushback on being called a web series producer. “I’m a content producer,” countered iThentic Vice President Lisa Baylin.
Most of the interviewees create content of various lengths for multiple platforms and audiences. All of them have experienced unique challenges due to COVID-19.
The short-form digital advantage
According to Baylin, short-form content is about “new voices, easier access, quick turnaround,” and that has not changed. Producers who are already in this space are used to telling rich stories with smaller teams and fewer shoot dates. For example, Baylin recently shot a trailer for a funding application with one performer, a camera operator, and herself both directing and hauling gear.
Short-form video being easier and cheaper to produce, the format may start to attract more people. Feature filmmaker Jeanne Stromberg, of Stromhaus Productions, is exploring animated short-form digital with VNN Comedy Network while on hold or in extended development on her feature films. “A producer needs to produce,” she says.
Some short-form content producers have produced low-budget, ‘pandemic’ content ― content that is easy to shoot, deliver and release during lockdown. The quick turnaround for digital content allows them to create timely content that is not expected to have a life outside the pandemic. “We have had productions ordered, made and paid for during the pandemic,” asserts RTR Media’s Creative Head Jenna Keane ― digital content attached to linear with an existing audience that needed to be supported. Meanwhile, animated producer Big Bad Boo produced public service announcements for kids using the characters from their animated kids web series ‘16 Hudson’. Co-Founder Shabnam Rezaei feels that it was their responsibility, as kids content producers, to do something to help kids during this time.
Getting back into production
While some producers are rewriting content for fewer locations and smaller cast and crew, Babel Films Co-Founder Eric Piccoli is spending more time in development so that he’s ready when normal production can resume. Token Entertainment’s Co-Founders Winnifred Jong and Trinni Franke had hoped to leverage the second season of their short-form series ‘Tokens’ to produce a bigger show with more locations and a bigger cast, but now they’re considering how they may have to condense it. As a small team with limited resources, they have decided to wait until industry protocols are released and watch how larger productions cope before making decisions on creative and production changes.
Now the question is: Wait, but until when? They anticipate that broadcast productions will resume at the same time and that it will be hard for them to compete for equipment, cast, and locations. They need to find a window, but they don’t know yet when the busy time will be for both Canadian and U.S. production as they restart.
OYA Media Group Co-Founders Alison Duke and Ngardy Conteh George have both been personally impacted by COVID-19. Analyses have demonstrated that the Black community, which they are a part of, has been hit harder by COVID-19 than the general population due to factors such as systemic racism, high representation in frontline service jobs and density of housing.
As a result, Duke and George intend to wait till they are certain that it is safe for their majority Black casts and crews to go back to work, or that they can put more resources into safety protocols before they start production. In the meantime, they received CBC Creative Relief Fund money to develop an archival-driven non-fiction web series that tells stories about the Black community using personal archives. They expect to be able to move forward safely with that project during lockdown.
Short-form digital content faces many of the same hurdles as broadcast content in terms of managing the health and safety of production. But with lower budgets, it is a lot harder to accommodate the increased costs of PPE, physical distancing, and shorter work days. At the same time, with smaller crews, those costs won’t be as significant as they are for television productions. Broadcast producers are looking at hiring health and safety experts, but with the kind of budgets that short-form digital productions have at their disposal, Lisa Baylin doesn’t expect to be able to afford experts “unless they’re also cleaning something.”
It isn’t just about when and whether to produce, though. Platforms are being cautious. While short-form digital, in many ways, exists to showcase new voices, both Baylin and Shabnam Rezaei are concerned that, due to the pandemic, platforms will be less interested in taking risks and will instead stick to tried and true creators. Without in-person events, it is also harder for new voices to get pitches and meetings. Even those with existing relationships are experiencing a slowdown in greenlights.
Token Entertainment was on a roll, with multiple nominations and awards for the first season of ‘Tokens’, the Banff Spark program, Bell Fund Slate Development and a planned trip to L.A. All of that is now on hold, and Jong and Franke are worried that by the time they can travel again, they will have lost momentum.
The lockdown hasn’t impacted the marketing of short-form work for Piccoli, however. The market for their French-language digital drama is primarily Quebec-based, so there are fewer opportunities to miss out on in the global market.
While not directly linked to COVID-19, producers of short-form digital content find that the impact of Black Lives Matter protests during lockdown have impacted the kind of content that buyers are looking for much more than the pandemic has. “I grew up in a multicultural environment, so my content always has that representation. Now broadcasters are looking for it,” says Eric Piccoli. He sees that as an important development, as long as it is done with respect and not viewed as a checkbox.
Shabnam Rezaei hasn’t seen a change in demand, but that may be because she already works in the space where they create content that showcases “children’s emotional ability to be inclusive.” She hopes that continues because in the long run, inclusivity and representation is more important than responding to the pandemic.