COVID-19: A Look at Operations

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 is the final article of 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.

> Read the other articles in the series

The previous articles in this series took a close look at different silos of the screen-based industries — namely, TV production, distribution, short-form digital content, interactive digital media and documentary production. But there were several issues that came up during the interview process that were common to all sectors and that deserved their own discussion.

Getting back into production 

The top issue across all forms of production other than interactive digital media has been — and continues to be — insurance. Going forward, insurance companies will not cover the risk of productions shutting down due to a second wave of COVID-19. This exclusion not only puts producers at financial risk should  shutdown happen, but may also make it difficult or impossible to secure financing or interim financing, as broadcasters and banks are unwilling to take such a  risk. EOne Television Canada President Jocelyn Hamilton advises that “broadcasters aren’t commissioning new content because of the risk.” According to Eagle Vision Partner Kyle Irving, “there will be a serious shortfall in supply if this problem isn’t solved.”  The Canadian Media Producers Association is actively lobbying the federal government for an indemnification fund to allow the sector to get back into production, as has been done in other jurisdictions. Producers are hopeful the issue will be solved soon.  

All productions anticipate extra costs due to the pandemic. Those include expenses related to personal protection equipment and additional crew members dedicated to cleaning and maintaining protocols, but also costs associated with shorter shoot days and longer shoot periods (to maintain optimum conditions for crews), and quarantining out-of-province or out-of-country cast and crew, and additional equipment for those continuing to work from home.

Who will cover these? “I’d like to see a tax credit for added health and safety costs,” says Shaftesbury CEO Christina Jennings. For WildBrain Chief Commercial Officer Anne Loi, dealing with the extra costs of health and safety measures is more pressing than the insurance issue. “How can we put people back to work if we can’t cover the extra costs of COVID?,” she wonders.

A new way of working  

The transition to working from home has been relatively easy for most of the production sector as a whole. While video production and motion capture work has been impossible under lockdown, and audio work and post-production has proven difficult, many  other activities in the screen-based content production — business development, creative development, and some forms of production such as animation and interactive digital media — could be accomplished remotely with varying levels of ease. “We may even be more productive than before, given that we’re not dealing with commuting,”Jocelyn Hamilton thinks. “Some people need to juggle work and kids, but the company is being supportive and everyone is shifting as necessary.”  Sabotage Studios Executive Producer Philip Barclay puts it differently. “Those who can be flexible, are, for the people who can’t. There’s a sweet spot between managing a business and supporting a complex human situation.”

That parental juggling act hasn’t been easy for iThentic Vice President Lisa Baylin:“I’ve gotten better at prioritizing and saying ‘no’ because I have limited free hours,” she says. Token Entertainment Co-Founder Trinni Franke is hopeful this can lead to long-term change. “In the past, women would have to work and pretend they’re not parents. Maybe this is an opportunity to stop pretending and to have a better work/life balance, and shorter work hours.”

Due to the relatively easy transition and the uncertainty around the return to “normal,” many producers are in no hurry to return to offices. “Our back-to-office plans emphasize maximum flexibility,” insists Boat Rocker Media CEO John Young “We will provide an office if that is preferred, with protocols in place to keep it safe.” Production companies will look carefully at their needs. “We won’t be spending as much on real estate if everyone can effectively work from home and have a better work/life balance” Young adds. Lisa Baylin is bolder in her assessment: “There is no need for the office as a status symbol anymore. I think that will be a permanent change.”

It’s a similar story at WildBrain, who was in the middle of moving to a smaller Toronto office when the pandemic hit. The space was being designed with the typical suite of small offices in mind. Now, it will be adjusted to prioritize meeting spaces over work spaces, as the company expects staff to continue to work from home, but to come in for periodic team meetings. “The office work won’t bounce back the way it was. We’re looking for guidance, but haven’t yet found any direction on post-pandemic design thinking,” Anne Loi says. 

Several of the studios interviewed — Big Bad Boo, Stitch Media, and Bloom Digital, for example — had already been operating virtually, at least partly, so the transition to remote work was easier. They, and others, are now considering whether they need to return to an office at all. Mosaic Entertainment, for one, had just moved from Alberta to British Columbia when the pandemic hit, and had not yet set up a BC office. “We have been efficiently working from home with contract workers, so we are considering not going back to a formal office,” says Eric Ribalkin, the company’s co-founder.

Technology has ensured a smooth transition to working from home. Some of the necessary adaptations undertaken to allow for better teamwork and collaboration will persist after the pandemic. Boat Rocker, for instance, has instituted virtual town halls for its 750 staff across seven locations, a move that has garnered a lot of positive feedback. Staff now say that they feel closer to senior executives and that they expect the town halls to continue. “After we’re through this, someone will have to write a playbook for us all to use the next time,” John Young jokes.

With WildBrain offices around the world, pre-pandemic Anne Loi had been trying to implement more video conferencing rather than travel. Others, however, were resistant. “Now, out of necessity, everyone is doing it.” As a consequence, she expects less travel going forward. Zoom doesn’t work for every situation, though. Lisa Baylin finds that video calls work well for business calls, “but it’s tough, creatively, to not be in the room. For creative calls, a conference call is better because everyone can focus on the work.”

Animation, interactive digital media and post-production work all rely on large digital files. It has been challenging for those who work at home to manage the files with the quality and speed of their home internet. Hard drives can be shipped, but that slows down the process and, in some cases, is simply impossible. For proof: Dark Slope has been working with an animation studio in India, but that company being at the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, international mail has been shut down. RTR Media has explored using cloud-based technology with their staff to avoid hard drives.

Across the board, producers recognize that they are experiencing a loss of productivity due to the stress induced by the pandemic, the distractions of working from home, and logistical challenges. Estimates point to a 10-to-20 percent loss in productivity. The consensus is that such a loss is acceptable,  given the circumstances. 

“As a studio, we had to realize that we couldn’t operate just for productivity,” Philip Barclay says. Kitfox Games Co-Founder Tanya X. Short has a great way of formulating the same idea: “A little bit of lost efficiency is ok. It would be worse if employees were working while stressed out” she counters.

Kelly Lynne Ashton
Trained as an entertainment lawyer, Kelly Lynne Ashton has been working in the Canadian film, television and digital media industries for over twenty-five years. She has worked as a business affairs executive in several Toronto television production and distribution companies, including Atlantis Films Limited and the Owl Group of Companies. Kelly Lynne then entered the world of digital media to act as Senior Producer at children’s web studio Big Orbit Inc. While at Big Orbit she also developed, managed and marketed the online youth research company Reactorz. She has also worked in government relations and media policy as Director of Policy at the Writers Guild of Canada. Kelly Lynne is currently bringing together the different strands of her career in the Canadian media industries - legal, business, marketing and research - and providing consulting services to clients in all areas of the industry including evaluation services for various funds, authoring research reports and programming industry conferences. Kelly Lynne obtained a Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College and now provides clients with diversity and inclusion consulting services.
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