Realscreen - May/Jun 2020

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MAY/JUN 2020



TWEET DREAMS Social media platforms and unscripted TV can be beautiful partners, as seen with Netflix’s Love Is Blind.

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THE DEEP MED A 52’ & 90’ documentary in 4K by Gil Kebaïli


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4 divers spend 28 days in a 5m2 capsule at 120m deep A world premiere



Is mobile content ready for its close-up?








How doc fests are managing the pandemicprompted pivot to online

The Love Is Blind producer rings in its first decade

THE FINAL CUT Argonon’s James Burstall on how to weather the COVID-19 storm

MAY/JUN 2020




Twenty years of adrenalin and aspirational content



Green Blood was an audience favorite at the virtual edition of Hot Docs.

Social media strategies for success

Netflix’s Love Is Blind and other unscripted hits are lighting up social media.

TWEET DREAMS Social media platforms and unscripted TV can be beautiful partners, as seen with Netflix’s Love Is Blind.

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my editorial from our last issue, I wrote that hopefully, once the COVID-19 pandemic recedes into the foggy distance of memory, we will have learned to not take things for granted, and to truly appreciate what we have. Alas, that blessed day shows no sign of coming in the near future, and we as a species remain perched on a precipice, about to take a giant if tentative leap into the “new normal”... whatever that proves itself to be. At Realscreen, we have attempted to provide a picture of how this pandemic has impacted the non-fiction and unscripted screen content industry, and this issue will take a close look at many of those concerns. But as we were in the process of going to press, another major upheaval rocked the world when George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, succumbed after a white police officer pressed his knee upon Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes. The resulting protests in the U.S. and around the world have thrown several issues into sharp, brutal focus, with perhaps the chief area of concern being the tacit acceptance by many of the horribly unfair status quo of racial inequality that has saturated myriad aspects of our society for centuries. As trade journalists we can write about corporate initiatives underway to address these situations, and the work being done by companies in the face of such chaos. What is more difficult to distill is how all of this is affecting us individually — as business owners, as employees, as family members, as friends. Those of you who are responsible for businesses and the employees within are facing immense challenges now, ranging from keeping the lights on to maintaining productivity at required levels amid mandated remote working scenarios brought on by quarantine. Employees and freelancers are also contending with their job-related frustrations and fears as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on economies globally, coupled with anger and deep sorrow in the face of the unrest gripping their streets, their homes, and their hearts. In dealing with the virus, there has been remarkable innovation shown when it comes to setting up remote edit bays or producing self-shot spin-offs of popular franchises. It’s all proof that this industry is truly creative and resourceful when it comes to problem-solving and perseverance. But let’s consider that mere months ago, issues of duty of care and mental health for workers in TV and film were finally beginning to receive the notice they’ve deserved for years. If there has ever been a time to combine the creativity and resourcefulness that this industry seems to have in abundance with other equally important ingredients for a healthy, prosperous work environment — namely, compassion and empathy — it’s now. Be well, Barry Walsh Editor & content director Realscreen


Compassion during crisis May + June 2020 Volume 23, Issue 4

Realscreen is published 4 times a year by Brunico Communications Ltd., 100- 366 Adelaide Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5V 1R9 Tel. 416-408-2300 Fax 416-408-0870

VP & Publisher Claire Macdonald Editor and Content Director Barry Walsh News Editor Daniele Alcinii Special Reports Editor Jillian Morgan Contributors James Burstall, John Smithson Associate Publisher Joel Pinto Senior Account Manager Kristen Skinner Marketing & Publishing Coordinator Suhail Sawant Art Director Mark Lacoursiere Print Production & Distribution Supervisor Adriana Ortiz Lead Conference Producer Tiffany Rushton

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September/October Editorial features include: • MIPCOM Picks • Specialist Factual Focus • Archive report Bonus distribution: • IDFA • Wildscreen (Digital) • MIPCOM 2020 • World Congress of Science & Factual Producers (Digital) *conditional on physical event taking place

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column in the May/June 2019 issue of Realscreen was entitled “Tackling the Diversity Challenge.” I highlighted the fact that after several of our events we have heard from members of our audience asking why we don’t have more diverse representation on panels and, in response, issued a challenge to the industry to help us close the gap and make suggestions on how we can be more inclusive and proactive in this regard. Fast forward to June 2, 2020 to what was supposed to be the first day of Realscreen Live, the virtual event that was created after Realscreen West’s cancellation thanks to COVID-19. The day prior we had issued a statement of solidarity in support of Black and Indigenous people and all people of color, as the world reeled from more stories of violence against these communities. Three hours before the virtual event was set to start, we made a decision to postpone all programming out of respect for the Blackout Tuesday initiative, designed to make people pause and consider the changes that are sorely needed. Participants and delegates alike were supportive of the action and graciously rearranged their schedules so we could all take time to reflect. Our team was heroic -- undoing and redoing days of work without a grumble -- because they believed this was the right thing to do. Since Realscreen Live, I have once again received comments and criticism about the lack of ethnic diversity on our panels. The observations are valid. But I will also share that every single panel has been curated with a mandate to be as inclusive as possible. The reality is that, as a publication and event producer, we reflect the industry we serve. And in this industry we need more senior-ranking executives with diverse backgrounds. It’s that simple. So we have made a pledge at Realscreen. Going forward we will ensure that there is more diversity, and until the change that the industry needs to undertake occurs, that will mean more diversity of titles on panels. Diverse voices need to be heard, and this is one way we can effect change. We’re taking this seriously. Watch this space for more initiatives on the diversity front.

‘Til next time, go well. Claire Macdonald VP & publisher Realscreen 007

Congratulations Kinetic Content on 10 years of success And to all of our 2020 Realscreen Global 100 honorees

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Mobile-first Quibi hopes to take a bite out of the streaming pie with such series as Let’s Roll With Tony


Quibi’s entry into the streaming fray was meant to signal a new era for mobile, short-form content. But while COVID-19 has provided unforeseen challenges, there is still plenty of potential for the medium.


fter months of hype that its premium “quick bite” content would captivate mobile millennial and Gen Z audiences, Quibi — with $1.8 billion in investor injections — was met with a lukewarm reception April 6. The app saw 1.7 million downloads in its first week, a figure that CEO Meg Whitman told CNBC exceeded the company’s expectations in the wake of pandemic lockdown orders that flipped Quibi’s mobile-first model on its head. Still, even with the 90-day free trial and buzzy series such as Chrissy’s Court with Chrissy Teigen and Thanks a Million with Jennifer Lopez, that number rose to just 3.5 million (1.3 million active users) in the month after Quibi’s launch. In a May 11 interview with The New York Times, founder Jeffrey Katzenberg — known for his tenure as chairman of Walt Disney Studios and as the co-founder of DreamWorks — said those numbers don’t come close to the “avalanche of people” the company wanted.

Katzenberg attributed Quibi’s rocky start to the novel coronavirus. He’s not alone in that assessment. Michelle Wroan, the U.S. industry leader for KPMG’s Media practice, says the current period isn’t a “good measure” of Quibi’s success — or its bet on an increasing appetite for shortform, mobile-first content. “The world has moved into adopting streaming over the last several years; we’ve seen the launch of so many different streaming options. This particular one, and any short form-type opportunity, is different and unique from that standpoint,” Wroan says. “I think there is a built in demand for short form, high quality content that hasn’t yet been met.” CHANGING HABITS Carter Pilcher, who founded linear and OTT service ShortsTV in 2008, says short-form viewing is increasing “exponentially,” and Quibi “picked the right space.” “To have Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman educating the investor class and Hollywood on the

THE CLOSE-UP Q&A with Jennifer O’Connell, HBO Max

13 POINTED ARROW John Smithson on lockdown lessons

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fundamentally a different medium,” Guthrie says. “There’s a thumb hovering over a screen and there’s so much competing for your attention, and it happens to be this device that is probably, I would argue, the most intimate device you have.”

“All of the pre-production steps as far as logistics and creative are identical… In this case, Quibi was a new platform, so we were kind of in the trenches with them,” Witt says. “If there was anything different, it was the post process because you were delivering two versions of the show, one is vertical and one is horizontal… We have done vertical deliveries for Snapchat, but never two completely different visual cuts with the same exact content.”


“HEART OF THE ACTION” For producers, putting together a fiveminute episode for mobile audiences requires a more targeted approach. Guthrie says Snap has just three seconds to hook its audience. From there, she says Snap ensures the story is “moving at the right place.” Ending on a cliffhanger keeps viewers coming back for more. Guthrie “We take out so much filler that you don’t need to get right to the heart of the action,” she says. “So you get really hyper-concentrated forms of storytelling but you’re not missing anything in the story because of it.” Thalia Mavros, the founder and CEO of female-first think tank and documentary production studio The Front, served as executive producer on Quibi dance competition The Sauce. Mavros says the show was originally pitched to broadcasters as a half-hour concept that would have included more background on the history of dance in featured cities, and the backstories of contestants. “Quibi was very interested,” Mavros says. “They were most excited about maintaining the integrity of the show. So we were happy to reduce the amount of time per show and really [focus on] the meaty part because we were going to be able to represent the culture the way it really is rather than having to water it down for a TV audience.” Short form is part of The Front’s DNA, Mavros says, though the process of producing a Quibi show had a few unique challenges, namely dual shooting. “We had to shoot everything multiple times to cover that vertical and horizontal,” she says. “That was a little bit trickier especially due to the nature of the show being competition and dance.” Shawn Witt is co-president of ITV America’s Leftfield Pictures and producer of Snapchat’s The Honeybeez of ASU, and also EP of Quibi’s Let’s Roll with Tony Greenhand. He concurs with Mavros, adding that producing a five- to eight-minute episode means compiling “all the best unscripted moments in a tight pack.”


benefits of doing mobile, we think, is absolutely unbelievable,” he says. “I think this is, to me, the beginning of this big shift into mobile.” Multi-tasking, tech-savvy consumers with shrinking attention spans have paved the way for platforms such as Quibi and Snap — both promising to entertain viewers in less than 10 minutes — to thrive. Still, it’s worth noting that Quibi is pivoting from a “mobile only” approach to a “mobile first” one, and adding functionality that will, at present, allow iPhone users to cast certain content to compatible smart TVs. That may be directly related to the unique qualities of consuming media during lockdown — the “inbetween” moments of everyday life that were supposed to provide the bulk of engagement time with the app, such as commutes or waiting in line for a coffee, have eroded for many, for the time being. Once the lockdown restrictions lift in some capacity, and a “mobile-friendly,” on-the-go lifestyle returns, those “in-between” times will once again be ripe for short-form content consumption. “How we consume and use media is very different than we did two decades ago or a decade and a half ago,” Wroan explains. “I view this as kind of an extension of what we have historically seen as more user generated pieces, and this is taking it to the next level.” Vanessa Guthrie, director of Snap Originals, joined the social media company four years ago to develop shows that would fall under the Originals banner. Since its launch in 2018, Snap Originals has created youth-skewing docuseries such as the Bunim/Murrayproduced Endless and Nikita Unfiltered from Sirens Media, the latter watched by more than 20 million users on the platform since its premiere in March, according to the company. “We’ve been so bullish in thinking about vertical video and how you optimize something for mobile, and you can’t just transfer something over and call it a great experience. It is

A ‘BONA FIDE’ ARTFORM A series designed for mobile might not earn the same clout as a feature film, but the genre has been getting a boost as platforms and producers innovate. “Shorts are actual films,” ShortsTV’s Pilcher says. “They have a beginning, middle and end. They’re recognized by the Oscars and Cannes and every festival. It’s a bona fide artform and the place for great storytellers, creators.” Leftfield’s Witt says unscripted lends itself well to mobile, offering many benefits — namely that it can be made affordably and in a high volume compared to scripted. Mavros “I think all of these platforms, whether it’s Quibi or Snap, or anyone else who pops up in the next few years, will hit a point where they realize there’s an incredible demand for hours and the only way to service that is to look to unscripted,” Witt says. For Mavros, short-form content offers the opportunity to take risks, creating content that includes diverse voices or topics that might not easily land in a mainstream world. “I don’t see it slowing down,” Mavros says. “Documentary has a strong and bright future and I think short form will play beautifully into that.” “The more platforms that are created with different demands, the more opportunity for us to expand our creative vision and our brainstorming, and our development to service those needs and viewers,” Witt says. “I think the next few years will be pretty fun.” Pilcher






hile it may be buoyed by the HBO brand, WarnerMedia’s just-launched streamer HBO Max is charting its own course. The direct-to-consumer service rolled out May 27 with a roster of unscripted series and documentaries, from underground ballroom dance competition format Legendary to Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s Sundance-premiering film On the Record. HBO Max is just the most recent player to enter the so-called “streaming wars,” joining the likes of other nascent entrants such as Disney+, NBCUniversal’s Peacock and mobile-first platform Quibi. “We don’t like to call it a streaming war because we do feel like there is plenty of room and that there isn’t a winner-takes-all dynamic happening,” Jennifer O’Connell, EVP of original non-fiction and kids programming, tells Realscreen. Here, O’Connell — a former Lionsgate executive who joined AT&T-owned WarnerMedia in May 2019 — shares her thoughts about creating franchise content, HBO Max’s “aggressive” approach in the unscripted and documentary space, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What weight does the HBO brand carry for this service, particularly in the documentary space, when it comes to cutting through the clutter of everything out there now? Some of our stuff might be younger skewing, some of our stuff might be a little bit more female; we are really looking at what HBO as a brand brings to the table and then we’re looking to see where we can complement… We are very much in the documentary business, looking for feature-length docs… We are also doing multi-part documentaries, and have a few very buzzy, very noisy ones within. Everyone wants to know where their next Tiger King is coming from.

What role does unscripted content play in HBO Max’s slate? There is a ton of weight on unscripted… We’re doing dating, we’re doing social experiments, we have competition shows, we have really big competition shows… That is an area that, for example, our colleagues at HBO, they are not necessarily in that space so deeply, so it’s very rich, very fertile ground for us to dig into.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting HBO Max? We have been working with our production partners from the second it felt like this could have an impact, and continued to work with them to figure out, how can we support them? How can we be safe? How can we shut down but not lose the sense that we’re all going to bounce back from this? We are putting a lot of plans in place to make sure that we can keep our content supply going.

Do you see a bigger appetite for that unscripted and documentary content among platforms and audiences? From the start we’ve been pretty aggressive in that space and it’s interesting because it does feel like in the last couple of months there have been a lot of breakouts. I think there’s a lot of buzz in our world and it’s coming from reality style shows and documentaries. If anything it’s only reinforced what we’ve already been planning to do… I think there is an openness and an appetite for finding shows that are slightly off center, which is exactly what I love to do. I think it’s a very exciting time for this genre.

What are your immediate future goals for HBO Max? On the reality front, what can we turn into a franchise and maybe do spin offs? Then on the documentary side, what is going to get noticed? You want to be in a room with all different age groups, all different backgrounds and the one thing they have in common is, “Did you see that this weekend?” Or, “Did you watch the first couple episodes? I can’t wait for the next one.” That is what I live for, to be part of that water cooler conversation. Jillian Morgan




By John Smithson


leven weeks into my London lockdown, eyes red from a day staring at Zoom, and I’m feeling curiously upbeat. We have all been through the biggest challenge any of us has faced in the indie sector or in the world of content creation, with pressure, uncertainty and sadness as people in the industry have been seriously ill with the virus and others have sadly lost loved ones. It speaks volumes about the resilience and creativity of our business that, in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, we have adapted to the new normal, and there are many reasons to be positive. It’s wired into our DNA. You can’t survive as an indie without this instant ability to react to whatever is thrown at you — not that anyone dared imagine it would be this bad. I don’t want to minimize the harsh reality. Projects have been canceled, budgets slashed, and talented people furloughed or let go. Promising careers are on hold and, for some, real hardship beckons. Many indies are at serious risk, especially if lockdown continues, we can’t get back into production or the pandemic has a second wave. It’s equally grim at the networks, where ad revenue has nosedived and tough decisions have to be made. But I think the positives that have come out of this searing experience give hope for our ability to get through this. Within the first days of the lockdown post-production migrated at lightning speed from established post facilities. Across London major international series were being cut on kitchen tables and wobbly bedroom desks… and it all worked! Post was the easier bit, and it continues to be functioning well, but filming is a massive challenge and restrictions severely impact how production used to work. At Arrow, we have been resourceful in finding, buying and using a camera in a box that can be shipped to any location and gets proper quality interview material, all by remote

MAY / JUNE ‘20

control. It’s helped us finish many shows that otherwise would be on the shelf. I also admire how my colleagues have utilized AI to analyze a mountain of unused re-cre material in our library that we can use as generic footage to cover gaps where we have been unable to film. COVID-19 has forced a fundamental change in how we work, and I am amazed at how well the business has adapted. Everything that used to be done still gets done. Ideas are still being generated, commissions are still being greenlit, budgets are still being debated and shows are still being delivered. There is a positive camaraderie across the business — a sense of all being stuck in this mess together and a genuine sharing of experiences. Normal rivalries have been suspended. There’s a real interest in the big ideas that can be made when we come out of lockdown, and there is no shortage of ambition or finance. There’s most definitely a feeling of “anything but COVID-19”, as viewers want to engage in something else.

The positives that have come out of this searing experience give hope for our ability to get through this.” In recent days there have been some encouraging signs. We have started re-cre shooting in South Africa. Other countries may also soon be open for filming. It feels like resuming production is tantalizingly close. And we should all be thankful for the flexibility of factual. We can be nimble on our feet and work around the myriad issues, which is not an option for the big scripted juggernauts that are some way from getting started. Lots of big issues lie ahead of us all. The new normal is going to be around for some time, and how producers and networks work together through the coming recession, whatever shape it takes, is going to be crucial. John Smithson is creative director of Arrow Pictures, a features and high-end factual label created out of Arrow Media, the leading indie which he co-founded in 2011.

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TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé is frequently trending on Twitter and other social media platforms.

By Jillian Morgan

SOCIAL STATUS Reality series ripe for online engagement find success via the digital water cooler.


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ot long after Love Is Blind premiered on Netflix, Twitter erupted with conversation. The chatter drifted to platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, and articles citing the “best” reactions from fans online soon appeared on sites such as Buzzfeed. On Feb. 26, a few weeks after the premiere, Time ran the article: “Love Is Blind Memes are Taking Over the Internet.” “Love Is Blind is by far the corniest and most cringe show on Netflix. It’s unrealistic and so stupid.... I’ll take 3 more seasons please #loveisblindnetflix,” one user (@ swimmerboy98) tweeted. Another user, @brandonp_16, wrote: “Me: Love Is Blind sounds like a stupid show… Also Me: If Cameron and Lauren don’t stay together, what is life?!! #LoveIsBlind.” Those posts, each amassing upwards of 10,000 “likes” and 2,300 “retweets,” were among the hordes comprising the swarm of reactions that circulated through the series’ run, cementing Love Is Blind’s place in Internet culture (and on Twitter’s trending list). The success of the reality format, produced by Red Arrow Studios’ Kinetic Content, isn’t owed entirely to social media. Still, unscripted series that crack the online virality code reap the rewards of this era’s most persuasive water cooler conversation. “Social media plays a huge role in what we’ve called word-of-mouth for so long,” Chris Coelen, CEO of Kinetic Content, tells Realscreen. “I feel like social media has supplanted all of that or certainly enhanced a lot of that.” Love Is Blind isn’t the only show to marry buzzy unscripted content with social media acumen. ITV’s Love Island, produced by ITV Studios, and TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé, produced by Sharp Entertainment, have successfully cultivated cross-platform conversations. A&E Network’s Live PD and Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise are a few other reality series that come to mind for Jenna Ross, Twitter’s head of U.S. entertainment partnerships. Ross, who joined the company nearly five years ago, works across streaming platforms and cable, in addition to

collaborating with TV talent. She says the ability to grow a following on the platform has only become greater over time — and unscripted programming lends itself particularly well to social media engagement. “These shows become more and more social savvy and keep connecting with their audience,” she says. “IT’S UNPREDICTABLE” There’s no surefire strategy to social success, though reality shows naturally have a relatability factor that allows for what Coelen calls “social opportunity.” “There’s a topicality to those shows, that people [in the cast] are experiencing the same things or facing the same issues that you might be facing and that feels very sticky and very social,” he says. “That’s a good recipe for social engagement.” It isn’t a simple recipe to replicate. Discovery-owned TLC trades in buzzworthy reality TV, with a roster of series that fit the bill for social send off—among them, the frequently Twitter-trending 90 Day Fiancé. In a “dream world,” TLC president and general manager Howard Lee says all the network’s shows would have a social following. “I think that if you are doing a job properly and you are commissioning and developing programming, all of your shows aim for that goal,” Lee adds. In the early days of 90 Day Fiancé, which debuted in January 2014, Lee says TLC was just starting to get on board with social. “We even had to educate people about what a hashtag was. ‘What is that tic tac toe symbol?’” he explains. Now, seven seasons and many spin-offs later, a quick search of #90DayFiance on Twitter will bring forward a mass of viewer reactions to couples featured on the show, many of which become memes on other platforms (and even shared on the official 90 Day Fiancé Instagram account). “It just evolved and got bigger and bigger,” Lee says. “It was even faster than any viewer relations reporting or any hard copy letters that would be mailed to us or e-mailed. All coming in through social media as real fan




Van Ballegooy




engagement and feedback… And I believe that it can’t evolve on its own unless you really have a must-see series first. The content has to be that strong.”

TWITTER TO TIKTOK Cameron Curtis, VP of multi-platform strategy and digital media at TLC, says the network meets 90 Day Fiancé fans “where they are” — from Twitter to Facebook, Instagram and, now, TikTok — amplifying viewer reactions across platforms. “We are supportive of that conversation, which I think makes us very unique,” Curtis says. But casting a wide net has its challenges. “There are so many platforms right now and we need to get on every single one in order to find that audience,” she explains. “I’m sure there’ll be a new platform next year that we’ll need to launch on as well.” Kim Dingler, chief commercial officer of global entertainment at ITV Studios, says Love Island has been planting its flag across popular social media platforms since the show first aired five years ago. Like Curtis, she says it can be a challenge to keep up with the sheer number of social sites, each with their own unique needs. “If you look at Facebook in 2015, it’s so different from Facebook in 2020,” Dingler says. “Our social media strategy has evolved to accommodate this. We do Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, but also newer social media like TikTok. We cater the content for all those platforms.” Much like Love Is Blind and 90 Day Fiancé, the social media reaction to Love Island has been compiled in publications such as Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan and Bustle. Tweets about the show garner thousands of likes and retweets. “Social is almost an umbrella of all the things you can do. You have marketing social that’s way more based on promoting the show, but you also have the content on social, where you let people talk and have influence on the show,” Dingler says. “It all has its place in the social media funnel.” Huub van Ballegooy, the content and production consultant for Love Island, says social strategy isn’t one-size-fits-all, however. “A non-interactive quiz on Saturday night has a different strategic approach than a format like Love Island, which targets a much more younger demographic,” Ballegooy says. “You look at the needs of the broadcaster, of your key demo, and this is where you adjust it.” 020

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Netflix’s Love Is Blind and other unscripted series capitalize on relatable cast members for their social success.

For Twitter’s Ross, producers, broadcasters and streamers can take their strategy on the platform further by educating cast members on the “do’s and don’ts of social media,” and allowing them to participate in the conversation. “The fans can dig in further than they would be if they were just watching on air,” she says. “WINDS OF SOCIAL MEDIA” As a producer, the virality of a show offers myriad benefits, with perhaps the most important being the potential to drive more eyeballs to a series. And while historically there have been shows that have performed well via social but not via traditional ratings, the proliferation of social platforms and their different capabilities for marketing to specific demos might narrow that gap. Nielsen’s Social Content Ratings, for example, incorporates data from Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to help determine the impact of talent promotion on a show’s social engagement metrics, among other findings shared with clients. “The fact that people are able to discover it because their friends were talking about it on social media is a huge help,” Coelen says. “As a producer, often you’re at the mercy of forces you can’t control so to have the winds of social media on your side to help get word out is incredible.” More than ever, Ross says social media platforms such as Twitter are helping people connect amid social distancing orders in place due to the COVID-19 crisis. For producers, broadcasters and streamers, there’s no better time to join the conversation. “There is this FOMO [fear of missing out] factor a lot of the time, where I feel like Twitter has led a conversation and led the cultural pick up of some of these big shows,” Ross says. “We’re all just trying to watch along together and share with everybody… I feel like that’s just going to keep picking up.”




Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, featuring celeb chef Gordon Ramsay, is one of A. Smith & Co.’s longest running series. (Left: Ramsay; right: Arthur Smith)

By Barry Walsh

For Arthur Smith and his team at unscripted powerhouse A. Smith & Co., a passion for producing has been the foundation for two decades of hits.



lanning can be overrated. Granted, a road map can often get you where you need to go quicker than a good sense of direction and lucky guesses. But sometimes, a little faith, a little luck and a lot of drive can act as the perfect recipe for success. Veteran producer Arthur Smith would probably concur with this theory. While his first forays into the entertainment business as a youth began in front of the camera as an actor, his fascination with the behind the scenes world of production sent him on a path that led to top executive positions at networks and major production companies, culminating in the formation of his own shingle, A. Smith & Co., 20 years ago. “Everything that has happened before A. Smith & Co. was my training,” says the executive producer of such massive unscripted franchises as American Ninja Warrior and Hell’s Kitchen. “But it was never according to a plan. It all seemed like a natural progression.”


the next day really early, and he said, ‘I have no idea what to do with you, but I really like you. Just give me some time.’ It didn’t take that long [to get hired], maybe a month later. That was 30 years ago.” Smith credits Clark with bringing him into the U.S. and with providing valuable experience in producing big, splashy event programming, such as glitzy awards shows. From there, he moved to MCA Television Group as SVP, working on revamping its first-run division and development slate, and acquisitions for syndication. After a stint there, the sports world beckoned once again via a new American broadcaster, Fox. As EVP of programming, production and news for Fox Sports, Smith helped propel the network into the world of cable sports, launching 22 sports networks and overseeing event and original programming. “With all the jobs that I had, I really liked doing everything,” he says. “I liked doing the awards shows at Dick Clark, the big sports things at Fox. But what I loved most about those jobs was when I was producing. I was happiest when I remember telling my was the executive producer of a show.”

I folks that I wanted to start my own company and they asked, ‘How much are you going to make?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know!’ I guess I did take a big risk but I was so passionate that I didn’t allow the enormity of it to hit me.”

It was a journey that began at Toronto’s Ryerson University and its radio and television program, and has included stops at CBC Sports and Fox Sports Net, Dick Clark Productions, and Universal (or then, MCA Television Group) before arriving at the Toluca Lake, California location that is home to A. Smith & Co. and its 100 employees. “Anytime I was on set, I was always hands on with everything,” he recalls of his time as a young actor in Canada, appearing in such productions as the teen movie Pinball Summer and the CBC sitcom Hangin’ In. “I was very curious about how things were made. I’d always run back to the control room to hang out.” That curiosity would prove profitable in more ways than one. During his stint at Ryerson, Smith began work at Canadian pubcaster CBC, in its sports department. By the age of 28, he wound up running CBC Sports, overseeing production of the network’s Los Angeles Olympics coverage and there, getting his first big taste of the American media landscape. His time with CBC Sports also imprinted within him the importance of storytelling, and revealed to him how marrying captivating story arcs with hard-hitting action can make for great television. “I thought, ‘Yes, this will open up doors for me, but I’m young enough to try something else,’” he recalls. “And if I’m going to do it, I might as well do it in LA.” While on assignment in France, he felt compelled late one evening to write a letter to Dick Clark regarding potentially working for the legendary television icon and his production outfit, a company deeply entrenched in event television. It seemed like a natural home for Smith and his talents, and Clark agreed. “He wrote me back, and I made it down there a couple months later,” Smith recounts. “I was with him for two hours, which was probably the longest amount of time I wound up spending with him. I walked in there with a number of ideas. He called the hotel 022

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That “addiction to production” prodded Smith to make his next move and open his own shop. But he didn’t want to do it alone. Enter friend and Fox colleague Kent Weed. “The vision was a little broad — we wanted to do shows we were passionate about,” says Weed, recalling how the prodco’s early days were spent in the offices of Fox Sports. Once the company landed its first major greenlight — You Gotta See This for Fox — it was ready to make its mark… and find its own offices. “They took 65 episodes,” Smith recalls. “I remember calling Kent and saying ‘We need a building!’ So we went on to do 200 episodes of that show. “I remember telling my folks that I wanted to start my own company and they asked, ‘How much are you going to make?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know!’ When I think back on it, I guess I did take a big risk, but I was so passionate that I didn’t allow the enormity of it to hit me.” Passion was the key driver in the decision-making process, according to Weed and Smith, and it remains that way two decades later. “We knew we could execute,” Weed says. “We turned down a lot of things at the beginning and started in on doing things we wanted to do.” Another exec at Fox would wind up playing a significant role in A. Smith & Co.’s ascension in the unscripted TV industry: reality head Mike Darnell. The man behind some of the genre’s earliest, and noisiest, series brought them on for one such project, a British format from Mentorn called Paradise Hotel, and the experience led to other collaborations, most notably Hell’s Kitchen, starring a non-nonsense, tough-talking chef, Gordon Ramsay, who was at the time an unknown commodity in the U.S. “Hell’s Kitchen came from the UK but we were able to take the name and make a different show out of it, something broader for American audiences,” says Weed. “When we did Hell’s Kitchen, no one had really done cooking on primetime on a network. And everybody doubted Hell’s Kitchen too. I think we had 16 different cuts of the first episode.”


“Arthur and I have worked together on many occasions over the years, and I have always found him to be a great partner,” says Darnell, now heading unscripted TV for Warner Bros. “He approaches every project with a level of ingenuity and enthusiasm that makes him a world-class producer. “And on top of all that, he’s a lovely human being.”


To meet demand, A. Smith & Co. mobilized remote edit teams to get season two of NBC’s The Titan Games on air seven months ahead of its originally slated air date. (Left: Arthur Smith; right: Dwayne Johnson)


Two decades of business naturally result in change and evolution for any company. Acquired by UKheadquartered Tinpolis Group in 2011, A. Smith & Co. restructured its topline in 2019, as Caroline Baumgard joined the company as CEO after stints with such superindies as Banijay and Endemol, and Smith took on the role of chairman of the prodco, while taking on the same post for Tinopolis USA, which also houses Magical Elves under its umbrella. Smith continues to exec produce several of the company’s hit franchises, and Frank Sinton, a colleague of Smith’s since the Fox Sports days and COO of the company since 2011, is also in that role for Tinopolis USA. Sinton also oversees A. Smith & Co.’s Dox division, focusing on premium factual. Weed, meanwhile, stepped down as president of the company in 2018 to focus on family and new pursuits. He remains an exec producer of American Ninja Warrior. From a content perspective, new projects for scores of cable and broadcast nets and streamers are balanced



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with consistent performers across a wide swath of genres. Hell’s Kitchen is still on the air, 20 seasons later, and it is one of several successful franchises from the shop, each fitting into a different niche of programming. NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, first airing in 2009, marries incredible physical competition feats with characters worth caring about, as does the Peacock’s The Titan Games, hosted and exec produced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Meanwhile, TV One’s Unsung, which spotlights legends of R&B and soul from past to present, has been a staple for that network since 2008. The company’s ability to develop and produce compelling content across genres is a key strength, according to Baumgard. “I think as the business evolves and more buyers are out there, it’s content first,” she says about the demands of the current climate.

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“And that’s what’s exciting to me about this company. We can develop in any space, and the more that we can do that, the more of a chance we have of being around for another 20 years.” “One of the things that we take pride in is that we do all sorts of budgets, all sorts of genres,” offers Sinton. “We love telling stories. Cable didn’t kill network television, and streaming hasn’t killed cable. The future is incredibly bright because unscripted is such a staple of all of these platforms. It’s a big spectrum and we’re happy to play anywhere.” And for Smith, while production has been his life’s work, the element of play remains. “I’m still in the control room every day. I love the challenges, the new directions, trying to reinvent... and I love the people,” he summarizes. “It all brings me a lot of joy.”

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By Daniele Alcinii

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, industry conferences and festivals have had to pivot quickly to the digital domain. But while organizers long for the day when festivalgoers and filmmakers can convene in the flesh, elements of the virtual doc fest may be here to stay.


ine Fischer remembers the exact moment when the world around her began to fall apart. As founder and director to CPH:DOX, Fischer was a mere nine days out from welcoming festivalgoers to the 17th edition of the Copenhagen-set festival where 65 films across its five competition categories were slated to screen. Instead, one of the largest documentary festivals in Europe was grappling with whether the doors to the Kunsthal Charlottenborg should open at all. It was the week of March 9 and, for the next seven days, the CPH:DOX festival director would find herself locked in tense, hourslong meetings with the board of representatives, the Danish Health Authority, and the festival’s main

Sundance favorite The Reason I Jump was one of the docs featured at CPH: DOX and Hot Docs.

sponsors and partners. “It was the worst seven-day limbo in our life,” Fischer says. “The health authorities were not willing to close the festival. We knew that gathering thousands of people from all over the world was not going to happen, it seemed tremendously irresponsible.” Forty-eight hours before Denmark became the second European country to enforce a lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus, CPH:DOX organizers began preparing to migrate its live event to a digital landscape. The organizing team behind the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival has dedicated the better part of 16 years to building up the Danish event, growing the festival and market from 12,000 admissions in its first year to a record-breaking 114,400 admissions in 2019. While the call to go digital was a very difficult and risky decision, given the time constraints, it was a decision that “somehow” made itself, Fischer recalls.

“There never was a real alternative,” Fischer admits. “We were so ready to bring all of it into the world. So ready for all the films to make a real difference. And suddenly you have to face the option of letting it all go. “I remember the moment when I thought that if we didn’t go for it, my team and I would suffer in an almost unrepairable way but the film communities in a much deeper sense,” she added. “We knew that all spring and summer festivals most likely would have to cancel. We needed to make it happen. We needed to bring people together in a new way.” Local film festivals have long served as a launching pad for independent and emerging filmmakers to build and sustain their film careers. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is forcing festivals to upend their deployment strategies, and pushing organizers to choose between canceling, postponing their live events or hastily shifting to an online model. The crisis 025


is sending the film festival model barreling toward a new future, and possibly a better one. “To be honest, we announced that we would go digital before even knowing how to do it,” Fischer admits. “We had made a deal with Festival Scope and Shift72 to build the streaming platform but the rest was not developed yet. “From the moment the decision was taken we had little under a week to develop and implement it all,” the CPH:DOX director adds. “We’re a relatively small foundation so there’s no way we could bring in consultancy companies to solve the situation. We had to do it ourselves by asking friends and colleagues for help, and they were there.” On the day the World Health Organization branded the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, the 23rd annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was canceled amid public health and safety concerns. The four-day live event with ties to Duke University was meant to take place from April 2 to 5 in Durham, North Carolina. In the days since, festival director Deirdre Haj has moved to explore ways in which portions of Full Frame can be migrated to a digital realm. After confirming which individual filmmakers in Full Frame’s invited and competition programs still wanted to participate, Haj and her eight full-time staff began contacting the festival’s cash award sponsors to determine whether organizers could still hand out honors. “They unanimously said yes,” Haj recalls. “From no point was this about making money or going to the general public; it was all about how do we maintain — for the filmmakers who chose to stick with us — their strategy of being seen by the Full Frame audience?” 026

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North of the border, Toronto’s Hot Docs festival was facing similar hurdles. Executive director Brett Hendrie spent “a fair bit of time and energy” engaged in conversation with the festival’s key stakeholders, board and advisory groups, and producers and directors in order to “take their temperature” on whether there was interest in a virtual event. “Everybody we spoke to recognized the importance of Hot Docs on the calendar as a key market event,” Hendrie tells Realscreen, “so anything we could do to sustain that momentum was really important. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it.”

But migrating an entire festival to the digital space is not without its own challenges and drawbacks. There are the very real concerns revolving around a film leaking online and hindering future sales; co-ordinating thousands of meetings between hundreds of participants; and, importantly, ensuring that online screening did not damage a doc’s status for Oscar qualification. “Until we knew what way the wind was blowing, we didn’t want to really proceed,” Haj explains. “We didn’t want to ask any film that we felt we’d be putting in harm’s way before we knew that the Academy was going to allow documentaries to screen online.” The 93rd annual Academy Awards, however, later announced that it would, for one year only, allow a film to qualify for Oscar contention if it previously had a theatrical release but has since been made available on an on-demand platform due to coronavirus-related theater closures. Once theaters reopen, the exemption rules will no longer apply. Even with having Academy eligibility in its new online status, Hot Docs has committed to showcasing all of the invited films in some capacity, having already announced the full 2020 lineup. Chosen from 3,068 film submissions, the slate spotlights 226 feature films and 12 interdisciplinary projects from 63 countries in 18 programs, with 51% of the directors being women. “We’re doing that because we have heard from filmmakers that it’s important and useful for them, especially within an industry context, to be able to say that they were invited to Hot Docs and to advance their own commercial prospects,” explains Hendrie. Across the pond, Sheffield Doc/ Fest in April announced that its flagship pitching initiatives, MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market, will

proceed via video-conferencing in June. The South Yorkshire festival will additionally launch film screenings, talks, panels, artists’ events and community engagement activities over the course of a number of weekends throughout the fall. The challenge that Doc/Fest is currently undertaking is a “logistical one,” according to Patrick Hurley, director of marketplace and talent. He says that Doc/Fest’s physical event takes “rigorous” steps to ensure filmmakers have their own schedule and space in order to focus their time and mental energy on networking and their prepared presentations. Now, as the festival switches to an online format, Hurley and his team are hyper-focused on digitizing those processes — whether it be through virtual meeting rooms and lobbies — while managing myriad variables like time zones. “I really want to take a handson approach to making sure that connections happen smoothly,” Hurley states. “We’re trying to explore that aspect of virtual ushering, but it seems that there are definitely great technological solutions to that; we’re currently focused on using Zoom. “We’ll continue to talk to our festival friends who are doing the same thing as us [to] learn from those that are trialing it first,” the Sheffield executive adds. “We’ll be happy to share our experiences with other events that are having to do the same.” Despite the impressive leaps by various organizers to digitally present their festivals in a truncated period of time, Full Frame’s Haj doesn’t believe that digital engagement can ever replace physical festivals “because festivals belong to their communities,” offering an economic impact through tourism that uplifts the surrounding environment. Still, says Hendrie, “I’m optimistic that this will make us stronger in ways we may not be able to predict right now.”

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LOUD AND PROUD Lifetime’s Married at First Sight is just one of the noisy formats that Kinetic Content has built a reputation on.

By Daniele Alcinii

Red Arrow Studios’ Kinetic Content is capping off its first decade of business with huge unscripted franchises on various platforms, and the company says it’s just getting started.


ith the calendar year closing on the first decade of the new millennium, Chris Coelen was left to ponder his next move. The media veteran began his career at Fox Television where he worked as a producer before joining United Talent Agency to launch and run the alternative and international packaging department for the next 15 years. Then, in 2005, the executive left UTA to lead the American division of one of his UK-based clients – RDF Media Group – where he’d spend the next four years of his working life. But it was time for a new challenge. Coelen had served as a producer, an agent, and had run a large-scale production company, but had never created his own studio. So when Paris-based Zodiak Entertainment acquired the RDF Media Group, creating one of the largest independent production companies at the time, Coelen saw an opportunity to take the plunge. That opportunity came to life as he launched Kinetic Content in March 2010, with a focus on the development and production of unscripted series. Red Arrow Studios, part of German media giant ProSiebenSat.1, took a majority stake in the Los Angeles-based studio six months later. “I wasn’t looking to sell a stake in the company, but Red Arrow was at the beginning stages of really trying to broaden out and establish an international footprint,” Kinetic’s Coelen tells Realscreen as the company marks its 10-year anniversary. “We had a meeting of the minds and it felt like the right time to 028

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©2020 Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC. All rights reserved.



actually do something a little bit bigger than what I had imagined originally.” In time, Red Arrow ultimately bought out the entire company. The partnership over the last decade, Coelen says, has allowed Kinetic to focus on its prime objectives while exploring creative possibilities with its international sister shops. “If there’s anything that I would strive for as a brand, it’s to be the best producers and partners that we can be for the people that we work with, and to have a good batting average when it comes to delivering shows that are buzzworthy and loud, which I think we do,” he offers. It’s that long-standing partnership that has allowed Kinetic to diversify its programing portfolio over the last 10 years, from focusing on staples in the reality docuseries and dating spaces to expanding into social experiments and reality competition, and now a concerted push into scripted entertainment with colleagues across the Red Arrow group. RISKS AND REWARDS “We definitely are known for provocative relationship social experiments, but are always trying to think of programing that could work for the male skewing networks, the big broadcast networks,” says Karrie Wolfe, who previously worked with Coelen at RDF USA and currently serves as EVP and head of development & programming at Kinetic Content alongside Katie Griffin. “It is a challenge to develop something totally different,” she adds. “We’re really trying not to be known as the company that’s good in one area.” That fruitful strategy has helped Kinetic break through the clutter of a very competitive unscripted environment, even if their big swings don’t always connect. Discovery’s unscripted competition series Man Vs. Bear, for instance, headed to a Utah animal sanctuary to follow the action as three human


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Wolfe competitors took on three grizzly bears each week in five distinct challenges testing speed, strength and stamina. A loud concept, but one that brought forth strong complaints from global animal rights organization PETA. And while the risqué competition series did not return to Discovery for a sophomore season, Nancy Daniels, chief brand officer for Discovery & Factual, believes that both the network and producers “did a great job” with Man Vs. Bear. “To be honest, it didn’t have a big breakout leading success,” says Daniels. “But what it did do for us was it made a lot of noise and was very splashy and showed that we’re doing different kinds of shows, and that’s just as important. “When you partner with Kinetic, you know that they’ve been able to pull off big, loud, splashy formats, and that they have a track record you can depend on.”

But for every swing that doesn’t connect, there are plenty that have sailed out of the park, such as branddefining series for FYI and Lifetime including Married at First Sight, Seven Year Switch and the enduring Little Women franchise, and Netflix’s recent breakout dating hit, Love Is Blind. “Kinetic always delivers thought-provoking creative concepts and thoughtful, intelligent, experienced production expertise to bring them to life for their brand partners,” says Gena McCarthy, EVP of unscripted development and production at A+E’s Lifetime, and head of programming at FYI. “Married at First Sight was my premier show for FYI, and from the smallest network in the portfolio came some of the most impactful, trendsetting, escapist entertainment,” she notes. “That’s quite an impact. “And Little Women is just a brilliant twist to the docusoap genre – it’s authentic, it’s wildly entertaining and it’s a hallmark for Lifetime.” NEW PLATFORMS, NEW POSSIBILITIES If Married at First Sight, adapted from a format out of Scandinavian prodco Snowman, served as the series to establish Kinetic as a company with expertise in the relationship social experiment genre, then Love Is Blind has placed the company in another stratosphere altogether. In the weeks following its release, Netflix’s steamy relationship series had spent a number of consecutive weeks on the streamer’s Top 10 list across the U.S. and Canada, including reaching the top spot, and has resonated with audiences worldwide as they

self-isolate due to the enduring coronavirus pandemic. That the concept played well for Netflix was no surprise to the team at Kinetic, which built Love Is Blind with the Los Gatos-headquartered streamer in mind. “It felt like an idea that just made sense for Netflix from top to tail,” Coelen states. “It certainly was different than anything that had ever been done. Obviously, we’re thrilled about the partnership with Netflix and the success that it’s had.” “Its impact has been global, which is amazing,” says Wolfe. “It was one of those shows that people loved because it was cast really well and it held a very loud premise.” New platforms create new opportunities, and Kinetic is looking to further develop its content for digital players, having projects in various stages of development with various buyers and streamers including Netflix and Amazon, as well as the recently launched HBO Max and Quibi, according to Coelen. “I’m excited about the continued possibilities of those platforms, and if you have some success it creates the good fortune that everybody wants to have a piece of that success,” he notes. “We’re in a fortunate place right now.” Kinetic wants to magnify its production portfolio by expanding into the scripted space with substantial backing from its partners at Red Arrow and ProSieben. The company also hopes to simultaneously grow its non-scripted roster with what Coelen anticipates will be “big, healthy” franchises that can stand the test of time. “Chris knows how much we value, respect and love Kinetic,” says McCarthy. “And they’ve earned every step of their success.”


WEATHERINGTHESTORM James Burstall, CEO of UK-based Argonon Films, shares his tips for navigating the uncertainty resulting from COVID-19.


Plan, plan, plan

January, we suspected a storm was coming. By February 28th, we heard of the first deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and UK. We knew the storm was now a tsunami and would soon engulf us. For an industry as diverse, varied and complex as ours, there are still many questions left to answer and, inevitably, a great deal of uncertainty. However, my experience of the last few months of tough decisions as well as countless conversations with colleagues and industry peers has identified a few key areas that all production companies should take into account to navigate their way through a re-imagined future.

With so much still up in the air, the idea of making plans can feel challenging. It’s imperative for production companies to develop short, mid and long-term strategies that are both robust but flexible to maintain focus during this period. Consider setting up your own Cobra-style team (the British government’s crisis action group) with representatives from various areas of your business to give honest, detailed and razor-sharp opinions to inform important decisions that determine your direction. Don’t shy away from brutal realities – confront them, make tough decisions.

Look deep inside

Take an active role in your industry Producers and channels are more open than ever to share genuine thought leadership and best practice to help their peers through webinars, industry sessions or one-to-one conversations. We sought advice from fellow producers, channels, PACT, our insurers, and health and safety experts. Production insurance has become top of the priority list. Across the industry, people have been talking and sharing intel and it has become a heartening and resourceful hive mind.

We undertook a 14-day process of “openheart surgery” on the company. It covered what we could develop and produce, what we could edit, and what we could deliver in the next week, month, six months and beyond. During this process, we learned a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses in our business model and we were forced to confront them – something I would recommend to all companies. Evaluate what you could be doing better as an organization and how you can re-imagine your old ways of working and introduce new ideas.

Be agile

Companies of every size need to think like a start-up and be agile in terms of the kind of work they target. For production companies, this means paying close attention to which countries open up for shooting and consider getting filming going in those territories, making use of networks of local crews where you can. Start a daily international grid detailing where on the planet you might be able to start filming. Don’t be afraid to look outside your usual genres. Devise ideas that can reimagine your back catalog of shows which could spawn new commissions.

Embrace technology

Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure – we will all be relying a lot more on remote working and digital communication. We physically moved all of our staff in New York, London, Liverpool and Glasgow off-site and online in just 48 hours. All companies should be investing in technology solutions to facilitate remote working over the long term – whether that’s moving edits to the cloud where our working life now depends, or comms platforms to stay in touch.

Be human

It’s likely that uncertainty and fear will continue for many months and the economic ramifications of the crisis will bring further pain for many industries. Open, honest and regular communication is essential at all levels. My amazing team has been a great source of inspiration and comfort to each other – it’s never been more important for people to ensure they have their own support systems to get through this challenging time. I would never have imagined any of us going through what we have this year. It has been painful for the entire industry and it is not over yet. I am confident we will come through this, and in many ways, we will emerge even stronger.

James Burstall is CEO of UKheadquartered superindie Argonon, home to such production companies as Bandicoot, Barefaced TV, Britespark Films, Leopard Films, Leopard USA, Like a Shot Entertainment, and Windfall Films. 031