THOUGHT LEADERS: In the first of a series of Q&A interviews with industry leaders, Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Shaftesbury, shares her thoughts about current challenges and the shape of things to come.
How has the pandemic impacted your business most significantly?
The first impact has been a delay on some of our productions. Shaftesbury had four shows that were slated to go into production in May. These shows have now been delayed by three months. This had a knock-on effect since we had a couple of new shows that were going to go into production in the fall. These have now been pushed to spring 2021.
The second is that we now have put in place a large number of Covid-19 practices and procedures for all our shows going forward. We’ve researched what other countries are doing around the world and liaised with unions and provincial counterparts. There are cost associated with implementing these new practices and a lot of this will fall to the producer to cover.
The third thing of significant impact is insurance. As it now stands, most new productions will not have insurance coverage for Covid-19. This lack of coverage places a significant risk on the producer and the broadcaster. The CMPA [Canadian Media Producers Association] is working hard with the insurance industry and government to find a solution that works.
It’s worth noting that these are all global issues facing every producer in the world, not just Shaftesbury and Canadian producers.
Which projects have been affected and in what way?
Our four big primetime shows – Murdoch Mysteries, Frankie Drake Mysteries, Departure and Hudson & Rex – have been delayed due to Covid-19, as well as some of our newer shows. We had an exciting Murdoch Mysteries AR project that has also been delayed.
When do you expect these projects to be back on track?
Hudson & Rex should start shooting in July. The rest of our primetime shows look like they will resume in August-September. All other productions will, hopefully, continue in the fall and into spring 2021.
What new programming initiatives have you introduced to make up for the deficit brought about by these projects being put on hold?
While we waited to resume production, we decided to produce some content remotely. We produced several fun, bite-sized pieces of content called Boredom Busters for our Shaftesbury Kids YouTube channel for children at home. We also decided to work with the cast of our primetime series to create content that could be used across our social channels, as well as our broadcast partners. During the last several months, we also decided to accelerate development and start up several writing rooms, as well as some early production activities (casting, budgeting).
What have you learned through these initiatives as a result?
A couple of takeaways. We found that virtual writing rooms were actually productive – a good example of this was the Life with Luca, a spin-off from the Life with Derek TV series. Showrunners Daphne Ballon and Jeff Biederman found that working from home with a team of writers and the remoteness do not affect creativity and productivity as much as we thought it might. We also found that producing shortform pieces of content remotely – with creators and Shaftesbury supporting – also worked well. Lastly, we found it possible to conduct effective meetings remotely. This will bode well for when we return to production and want to limit the number of in-person meetings.
How will your business be different after the pandemic?
The way we produce our shows will be very different. We will be limiting the amount of crew/cast interaction by devising ‘working pods.’ Daily medical testing on set; systematic and daily sanitisation of studios and sets; crew wearing PPE; the way we transport crew/cast; and the way we feed everyone – all of this is being revised. Until there is a vaccine for Covid-19 that is widely distributed our job is to keep everyone safe, especially the cast, who won’t be able to wear PPE when they work.
How do you think the business as a whole will be different?
The actual functioning of the business will be different, as outlined above, but the end result will be the same: strong content with high-quality production values.
What will be your biggest challenge?
Until we resolve the insurance issue, this will be the biggest challenge. As a company, we feel confident about our safety protocols, which are constantly being refined as we learn more. But if we can’t get the full insurance coverage for Covid-19, the risk to resuming production will be significant.
What will be the biggest opportunity?
Producing high-quality content that can travel globally is still very much in demand. That has not changed.
What ‘good’ has come of the pandemic?
It has created a moment to stop and reflect on the way we produce our shows and ask, ‘Is there a better way? Perhaps a simpler way?’ It has allowed many of us to look at our work/home balance. Quite a bit of work can be done remotely, and done just as effectively. By shifting the balance a bit, are we ultimately more productive and healthier?