Unity through adversity

THOUGHT LEADERS: Mark Bishop, co-CEO and executive producer at Toronto’s Marblemedia, says the pandemic has brought audiences – as well as Canada’s TV industry – together and that such unity bodes well for the future.

Mark Bishop

How has the pandemic impacted your business most significantly?
We’re lucky to work in an industry that is always evolving and while there will, of course, be a difficult period to navigate, new ways of working during this time should see us come out the other side with new skills, more flexibility, leaner footprints and an ability to work more quickly, without sacrificing quality or safety.

The budgetary impact of new safety measures, coupled with a related increase in shooting schedule times, is a real concern, and as a result, the industry is seeking government support for safety expenses. If we don’t get this, program budgets will likely need to increase, or quality could be sacrificed.

Collaboration is a major positive impact. The Canadian entertainment community has always been fairly collaborative, but this has really stepped up. There is enhanced sharing of skills, information and resources across the industry, but there are also new levels of collaboration within our own business. Despite new edit suites sitting empty in the office, our 14 editors in post-production have worked well together from home and we haven’t missed a deadline. We also opened video-based virtual writers’ rooms for two scripted series, which have proved a great success.

Collaboration has also changed the pitch process. No longer able to jump on a plane and develop face-to-face relationships, we’ve had to find new ways to excite and engage broadcasters online and make our programs stand out. Our teams have worked together to prove more creative than I could ever have wished for and our contacts have been most receptive, with new opportunities created as a result, including development deals, tape sales and a series greenlight. People are willingly going the extra mile and it’s given producers an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine ourselves.

Which projects have been affected and in what way?
Marblemedia did not have to shutter any productions, and at the outset of the pandemic, we were very relieved to have recently wrapped two productions. However, as time has progressed our plans have been affected with shows that should now be going into production.

We are optimistic about getting a scripted series into production soon, but it’s a big show, destined for an international audience, so we may need to reimagine the series for the new limitations we have. For instance, restrictions on international travel will have an impact on casting, and we need to implement social distancing on set, so it may change the look and feel of the show. However, it has a great creative team leading this.

We have an unscripted series with the same issues and, of course, with everyone looking to get back into production there are broader concerns regarding availability of studios, locations, crew and talent. We’ve also had filming on a four-part Christmas series for a US streamer delayed, with schedules changing four times. Time is now running out for this to be ready for the holiday season, so sadly we may have to lose this production.

Nothing now is as it was scheduled. We will all need to be innovative as shoot days will offer less time in front of the camera due to new safety protocols on set. So right now, we’re thinking ahead and working hard to future-proof current titles and exciting programming slate.

The upshot of all these changes is that our forecasts are affected – both our production revenues and those of our international sales division, Distribution360, which relies on content being produced by both marble and third-party producers. All revenue streams are shifting, and this is having a knock-on impact on all divisions of the company.

When do you expect these projects to be back on track?
The most important thing is safety. We want to get back to work as quickly and as smoothly as we can, but not at the expense of safety. For the industry to get back on track, we must have a unified voice. Together we must consider how we work with crews and unions and have been working through the CMPA [Canadian Media Producers Association] to collaborate on new processes and proper safety protocols. I sit on the board of the CMPA and we have been liaising across the industry on joint issues, including production insurance.

For the time being, Marblemedia is focusing its efforts on future planning and risk mitigation to ensure shows are ready to move forward – successfully and responsibly – when it’s safe to be back. We’re evaluating what it will take to get some of our global series in motion and juggling a mix of other projects, some that are quicker to get to production (more contained storytelling) and some that need more interaction with hundreds of people. It will be challenging for a while, but we are doing what we can to be camera-ready on key productions so that we can move quickly when the government allows us to get back to work.

What new programming initiatives have you introduced to make up for the deficit brought about by these projects being put on hold?
We briefly considered developing Covid-specific programming, but instead of reacting to ‘right now’ we’ve taken a medium/longer term view about what broadcasters and audiences will need once this period ends. We have used this time to develop and pitch ideas around a few themes that we believe to be key – and that play to our strengths.

Covid-19 has brought people together like never before, so we’ve continued with our focus on co-viewing content, developing new ideas for family audiences. People are looking for uplifting and positive content at this time. Marblemedia has had a strategy of focusing on optimistic and aspirational programming ever since it was founded, so we’ve continued doing what we do best and are developing ideas that deliver warmth and positivity. People are gravitating towards this type of content. Demand was rising before the pandemic and will endure when these dark days are behind us.

The world has been deprived of traveling, so shows like our Netflix Original series Restaurants on the Edge now provide the beautiful snapshots of different places and cultures everyone is seeking. Series that are aspirational and peer into other worlds will resonate with audiences.

Broadcasters are already tired of Covid programming and are keen to get back to normal. Their major ask now is for content that can be produced quickly. So, in addition to our own ideas, we are also looking at successful, tried and tested international formats that could work well locally.

We’ve also seen many great initiatives from our distribution arm, Distribution360. We’ve been innovating on new ways to make up lost revenue by ramping up sales and acquisitions activity and by working creatively on deals with both existing and new digital platforms, including Amazon Prime Video and YouTube. We are looking at all relevant revenue streams.

What have you learned through these initiatives as a result?
We’ve learned this is a moment in the industry for change and re-imaging but, without sounding arrogant, we’ve also had our recent thinking and strategy endorsed for the future. Co-viewing and optimistic programming is in demand and authentic content showcasing amazing places (Restaurants on the Edge) or innate skill (Blown Away, All Round Champion) will definitely be in demand and have a place going forward.

The industry and our casts and crews all want to get back to work, but we want to be sure that we’re not only going back safely, but that we’re telling the stories with the storytellers and talent that we want to tell. Safety measures can hinder us from travelling, so we need to tackle challenges creatively – or maybe even look to collaborate more with other independent producers around the globe who share our sensibilities and can be our crew on the ground at our chosen locations.

We’re also learning new ways to look at our offerings on the distribution side and maximise revenues with the increasing range of digital opportunities now available. Had we not had this time, we may not have done this so quickly.

How will your business be different beyond the pandemic?
There is still a lot to consider and understand as we learn more about the pandemic and the cultural shift happening. We need to focus our efforts on getting back to work safely (testing, temperature scans in and out, tracing apps, craft services, etc) both in our office and on set. When we know what it means to get back to work, we will need to review everything from what and how we produce and what extra resources we need to invest in, to how we run our business on a daily basis for optimum creativity and efficiency.

We’ll see many differences in our office space for starters. We’re currently renovating to ensure a safe environment; making everything as automatic as possible (doors, lights, faucets, soap, etc) and spacing out desks. While we’ve been able to work successfully from home – and the way we operate, communicate and share has changed for the better – the energy you get from being in person doesn’t compare, so we will need to work at marrying these two factors when we return. On the content and development side, we’ve been super-focused and are seeing great results. The outputs from this new way of working will likely keep us very busy for the next few years.

We’re also finding that our external relationships are stronger. We’re working with broadcasters every day and building deeper connections because we’re not waiting to book meetings. We’re all at home, which has resulted in more frequent calls and more personal connections – talking more about family life and what’s happening in the world. There’s never been a moment like this, being locked down all at the same time. There is a shared sense of community, and we’re seeing the industry get stronger as we stand together.

How do you think the business as a whole will be different?
We’re seeing an acceleration of trends towards efficiency, speed to market and a wealth of new platforms launching around the world. With the new platforms, we need to engage and fully understand what content viewers are seeking and develop stories that represent them. More than ever before, audiences will be in control, so we’re going to see companies pushing the boundaries and wanting more stories to meet audience demand – particularly I would predict in areas of diversity, authenticity, escapism and health and well-being.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming months. Netflix is gaining subscribers and they continue to have an appetite for more premium content. The trade press and consumers have said that Disney+ felt like it didn’t have enough content, and now it needs even more to meet the demand. HBO Max will need to figure out what audiences are watching from its recently launched service. All these platforms will know in a few months what’s resonating and what they need more of, and they will turn to producers to fill those gaps. So, I see a lot of opportunities for these platforms, capitalizing on viewing trends coming out of Covid. However, if we do enter a global depression, subscribers may start to fall off and some of the smaller, newer or more niche streamers may not survive.

The ad-supported broadcast market will be one to watch. All over the world, linear TV has seen the contradiction of rising audience figures during the pandemic but falling ad revenues. The ad-supported business is struggling and they need the ad industry to bounce back to bring the dollars back into the market and allow these broadcasters to buy and create more relevant content.

What will be your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge will be keeping up with the trends, and doing it within budget. The industry has always moved quickly, but this pandemic is moving us into lightspeed. We must move with the times, and with the people, and tell stories that are worth being told while ensuring viewers can always escape and be entertained.

To do this, we’ll also be challenged in finding new efficiencies. The profit margins won’t change, they will only be tightened. So we need to work more collaboratively with a range of partners to not only make our production budgets go further but also, for example, to find innovative and creative marketing solutions to ensure our content is found, and seen. One immediate challenge is how to deliver shows that were greenlit and budgeted pre-Covid, while adding in a range of new post-Covid requirements and associated costs.

There will also be huge demand for crews and production space once restrictions lift; not everything can get into production at the same time. This problem will be exacerbated by international studios with deep pockets – which will have paid to reserve space, or which can pay more when the time arrives and push local indies further down the line. On the flip side, with travel still limited, domestic productions may leapfrog those that require international contributors.

Insurance is one of the largest challenges we’re facing, along with safety and liability. We’re in a world where there really isn’t any playbook for this, or a clear set of rules – but we do need to be protected and are grateful to have had some support on this from the government. We want to be safe when we come back to work. To do this, we need to learn together as an industry.

What will be the biggest opportunity?
This time has given us some space to think and created an opportunity for enhanced innovation and creativity. The industry is re-imaging itself right before us, and we can help shape it with our partners.

We also see an imminent opportunity for production to start in Canada that doesn’t rely on foreign involvement. Certain parts of Canada have been doing very well in controlling Covid, and it looks like we can start shooting any day in some areas of the country, like New Brunswick. So, there is a very real short-term opportunity for different parts of Canada to build up their television production base now, which could, of course, lead to long-term gain and benefit.

What ‘good’ has come of the pandemic?
Television is, by its very nature, a competitive business, so seeing how quickly the Canadian entertainment community has evolved and worked collaboratively together has been brilliant. The level of camaraderie and idea-sharing has been unparalleled and should hold the industry in good stead, both domestically and as a force out in the international marketplace. We have proved that we are all in this together. We’re all rolling up our sleeves and having the same conversations about how we get back to work safely, protect each other, and how can we re-ignite the industry. There is a lot of good coming from this as everyone is genuinely in agreement, without self-promotion and unnecessary negotiation or bargaining.

Finally, the real good for Canada is the genuine innovation coming out of the past few months – it has been waiting to happen for years and has finally arrived. It’s truly amazing and exciting to see us all fuel each other and change the future of the industry – and fingers crossed, this will benefit us all for years to come.
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