Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having been around for more than a century, Scandinavian powerhouse SF Studios has survived through a lot, with its existence spanning the Second World War, numerous economic collapses, and a continually evolving film industry. Whether the coronavirus will prove to be its most difficult period yet is impossible to ascertain, but the multi-faceted business that includes distribution and production is being impacted on all fronts. It’s a similarly challenging picture for the industry across the globe. One point of difference, however, is that SF is headquartered in Sweden, which to date has taken a remarkably lax approach to containing the virus, with the country one of the few European nations not in lockdown.
The studio’s history spans works of Ingmar Bergman, including The Seventh Seal (starring the recently deceased Max von Sydow) to more recent productions like Borg/McEnroe, upcoming TV shows with Netflix, and the Hollywood remake of A Man Called Ove with Tom Hanks. We got in touch with CEO Michael Porseryd and Senior Vice President International Production Fredrik Wikström Nicastro to find out how they are weathering this storm. Our discussion encompassed why “audiences will demand even more from theatrical films” once cinemas re-open, how the production side of the business is functioning including managing writers rooms remotely, and why they are “relieved” that the WGA has extended its agreement with the AGA.
It may be a troubling time for the industry, but that pales when you consider the toll the virus is taking on wider society and families around the world. One thing we can be thankful for is the wealth of quality content the entertainment biz has served up for us while we’re stuck at home. As Wikström Nicastro notes below, “Just imagine the lockdown people would endure without access to good film and TV.”
DEADLINE: What’s been your personal experience of the coronavirus crisis?
Fredrik Wikström Nicastro: None really, I have been very lucky, no family or friends have been infected, even though I have lots of relatives in Rome that have been in serious lockdown now for weeks.
DEADLINE: You’re based in Stockholm, and Sweden’s response appears to have been far more liberal than much of the rest of the world – has that been a surprise?
Michael Porseryd: A bit of a surprise maybe, but so far mostly appreciated by the Swedes. We have a system where experts are a big part of the decision-making process in situations like this, although this situation is of course extreme. So far they have on a daily basis informed us about why certain decisions are made, both experts and politicians. For many Swedes self-expression is highly valued, and great faith is put in our authorities and everyone’s own good judgement.
DEADLINE: Can you tell me a bit about how SF Studios has been affected? Are you all working from home?
Porseryd: It is a mix, but of course we are affected. We are all working from home since about three weeks back, but that is working well so far and we are keeping our meeting structure across territories and departments more or less intact, but via various digital channels. We follow all developments and are adjusting to whatever advice or decisions that are communicated from the authorities and governments in each country.
DEADLINE: On the production side, have you had to pause shoots? What do you currently have going on internationally and how have those projects been impacted?
Wikström Nicastro: On the international productions side we are wrapping the post production on Horizon Line, starring Allison Williams with STX distributing, which we are trying to deliver as planned. It is challenging since it’s a VFX heavy film but we have a fantastic team who are working hard to solve the challenges. Our next upcoming films Don’t Move and the A Man Called Ove remake (announced in 2017 with Tom Hanks starring) is due to go into production end of this year and next year, so hopefully they can progress as planned.
Porseryd: Out of our Nordic films and series, we had to pause the shooting of Margrete in Czech Republic and the shooting of RedDot in Sweden (the latter is Netflix’s first original movie in the country). We are also re-planning the start dates when it comes to feature film Pagten, and the Snabba Cash series for Netflix. However, we have strong projects and I expect us to complete all productions as soon as it will be possible given the constraints in each country.
DEADLINE: How does that affect the crews employed on those shoots? Are you able to pay them during the delay?
Porseryd: All productions are being treated differently depending on insurance situations and other legal conditions.
DEADLINE: Do you have a sense yet of when you might be able to resume?
Porseryd: We hope to resume production within the next few months. Again, it will probably vary a bit depending on location and territory.
DEADLINE: Fredrik, while shooting is paused, how are you spending your time? Is now a good moment for development?
Wikström Nicastro: Yes indeed it is a great time for development and we are practicing the fine art of managing writer rooms via video conferences – and getting better and better every day. On the international side we are relieved that the WGA has extended their agreement with the ATA – a writer strike in the middle of this would have been a huge blow for the industry long term.
DEADLINE: How is the distribution side of the company coping?
Porseryd: The fact that cinemas are closed affects our theatrical distribution business, but at the same time we see a strong increase in demand for our home entertainment rights. Although the cinema situation is very tough, we see growth in other parts of our distribution, including our own digital services SF Anytime (TVOD, EST) and SF Kids (children’s SVOD).
DEADLINE: What creative methods have you employed to keep business going? We have seen all kinds of interesting approaches to remote working, and keeping spirits up.
Porseryd: In general we make an effort to communicate more through email updates, phone calls and group video conferences, as communication doesn’t happen naturally when people work from home. And as mentioned, we try to maintain our meeting structure. It is also very warming to see a number of greetings from colleagues sitting at home, expressing how much they miss to go to work and meet colleagues. To support our colleagues to work efficiently from home we have also developed toolkits and guidelines to support efficient work.
DEADLINE: Have company staff been affected? The U.S. and UK is starting to see many people furloughed due to the economic impact of the crisis.
Porseryd: So far, no (apart from that everyone has to work from home and adapt to those circumstances). Of course this depends on how long this situation will last and how long it takes until everything comes back to normal. As a major player in the Nordic region, we see it as our responsibility to do everything we can to stand up and talk about how to help push the industry forward in these difficult times.
DEADLINE: You had an event during Berlin Film Festival to celebrate the expansion of your London office, and to announce some new projects, back then the world still seemed pretty normal… how much of a blow do you think the postponement, and potential cancelation, of Cannes is? The summer festival calendar is also likely to be impacted.
Wikström Nicastro: I think the industry will adapt if Cannes gets cancelled. The major sales agents have already set up a virtual market that will keep business going and I think the markets after the summer like Locarno and TIFF will be more vital than normal. The part of the industry that would suffer more from a cancelled Cannes are the prestige films. Last year’s major prestige film Parasite would not have been the same without its successful Cannes launch. The high pedigree festivals in the fall, like Telluride and Venice can try to compensate, but Cannes is still Cannes.
DEADLINE: How long are you anticipating the disruption of the industry from the virus to last? Even if the situation begins to improve, the closure of cinemas, cancellation of festivals, and delay of shoots will likely have a long-term impact…
Wikström Nicastro: Indeed, not to mention the bigger changes the pandemic will have for the industry. I think the crisis is making the digital transformation happen even faster on many levels. I don’t think the theatrical experience is going to suffer long term however, but audiences will demand even more from theatrical films. On the production side I think we will face will more legal complexities on deal making and the independent finance model will be even more challenging. But overall the crisis will highlight how important strong content is for audiences worldwide. Just imagine the lockdown people would endure without access to good film and TV. What we do really matters to people and the need for great storytelling and entertainment will only grow after the crisis is over.
Porseryd: The effects will be around for a long time. When we start up production and cinemas open again is impossible to say, but I believe it will vary from territory to territory and we are looking for the opportunities when we plan for the coming months. Hopefully parts of our business can start to move forward quite soon again, and even if the situation will be tough for quite some time I much prefer the struggle of solving all the issues we will have to solve, when we are moving forward again. The way we do business will most likely change but we are confident that strong content will be as important, if not more, to audiences around the world when we are through this situation.
DEADLINE: SF Studios is 101 years old, meaning it has survived through a lot already – how significant do you think this particular crisis is, in the context of that history?
Porseryd: As you said, we have survived many structural changes and challenging situations throughout our history, and we hope that because of the position of strength we have today, we will be able to overcome also this crisis. Throughout the years, we have always managed to adjust our business operations and adapt to industry changes. The significance of the current crisis is impossible to oversee at the moment, but it will for sure be something we, the industry and society, will always remember. We will continue to create and tell great stories.
Coping With COVID-19 Crisis
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