Wayne Garvie could see the tsunami coming as early as January, but he was still not prepared for the speed with which coronavirus ripped through the TV industry. Sony Pictures Television’s president of international production watched as his colleagues in China were forced into self-isolation. Korea came next and then, before he knew it, the virus had hit the shores of Europe.
It was here that Garvie got his first taste of a major production being swept up in the towering crisis, as Sony and its co-production partners were forced to abandon shooting on their Frank Spotnitz drama Leonardo (pictured above), starring Aidan Turner and Freddie Highmore. “At one stage, we were going to get the sets moved over from Rome to London so we could shoot Freddie. But then — this all happened so quickly — within days it became quite clear that by the time the sets arrived, you wouldn’t be able to film in London,” Garvie remembers.
Around the same time as Sony was working through the issues on Leonardo, an employee was exposed to the virus in an unrelated visit to Italy and subsequently visited offices in France and Poland. On March 4, Sony shut sites to protect workers, including its residence on London’s salubrious Golden Square, where Garvie is based. All of this came nearly two weeks before coronavirus wiped out major productions in the UK, and three weeks before the British government introduced a nation-wide lockdown. In other words, Sony was among the first to witness the scale of what was coming.
Garvie’s experience is one of countless tales of a once-in-a-career event. An event that has destroyed jobs, ravaged revenues and changed the face of an industry that was until very recently, roaring with confidence. But this particular story is not a post mortem of the wreckage. That will come with time. This story is about how industry leaders are picking their way through the rubble and rebuilding what has collapsed.
Deadline has spoken to the UK-based bosses of eight of the biggest production groups in the world — production groups that boast combined revenues of more than $10B. Their reflections, coupled with those of smaller producers in the UK, provide the clearest picture yet of how production businesses have been bloodied by an invisible attacker, and are now having to embrace new and pioneering ways of working to protect staff and get cameras rolling again.
The interviews illuminate the (sometimes literal) battles to keep their programs on-air and the relentless efforts being made to restart productions safely around the world. They reveal that creative leaders are nothing if not talented problem solvers dealing with the ultimate test of ingenuity. The conversations show that traditional rivalries are being cast aside and that collaboration is now king as companies work together to overcome the crisis. They also reveal that the industry has become a hotbed of development, with some predicting an ideas boom once COVID-19 has receded. Above all, the interviews show that the problems are plentiful, but optimism is not in short supply.
First, some context on the chaos: ITV Studios managing director Julian Bellamy says “hundreds” of its productions were impacted around the world. The virus claimed another victim this week in the shape of reality show Love Island. For BBC Studios, Deadline understands that 80 of its shows were derailed, with director of content Ralph Lee describing it as “the biggest single interventional shock that’s hit our sector.” Other companies, including All3Media and Endemol Shine Group, were reluctant to put a number on the damage. James Burstall, the CEO of Argonon, the production group behind the UK version of The Masked Singer, said filming was halted on five of the 30 shows he had in production.
Like most of her contemporaries, Jane Turton, the chief executive of Discovery and Liberty Global-owned All3Media, says that these shutdowns were keenly felt in drama — particularly because the summer months are rich with production activity as crews take advantage of longer daylight hours. Call The Midwife and Hollyoaks were among All3Media’s casualties in the genre. Turton adds that the financial pain from downing tools is almost immediate. “The moment productions are suspended, gross margin is impacted,” she says of All3Media’s revenue, minus the cost of making programs. “Most companies account on delivery, so you can imagine that the numbers are badly affected when programs start to slip.”
For all the production chiefs, the safety of their employees, crew and on-screen talent was the top priority in the first flushes of the crisis. People were sent to work from home, corporate contingency planning was invoked and the television industry became a taskforce hotspot. For a company like Fremantle, which has 30 offices in 19 territories, this was not a simple undertaking. Coronavirus rolled into different countries at different times and with varying degrees of severity, meaning flexibility was required in the early days of responding to the outbreak. It means safety planning took on an Inception-like complexity, according to CEO Jennifer Mullin. “Every territory will have its own unique set of circumstances. And then every production within that territory will have its own unique set of circumstances. And we cannot paint everything with the same brushstroke,” she says in her first interview since being appointed in 2018.
Bellamy set up a number of management working groups to deal with similar complexities at ITV Studios. One high-level team was charged with gripping the crisis and includes production management, business affairs and communications staff. Another is focused on how best to restart ITV Studios’ big brands internationally, including The Voice and Love Island. Elsewhere, Burstall says he performed two weeks of “open heart surgery” on Argonon to establish safety protocols and determine how to meet contractual obligations by keeping filming and editing on track. “By the end of those two weeks… I woke up and I said to my partner, I think we have a landed on a shore,” he reflects.
Senior management pay cuts have been a fixture of the pandemic. Argonon furloughed up to 25 people onto the British government’s job retention scheme, while the majority of ITV’s 800 furloughed staff are producers. Others, including Banijay Group, have moved staff around the world off the wage bill. It was a reality that also confronted Endemol Shine Group, where 370 UK were either furloughed or forced to take a pay reduction. Chief creative officer Peter Salmon admits it was an “anxious” time for all at the company, but says there is now a growing sense of “hope and can-do practicality” emerging among workers. Salmon believes that Endemol Shine Group’s global network has been a strength, rather than a weakness during the pandemic, allowing the company to tap into expertise from 20 markets and stage “huge webinars” with up to 200 employees hearing insider secrets on keeping shows on the road.
Similarly, Bellamy calls this international information sharing ITV Studios’ “superpower,” while Sony Pictures Television started a daily coronavirus diary, where figures from across the group tell the story of their life in the lockdown. On the day Garvie speaks to Deadline, Left Bank Pictures Andy Harries penned his entry in the Sony coronavirus journal, weeks after he managed to squeeze The Crown past the finish post, losing just a day of filming to the pandemic. Over at Fremantle, Mullin says the company has been able to disseminate information on how it managed to stage the American Idol finals from more than 25 locations during the lockdown, with Ryan Seacrest presenting from an old desk he dug out from his garage.
The ABC show is one of the few entertainment juggernauts to keep broadcasting in recent weeks, making dramatic adaptations in order to survive. These changes have meant a lot of talking heads in boxes on screen — something audiences have grown used to as producers observe strict social distancing measures. Video call technology has kept late-night U.S. talk show hosts like Jimmy Kimmel in business, while in the UK, Endemol Shine Group used the technology to make BBC topical satire show The Mash Report, with host Nish Kumar presenting from his bedroom. These “Zoom shows” will be remembered as the programs that helped keep the lights on in TV as darkness descended.
But with businesses secured and some essential shows kept on air, thoughts quickly turned to finding more ambitious solutions for keeping audiences engaged and salvaging more complicated productions. For ITV Studios and BBC Studios, learnings have come out of their daily live shows in the UK. ITV Studios moved daytime show Lorraine into the same studio used by Piers Morgan’s Good Morning Britain, immediately reducing footfall. Cameras have been fixed in position to cut crew numbers, while 80% of the shows’ production teams have adapted to working from home. The experience helped restore another daytime show, Loose Women, to the screens last week.
BBC Studios, meanwhile, has continued to produce magazine program The One Show for BBC One. Ralph Lee says the production team has figured out new systems for everything from applying hair and makeup to presenters, to ensuring that people remain socially distanced in corridors behind the scenes. The adaptations allowed the BBC to stage The Big Night In, a live coronavirus telethon, produced from The One Show‘s New Broadcasting House studio. “They used the studio, they were able to do the social distancing and keep staff and the presenters safe. To deliver that, get the tone right and get it on air within four or five weeks, it was awe-inspiring,” says the director of content.
Similar stories have bubbled up on entertainment shows elsewhere across the world. In Portugal, Endemol Shine Group has reengineered the original show about isolation: Big Brother. Contestants were tested and quarantined before entering the Big Brother house, but rather than allowing this to slow down the production, Salmon says the team made “a virtue of it” by filming the housemates in their hotel rooms and allowing them to communicate before the show formally got underway. “In some ways, we’ve got more material… and that will play into the whole Big Brother experiment,” he adds.
Sony has kept Germany’s version of Shark Tank, Lions’ Den, in production using a mixture of local and Sony-created safety protocols. Garvie explains that physical products pitched to the Lions were disinfected, perspex screens were installed in the gallery to separate the director and vision mixer, camera crews brought in their own equipment, and security workers were employed just to open doors.
Banijay Group COO Peter Langenberg says it has continued making ProSiebenSat.1’s Beat Your Host without a studio audience — but only after a confrontation with German police who tried to shut the program down. Local CEO Marcus Wolter talked officers through the similarities between entertainment and news shows, convincing them that if they were to halt production on Beat Your Host, news bulletins would also have to go dark. The group is also preparing to go into production on reality show Temptation Island in the Nordics, with testing and extensive set cleaning being prepared to take advantage of the fact that social gathering guidelines are being relaxed.
Over in factual, Banijay is identifying locations less impacted by coronavirus — even if that means finding havens within countries hit by the disease, says Langenberg. Its joint-venture indie with Bear Grylls, The Natural Studios, has found a safe location in India to shoot Into The Wild in August, while over in the U.S. on Running Wild, scouts are finding locations around LA by avoiding airports and hotels. Similarly, Argonon is creating a database of “every location around the planet where filming is either being discussed or permitted” and is looking to increase the work it does with local crews. Burstall was unique among the production bosses interviewed in setting a target of June 1 for productions to resume. “Now whether that is possible remains to be seen, but we want to be poised to jump,” he says.
Smaller companies have also been creative to keep their businesses ticking over. UK producer Blink Films has managed to edit its Disney+ show Meet The Chimps remotely, which creative director Justine Kershaw says is 20% slower but would not have been possible five years ago. Blink is now reworking the production schedule for its BBC series Unforgotten, which reunites people who lived through seismic events like natural disasters or terror attacks. It will focus on domestic shoots first, but like Burstall, will turn to foreign crews where possible. Daniela Neumann, the managing director of Spun Gold, has been tapping into archive to make “joyous” compilation episodes of series including Channel 5’s Eamonn & Ruth: How The Other Half Lives. Renowned Films, the Critical Content-backed unscripted producer behind Bravo’s Backyard Envy, has developed bespoke “camera boxes” that it is shipping to talent. Co-founder Max Welch said they act as a mini-studio that can be controlled remotely so the production values are kept high. “Networks can’t have everything made now look like it was made in the middle of a pandemic,” Welch adds.
BBC Studios is another producer closely studying filming and travel permissions, and calling on relationships with local fixers in order to resume blue-chip natural history shows, including Planet Earth III. “We had to bring crews back from all four corners of the earth. These are people who are used to malaria-infested swamps and deadly predators, so COVID-19 was a bit like ‘come on.’ But it quickly became apparent that it was to be taken very seriously,” Lee explains.
While international travel remains a major sticking point for all producers, there are some countries where it is becoming increasingly safer to film. Germany’s grip on coronavirus has meant that there has been more production activity in the country than in other territories. All3Media, for example, was able to keep shooting its scripted reality series, Cologne 50667 and Day & Night, during the hiatus, while Fremantle soap Good Times, Bad Times also remained in production. The same can be said for some Scandinavian countries, with Endemol Shine Group making Swedish show Beck at a time when other dramas have been wiped out by coronavirus. Australia is another territory where things are coming back online: ITV Studios has recently started production again on entertainment shows The Voice and The Chase, while preparations are being made to film ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! Down Under later this year.
Fremantle’s Australian soap Neighbours has also gone back into production following a two-week hiatus. Camera trickery is being used to make actors look closer together, there is no physical intimacy between the cast, while the studio has been split into quadrants so crew members are kept socially distanced. Mullin described it as a “creative reset,” which took advantage of Fremantle having full control of the studio space in Melbourne. “We were very quickly able to determine what we needed to do to be in accordance with local guidelines and rethink shooting the show in a way that didn’t interrupt the production, whether it was the blocking of scenes or the separating of crews,” she adds.
High-end drama is causing the biggest headache for production leaders right now, both in terms of making sprawling sets safe and planning overseas shoots. Comcast’s European broadcaster Sky stuck a flag in the sand last week by saying that all shows commissioned out of the UK that require international filming will be put on hold until spring 2021. Big UK productions remain months away from realistically restarting, with Deadline hearing that Peaky Blinders is eyeing a November return date after the Caryn Mandabach Productions and Tiger Aspect co-produced drama downed tools in March just days before cameras started rolling. Doctor Who is another big international show gunning for an autumn return date.
“Because of the expense, the complexity, and the global nature of scripted, the impact is felt more profoundly there,” Salmon says, summing up the challenge. “The notion of traveling across borders to make big drama series is something which feels a couple of months away at least.” Reflecting on recent Sony productions, Garvie agrees: “If you go to the set of The Crown or Quiz, there are a lot of people involved. Makeup is important, costumes, wigs — all those things you don’t think about as safety issues are suddenly safety issues.” As Garvie observes, transforming Michael Sheen into Chris Tarrant for Quiz was an intensive process, involving people in close contact with each other.
The complexities of restarting high-end TV and film shoots were laid bare in a draft of the official industry safety protocols being drawn up by the British Film Commission. Obtained by Deadline, the 30-page document recommends pre-shoot training, the appointment of coronavirus supervisors, health screenings, and rigorous temperature checks. Details on extensive hygiene and disinfection measures were also included, as well as guidance on quarantining foreign actors and social distancing standards, including having people work back-to-back, rather than face-to-face.
The cumulative effect of these new processes will slow productions down significantly, as Banijay is discovering on its daily Belgium soap Familie. Scene set-up times have gone from “five minutes to an hour and a half,” according to COO Langenberg, as the team grapples with new systems, including managing their own equipment and only allowing a maximum of three people in front of the camera at any one time.
And even when safety protocols are established, diary pile-ups for actors will make it impossible for some shows to begin shooting as planned. Vicky McClure, for example, has not wrapped Line Of Duty for the BBC, so will need to finish that shoot before she can move on to ITV drama Trigger Point. Damian Lewis was meant to be filming a new British drama in September, but wrapping Season 5 of Billions for Showtime remains the priority booking in his schedule.
These mind-blowing variables were the reason why all of the production chiefs Deadline spoke to were reluctant to publically commit to any sort of meaningful timeframe for the return of big scripted projects. But drama is not dead in the UK. ITV Studios’ Oscar-nominated producer Jeff Pope made anthology series Isolation Stories at the height of the lockdown, while BBC Studios is giving over studio space at the site where EastEnders is filmed to a reimagining of playwright Alan Bennett’s monologue series Talking Heads, which will star the likes of Jodie Comer and Martin Freeman. Lee received a text from a member of his team on set, who described it as a “badly choreographed ballet” as crew busy themselves while keeping two meters apart from each other.
The process of making Talking Heads will feed into urgent work BBC Studios is doing to get its “big waterfront” of continuing dramas back into production, including EastEnders and Casualty. Lee says this process is taking “a lot of creative focus” on the part of showrunners, who oversee hundreds of peoples’ jobs. The same urgency is evident at ITV Studios, which makes soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale for parent company ITV. The broadcaster has been rationing episodes, but will run out within weeks unless production is restarted. The existential nature of the challenge was summed up by director television Kevin Lygo last week when he said: “ITV without soaps is barely ITV.” Testing for cast and crew is under consideration, while older or more vulnerable staff are likely to be protected for longer. “There is a soaps team that is relentlessly focused on the question of restarts and modeling different scenarios out,” Bellamy adds.
Bellamy and Lee are former Channel 4 colleagues and the pair have spoken to each other a number of times during the coronavirus crisis, swapping information and sharing best practice. If BBC Studios identified a magic solution for getting EastEnders back on track, Lee says he would not “conceal” it from his competitor. All3Media’s Lime Pictures has also been chipping in with learnings from its Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks. And in another example of information sharing, Banijay’s Langenberg phoned Bellamy, Endemol Shine Group CEO Sophie Turner Laing and a contact at NBCUniversal in early March to discuss office closures and their arrangements with landlords. The groups ended up shutting their offices on the same day.
The back-and-forth is indicative of unprecedented collaboration going on informally across the UK industry aimed at solving the coronavirus riddle. Traditional rivalries are being cast aside in the interests of the greater good. “There’s no competitive element to this, it’s in all our interests to get this right,” says All3Media chief Turton. “We share expertise as widely as we can across competitors, across geographies, across genre. This is properly a pan-demic, with pan being the point. Everything is affected.” It was a sentiment shared by Salmon: “We’re all comparing and sharing notes because we’re all in this together. We’re all going to get out of it together if we’re clever and stay safe.” Mullin adds that she has ended several phone calls with the refrain: “I’m here for you if you need me.”
Alongside these informal conversations, the BFI is spearheading the British creative industries’ formal “project restart” proposals, which will feed into government plans to get the economy back on its feet. The British Film Commission’s production safety protocols are part of this, and have included input from big industry players including Sony, Netflix, BAFTA, Disney, HBO and Bectu. The codes of practice will help provide uniformity to the patchwork of existing protocols put in place by different producers and broadcasters in the UK. Similar efforts are underway in Europe, where the European Film Commission Network has created the “the 10 commandments of safe filming.”
Meanwhile, producer trade body Pact is leading a UK task force on the thorny issue of production insurance during the pandemic. Many of the companies interviewed for this piece are contributing to this work, but they were hesitant to commit to a clear position on the issue of insurers not protecting shows against coronavirus.
“There are no easy answers at the moment,” acknowledges Bellamy, saying it is a matter that will need input from broadcasters, producers, distributors, insurers and the government. Lee says a lot will rest on whether the UK emerges from lockdown smoothly and the speed with which a vaccine is made available, while Turton adds that a second wave of the virus would have a “pretty extraordinary effect” on producers all over again. Burstall went furthest in saying that he will turn down commissions if he believes they could expose Argonon to too much risk. “If we were to get into trouble in one part of the business, that could put the rest of the group at risk. That is something I cannot countenance,” he adds.
Pact CEO John McVay tells Deadline that he wants the government to underwrite insurance shortfalls. “The insurance sector is what will drag back recovery. How can a producer go into production on a major project if the cost of suspension or termination would fall only on them? It would bankrupt them,” he says. One thing is clear, international producers were cool on an idea circulating in Hollywood to get cast and crew to sign COVID-19 liability waivers to indemnify shoots. “A slightly more European approach will probably be to look to government to help us,” says Turton, summing up thinking on coronavirus riders.
Away from the frontline of production, the industry has become a hotbed of development. In the first instance, there was a rush of coronavirus-related content commissions, from fast-turnaround documentaries on the unfolding chaos — like Shine’s ITV film A Very British Lockdown: Diaries From The Frontline — to lighter takes on self-isolation. Sony’s Northern Irish indie Stellify, for example, took a show already in development and adapted it for the coronavirus era. It became Channel 4’s Snoop Dogs — a simple premise in which cameras are strapped to dogs, who then film the inside of their owners’ homes.
But with audiences seemingly tiring of lockdown content, attentions of development teams have turned to longer-term ideas as they figure out what the world is going to want to watch when coronavirus recedes. Garvie and Turton both predict an ideas boom to be one of the upsides of the pandemic. “Human beings have a great ability to move on,” Garvie says. “What came after the Second World War was a period of exhaustion, liberation and then creativity. People wanted to be entertained.” Turton continues the theme: “They had that period after the war where there was this huge baby boom — do you think there’s going to be a similar thing after nine months of COVID development?”
The All3Media boss says that development teams across the group have been “incredibly productive” and it has been one of the “silver linings” of the crisis. “Development is at its peak,” adds Langenberg. “They are trying to develop in a different way, focusing on easy to produce, lower budget shows that can be put on-air quickly. They are very much at the top of their game in creating shows for the next year.”
Fremantle CEO Mullin says her ideas teams are connecting more in isolation then they do in the office. This was another big theme to emerge from our conversations — the embrace of video communication technology, and the realization that people can be trusted to work from home. Shows have continued to be created, produced and edited remotely. Employees have enjoyed the flexibility of home working. Several of the executives spoke of their desire to cut down international business travel in the future. Burstall even went as far as saying that Argonon is going to halve the size of its New York office space to reflect the revolution in working culture.
But while the pandemic is supercharging change and presenting once-unthinkable challenges, there are two things that give production chiefs hope: the ingenuity of their creative leaders, and the belief that content will always be in demand — regardless of social and economic disasters.
Turton says coronavirus has been the ultimate test of leadership and believes All3Media’s federal model has been an advantage, allowing people like Studio Lambert founder Stephen Lambert to flourish. “There’s no substitute for practical, logistical, operational expertise,” she explains. Salmon adds: “These are tough times, but I have hope we will get through them. The reason I feel that is producers and production teams are really smart, hungry, and entrepreneurial, and they’re always thinking about health and safety anyway.” Both Lee and Bellamy reflected on how adaptable and dedicated their teams have been, to the point where stopping people burning out is at the forefront of their minds.
Garvie continues: “We will be making TV shows again and we will be doing it sooner rather than later. Our industry — and the British industry in particular — will continue to be a world-beater. This is a short-term problem we’ve got. We’re going to cope with it, we’re going to look after our people, we’re going to do the right thing, and we will return.” The Sony man may have seen the tsunami on the horizon back in January, but he and his contemporaries can also picture the calm after the storm.