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#Throwback2020: The year of reinvention in production

For content studios, the adaptation has been challenging but necessary too.

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MUMBAI: The Covid2019 crisis has engendered a paradigm shift across all walks of life and it is believed that there’s no going back to “normalcy” even after the deadly virus is dealt with. This also holds true for the media and entertainment industry.

As the lockdown was gradually lifted and studios reopened after months of remaining shuttered, cast and crew started trickling back; but now producers had new complications to contend with – how to safely operate film and TV sets and ensure the well-being of workers. Where once hundreds of crew members used to function in cramped spaces, now physical distancing was imperative. They had to figure out how to comply with state-mandated regulations while working and keeping audiences entertained. This adaptation has been challenging but necessary too.

Along the way, they picked up new skill sets in order to survive.

Learning to adapt and overcome

The first and foremost task for production units in the Unlock phase was to adapt and adhere to the government-laid SOPs. They hired external agencies and created internal teams to ensure complete sanitisation of the units, avoid unnecessary gatherings, ensure that the headcount is under control, perform regular tests, and ensure complete quarantine of people who test Covid positive. There were a few cases of people contracting the virus on the sets, but not to an extent that it dampened the enthusiasm of the industry.

It was far from “work as usual” and given the limited number of people that could be on sets, it became important to devise ways to brainstorm and collaborate. In came remote working and adoption of technology.

“People have found numerous ways of coordinating and planning. All this while, technology has played a major role in terms of efficiently completing the work. Now, people have successfully adapted to the regional production model also, right from getting access to what is being shot to music, edit, and other things in the workflow,” shared Bodhitree Multimedia MD Mautik Tolia, adding that everything from scripting to post-production work is happening online via tools like iCloud.

Remote access and virtual production software like Zero Density and Frame Ayo have been of great help to Tolia and others like him.

Endemol Shine India COO Gaurav Gokhale also echoed a similar sentiment. “While production had to happen on the ground, post-production is something that producers managed remotely. The makers had to put a lot of bandwidth in people’s homes, by providing them proper infrastructure and tools. So, all the shows that were left incomplete before the lockdown, were completed with the help of technology.”

Going forwards, the roll-out of  5G will further enhance post-production activities, believes Gokhale.

Swastik Productions MD Rahul Kumar Tewary acknowledged that the situation made them realise that they don’t need to be present at the workplace all the time. “Everything was consolidated on our main network server, where everything was getting uploaded, and they could just download the ready work and create the master copy.”

The lockdown and the ensuing halt on filming had a silver lining – it gave production houses an opportunity to step back and implement more digital, collaborative, streamlined, and innovative ways to deliver content.

Applause Entertainment content head Deepak Segal said the pandemic allowed him the time to reflect on projects that were kept on the backburner. Segal spent his time developing content, finetuning it and planning strategies to fit the new normal. Said he: “We directed our energies in adapting to new technologies, to enhance content production and development processes. I would say, as a team our new acquired skill set would be working remotely, staying in sync, and hitting the nail with content that resonates with the pulse of the audience. Innumerable video calls and voice chats and virtual planning and developing are the new feathers we added to our cap.”

VFX to the rescue

VFX has played a very important role in delivering shows on time. For instance, showrunners have now realised that they can utilise it to create crowd scenes.

Contiloe Pictures team was busy finishing post-production of State of Siege: 26/11 when the lockdown was announced. Founder and CEO Abhimanyu Singh recalled how staff stayed in the studio premises for an entire month and the organisation made all provisions for them. Singh managed most of his post-production work by including VFX and visual effects in digital and TV production, carried out in a facility within the studio.

To make work easier and quicker, the team at Contiloe Pictures started using Aspera Command Line, which enables fast and secure data transfer from an external environment to private data centers. Similarly, many production houses are choosing Google Cloud operations - all to thrive and remain relevant.

Doing more with less

Another big challenge that these units are still contending with is working with smaller crews and in shifts. There are fewer hands to do the same amount of work as before the pandemic.

Gokhale highlighted this as the biggest re-invention carried out by production houses. “A lot of planning went into resource allocation. In my view, it was more of a psychological change, and meant that people had to double up, one person had to do the work of multiple people and everybody had to be vigilant,” he added.

Tewary lauded producers for excelling at having a smaller team on set, maintaining social distancing, and still being able to deliver the week’s schedule of fresh programming.

There were several interesting upgrades made in the existing sets of non-scripted shows - Bigg Boss has a spa, restaurant, theatre, within the house, while The Kapil Sharma Show and KBC have no audiences. The designs of the hot seat and the contestants’ chairs were also changed to ensure proper social distancing. The most spectacular effort went into putting together the IPL. Bio bubbles were created, there was rigorous testing, and players were issued with Bluetooth wrist bands to check them from breaking the two-metre distance rule.

New business model

During the pandemic, the overall media and entertainment industry came together. It was for the first time that we saw great partnerships between the platform and the producer. Endemol Shine India worked closely with Star, Viacom18, Netflix, MX Player, mentioned Gokhale, and these platforms and broadcasters were cognisant of the challenges being faced and supported one another through the crisis.

The trickle-down effect of revenues falling had an impact on the cost going down. So, the per-unit cost of the show went down because even the broadcaster is making less money due to less ad-revenues. That is a new business model that we had to adapt to. You have to convince your vendor, your own people to work at a lower cost and lower volume,” elaborated Tewary.

It was imperative for the new business model to be efficient. For instance, Swastik productions worked on a 10 per cent margin, a trend of operating on lower margins that was noticed in a lot of other production houses as well. In such dire times, broadcasters stepped up to aid producers by reducing the number of credit period of payment, which in turn was paid forward by helping out artists, revealed Tewary.

Traditional production houses are now expanding their business to make it a studio model.

This year has been one of unexpected and accelerated change for all, but the spirit of resilience displayed by the media and entertainment industry deserves a kudos. Its determination to reinvent, diversify and, above all, survive to deliver content and entertainment to audiences across the world is truly extraordinary.

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