BEIRUT: Broadcasters and viewers have never had it so good, it seems. Audiences are larger than ever, streaming sites are enjoying unprecedented growth, and the demand for content is at an all-time high. All because of COVID-19 and global demands to stay at home.
Behind the scenes, however, programming calendars are in disarray, with the production of TV shows, online series and films grinding to a halt around the world, leading to concerns over a significant shortfall in new content and causing widespread suffering within the production industry. This shortfall, which has already impacted the region’s Ramadan and Eid scheduling, will be most keenly felt during the second half of the year.
In Egypt, Netflix’s third Arabic original series, “Paranormal,” suspended filming in March, while MBC says the availability of new shows acquired from third parties will depend on the ability of producers to deliver their projects. That delivery, in turn, will depend on localized lockdown restrictions and the protocols necessary to maintain high standards of hygiene on set.
“You have to look at the series at stake, the producers, the country you’re shooting in, the measures taken by the authorities in that country at that time, and the measures that you take yourself across the board,” says Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s official spokesman, discussing the possibilities of resuming production. “There is no fit-for-all answer to this.
“The big question is when will the lockdown end,” he continues. “If it’s post-Eid, it’s still manageable. If it’s in September, it could still be manageable. But if everything remains closed until the end of the year then many would have to find alternative solutions to stay in business and remain competitive.”
In a bid to counter the negative impact of COVID-19 on production, both traditional broadcasters and video-on-demand (VOD) platforms are turning to third-party content to fill gaps in scheduling. Netflix, for example, has already said it is bolstering its third quarter programming with the likes of Legendary Pictures’ “Enola Holmes,” while regional VOD platform Starzplay is busy boosting its library of box-sets, which it launched in February. However, the big hope is that productions will quickly begin shooting again.
Internationally, a handful of productions have already tentatively resumed. In Iceland, the Netflix’s supernatural drama “Katla” has gone back into production in Reykjavik, with director Baltasar Kormakur using a system of color-coded armbands to ensure health and safety on set. In Australia, producer Lucas Foster took the decision to isolate the entire cast and crew of “Children of the Corn,” a remake of Stephen King’s short story of the same name, in order to complete production this month. At the time of writing, Netflix shows were also due to begin production in Sweden in May and in Norway in July.
Regionally, a major new series from MBC Studios has resumed production in the UAE, although no details of the show have yet been released. To date, 30 percent of the shoot has been completed, with the series set to launch in either November or December. “They’re shooting every day, in spite of it all,” says Hayek. “We have the sanitization process in place, the masks, the temperature tests… you name it, we have it all. We’re not going to jeopardize safety, but we have to be ready for our audiences and I think people appreciate that.”
Starzplay, which teamed up with Abu Dhabi-based Image Nation late last year to embark on its first ever original Arabic production, hopes to be filming “Urban Legends” around October time, “depending on how the situation unfolds,” says Khaled Benchouche, the company’s senior vice president of programming and acquisitions. The aim is to broadcast the series by January next year, although it is the availability of new Western content that will, in all likelihood, affect Starzplay the most — a fact that “applies to all entertainment platforms and is not unique to us,” Benchouche says.
Meanwhile, Beirut-based Cinemoz has two international originals still in development and hasn’t seen any change in “overall commissions or the appetite studios and global streamers are currently showing for Arabic fiction,” says Karim Safieddine, the advertiser-funded VOD platform’s co-founder and chief executive. “That’s not to say it cannot change, but project development, writers’ rooms and high-impact intellectual property are all the drivers of the post-lockdown era.”
Cinemoz, which has witnessed more than 500 percent growth in the viewership of some of its titles in recent weeks, is reworking its content schedule to adapt to some delays in production. “We’ve been harnessing a record attention span from viewers during the crisis, which clearly shows signs of a needed diversity of content and platforms,” says Safieddine. “One of the new positives issuing from the crisis is that people are now more prone to discovery, new experiences, or specialized content.”
Adding salt to the production industry’s many wounds is the fact that COVID-19 is going to make shoots significantly more expensive. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, the additional costs of health-and-safety experts, sanitation, and staggered shifts for crew could add more than $1 million to a typical movie budget. Similar costs will apply to all major producers, no matter what the content.
With lockdowns likely to continue into the foreseeable future and social distancing a necessity, the long-term effects of the pandemic on the media and entertainment industry will therefore require a new mindset from broadcasters, Hayek believes — “One that’s more innovative, agile, capable of solving problems, anticipating trends, finding new sources of revenue, reducing costs, retaining star performers and mostly, staying positive,” he says.
“It will be critical to see when exactly the coronavirus-related quarantine will be over in order to be able to tell how the industry will return to production post-quarantine. Will (we) have to work on having a bigger buffer between final product and airing time, where possible? Perhaps some live shows might need to be recorded in advance instead? Will some titles reconsider having live audiences for the coming season? Will things return to ‘business as usual?’ It’s really tough to assert in a categoric way.”
For Safieddine and other industry underdogs, change is welcome. Cinemoz has begun to turn to exclusive originals, independent creators, and a new ‘event-VOD’ model, whereby audiences can turn VOD into an on-the-go free movie theatre in the absence of the real thing. What’s more, Safieddine believes that a proliferation of international co-production projects with global distribution potential will “dictate a new way to work.” Combined with more-tightly regulated sets and remote working for all other phases of production (development, post-production, visual effects, animation), such change could help forge a new generation of productions.
“I think the first noticeable changes always start on the page,” says Safieddine. “New stories, themes, perspectives and a general shift in how we imagine stories comes first. How do we build relevant and adapted programming for the current and post-COVID era? How will formats, platforms and new social dynamics impact what we create? These are fascinating future ripples that we like to keep an eye on to ensure adaptation over short-term damage control.”