Crisis breeds creativity

April 24, 2020

By JC Mills, C21 Media

JC Mills, new president and commercial director at Cineflix Productions, talks us through his first month at the company, arriving just as the production lockdown kicked in.

I started at Cineflix on Monday, March 9, just as I began to feel an all-too-familiar tension reappear in Manhattan.

We were still in the early phase of Covid-19 in North America, and we could already see the human and financial toll it has taken. 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, Hurricane Sandy… this city has seen so much but it, and the resolve of its residents, were about to be tested once again.

Along with my wife and two small children, I have been in my apartment for the last several weeks only to venture out to attempt to buy groceries (with moderate success) and to wait in line for toilet paper. I’ve recently taken to working out of my car, which has become a ‘home office’ of sorts because it’s the only way I can get anything done.

Like virtually every producer of content in the world, Cineflix has spent the last several weeks organising productions to go as far as they can until they can’t go any further. With productions going on hiatus, we have begun to pivot toward development. While we have never experienced a situation such as this, the 2008 financial crisis was the last time the world was faced with a challenge even remotely comparable – and many of television’s greatest hits of the past decade were born out of its ashes. After all, crisis breeds creativity…

In 2008 and its immediate aftermath, many people lost homes, jobs, savings… everything. They looked around for anything of value to see if they could hawk it. Antiques Roadshow had been on for nearly 30 years in the UK, and the US version had been on for 10, but both seemed extremely relevant in those moments after Lehman and Bear went under. It was the relevance to that moment that sparked producers all over the globe to look to transactional or ‘stuff’ shows as they have been known.

Cineflix’s American Pickers and Leftfield’s Pawn Stars, two seminal shows in the genre, began to take root and have become long-running successes at History. They caused people all over the globe to look in their attics and basements to find what had been forgotten and see if they could sell it for some much-needed cash during tough times.

The 2008 financial crisis also put a spotlight on corporations that went too far for the sake of profits and, in the process, caused many to lose their jobs. People wanted accountability for those in charge and rewards for those unsung heroes making a difference. Studio Lambert’s Undercover Boss emerged as an opportunity for those at the top to see what was really going on in the warehouses and on the factory floors. It was a social experiment that proved that if you work hard you will be acknowledged, and change is always possible. It gave us hope when we desperately needed it most.

When people lost jobs and their faith in the corporate system, they decided to take control of their futures and strike out on their own. It was no coincidence then that in 2009 Mark Burnett’s Shark Tank first appeared on air. Based on an original Japanese format that was called Dragons’ Den in many countries, this format allowed entrepreneurs and inventors to take their pleas and pitches for investment directly to savvy and well-financed investors looking to make deals and bring these unknown businesses to the world.

So, where does the current crisis leave us, content-wise? What genres will thrive the way that business-focused shows did after 2008 or will business shows receive a lift and continue their extraordinary run, now that unemployment has begun to soar to levels not seen since the Great Depression?

Every conversation I have that isn’t solely focused on work is focused on Covid-19 and what we will do to be better prepared the next time we are hit with a deadly virus we’ve never seen before. Will people go back to relying on the land and doomsday prepping if they don’t feel like government can protect them? It certainly felt that way in the early days when Manhattan went into lockdown in mid-March.

How will the production community create shows that will reflect this new psyche? I’ve heard talk of shows about ‘Covid-divorces’ and next year’s ‘Covid-babies’ – the only ones having ‘Covid-babies’ are new parents because those of us with kids are exhausted!

This sudden jolt to the production business has caused broadcasters to ask producers to think about ways to ‘Covid-proof’ their productions or come up with back-up plans to production. The reality is that it’s really difficult to shoot anything of any scale where you can’t have more than two people within six feet of each other. No matter – every day I’m hearing about producers innovating to allow us to be ready when a semblance of normality begins to return. While it’s fair to say that we are all in competition, we put aside our competitive edge to brainstorm across company lines to find ways to start the machine back up.

If projects can’t be produced or fully delivered, that could leave networks scrambling for premiere hours and new content in the coming months. International distributors with finished tape to sell are perfectly situated as the ones to help fill those programming gaps.

As a media company with a distribution arm as well as production, we’re looking at how we can collaborate on new projects that will meet the current demand and also work as easily translatable formats, post Covid– in the same vein as American Pickers after the financial crash.

Zooming my colleague Chris Bonney, CEO at Cineflix Rights, we’re looking at how we can meet the increased demand at the moment for male-skewing content to replace all the sports that have come off air; or fact-ent and lifestyle formats that provide some crucial feel-good feeling that audiences want as they’re faced with such doom-laden news bulletins. And, of course, archive-based shows that can be put together quickly in an edit and or by teams all working remotely. The word from Chris is that the buyers are out there, they’re looking for volume and they’re willing to do deals quickly to secure what they need.

So alongside distributors dusting down their archives, there’s an opportunity to put together deals for new content, with funding from pre-sales or deficit-financing in the knowledge that demand for good content is out there.

Fortune favours the bold, and it will be those bold projects that will excite network executives and viewer alike once we settle into our new normal.