By Michael Goldman
Virtually every major industry has been deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the media production business is certainly no exception. What’s interesting about how the hit was taken by the media equipment rental and sales industry is that, huge consequences and surprising new opportunities emerged simultaneously. Currently, many industry types say they have cautious optimism about what late 2021 and beyond may bring for equipment purveyors across the globe, even as they continue to feel the effects of the madness of 2020.
Three things are particularly clear, many equipment veterans suggest. First, out of the pandemic, “the demand for content is stronger than ever, even as we adapt new pathways for delivering stories to audiences,” says Michael George, Panavision’s chief operating officer. “Streaming services have grown in number and popularity, with pipelines waiting to be filled following the March 2020 shutdown. In combination with the on-going return of the traditional feature, broadcast episodic and commercial segments, we anticipate a busy year for content production globally.”
The second new reality is that equipment providers learned this past year that they need “to adapt quickly in order to meet this ever-growing demand,” emphasises Markus Zeiler, ARRI executive board member.
And thirdly, in order to adapt, companies have responded in unprecedented ways to “the need for new technology and inventive working methods,” Zeiler adds. “Timelines usually associated with getting solutions to market have been shortened, and remote operations with a reduced density of crew members around the talent needs to be considered.”
To find out more about how the pandemic impacted this sector, and to see how the industry might be evolving as a result, I checked for insight with a few representatives from major industry companies, and also received assistance from Harry Box, manager of The Production Equipment Rental Group (PERG), who surveyed some of that trade organisation’s members on these issues.
Taking A Hit
According to Christine Chapman-Huenergardt, senior marketing director for Chapman-Leonard Studio Equipment, “we literally shut down after March 18, 2020, and were completely closed until July 15, 2020, when we brought back only a handful of people.”
But even as productions slowly ramped-up and some level of business resumed with new safety protocols in place, she says there were a host of subtle costs to companies that they are still dealing with.
“More cost to production, slower physical production due to shutdowns,” she explains. “Grips have stated it’s difficult to breath with masks and shields on, but they are dealing with it. The PPE gear also adds costs to productions, as well as the Covid test personnel that now need to be added to crews. It becomes more difficult to get some shots due to social distancing, athough productions are figuring out ways around this.”
Harry Box, meanwhile, checked with five industry equipment companies on such matters – PC&E, Atlanta; Insight Equipment, New York; Portland’s Koerner Camera Systems; TCS, New York; and Panavision, New York. On the question of the pandemic’s impact on their normal business, Box got a sense that many companies “are working on getting back to their full staffing levels.”
“Different places were hit differently,” he states regarding the pandemic’s 2020 impact on business. “New York was hit first and came back more slowly than, say, Atlanta, Canada, or LA. By mid-June, things started to come back in New York, primarily driven by commercials in July and August. I must say the Independent Association Of Commercial Producers [AICP] were extremely proactive in their response to the crisis. By late August or early September, it was back to normal volume.
“Generally, business was completely dead for two months. For the year, revenues were down about 50 percent relative to the year before. In the fourth quarter, generally revenues were 70 to 80 percent of the previous year.”
He adds, “some smaller vendors didn’t survive, while companies that are more diversified, or have other revenue streams, generally can take a hit in one area and make it up in other areas. However, the pandemic hit in all areas, and for such a long duration, that it minimised the difference.”
Often, tough choices had to be made. According to TCS president Erik Schietinger, “the biggest lesson has been the value of our employees,” particularly after, early in the crisis, he had to ponder layoffs and furloughs.
“We feel fortunate to have the talent that we have,” Schietinger says. “You cannot snap your fingers and bring together a crew like this. You have to take a long view when it comes to these things. In the end, we only furloughed people for eight days in April, and laid off two people, one of whom we are able to hire back.”
The industry’s down time was largely spent planning reopening strategies. Strict work protocols were quickly established by several industry organisations—including a detailed set of guidelines from PERG.
In a sense, for the time being, “each production stays in its own bubble” while being serviced by vendors, suggests Chapman-Leonard’s Christine Chapman-Huenergardt.
“We have gone on-set to service gear, but our technician stays distanced in their own space,” she says. “We don’t let customers inside, we keep all orders received and returned outside, and schedule pick-up and deliveries at specific times so that customers are not on top of each other. Sometimes, we will just swap out a piece of equipment rather than servicing it on-set, and, of course, we also sanitise all gear before and after we send it out or receive it back.”
According to Panavision’s Michael George, finding processes and tools for safely getting back to work were a top priority after the pandemic hit.
“We took a number of steps to protect the well-being of everyone – employee or customer – who has to physically enter into one of our facilities,” George explains. “We developed return-to-work protocols for each business within our portfolio and each region globally, and we built an [online] hub to communicate to our customers, the general public, and our employees to know what to expect when coming to any Panavision location.”
All visitors to Panavision locations now fill out what George calls “health attestations” before they can enter, and the company offers personal protective equipment to all employees and customers, and strictly enforces social distancing and mask usage, among other protocols. Additionally, however, with Panavision being a global supplier of equipment, new procedures for handling gear were also instituted.
“We’ve adapted several different technologies for cleaning and disinfecting all equipment that enters our facilities,” George adds. “We have hand-cleaning methods for our optics, camera bodies, accessories and other hard goods pursuant to government guidelines. And Panavision and Panalux have been employing ultraviolet germicidal light, which is very efficient and allows us to disinfect a large volume of equipment. We’ve also adapted ozone technology at some of our larger offices, where crews can bring equipment prior to camera prep, and we run it through an ozone process that disinfects it before it enters our facility.”
According to Harry Box, many PERG members have implemented safety strategies that are likely to live-on past the pandemic due to their general efficiency.
“Health questionnaires, for example, also give rental houses a clear head count and schedule for visitors,” Box says. “If you know how many people are coming in, you can accommodate larger crews in separate ‘feature prep rooms.’ Having more organised and strict schedules for clients has been really effective, and is something that may be a lasting impact of the pandemic.”
TCS’s Erik Schietinger adds that his company also found it could use technology to better implement social distancing in its facility without interfering with collaboration.
“The biggest thing we did was put tablets into our prep bays,” Schietinger says. “It turned out to be hugely beneficial in more ways than we’d planned. We did it to allow the prep tech to be socially distanced, so they don’t have to stand there talking directly with AC’s, but it had other benefits because we could include rental managers on the chat, in addition to techs and AC’s. Details are less likely to be lost in communication. That’s something that we are going to stick with going forward.”
In other words, Schietinger says “the pandemic has taught us to be more agile.” And Box says this was a common theme among the various companies he spoke with.
Indeed, virtually the entire industry has made strides in how to work remotely with productions across the globe. In fact, Box suggests “a cottage industry has sprung up to handle live transmission to clients from set. A wireless video tech has become an independent crew position with wireless stations that have it all – including ways to solve challenges like connecting to the Internet in remote locations, and integrating with streaming platforms like Facebook Live.”
He elaborates that, “crowding around a monitor on-set is a well-worn tradition that has obvious advantages for communicating when several people need to give input. But for now, that has been suspended, and even after the pandemic, freedom of easy access to a remote image is likely to continue.”
Among other things, he says rental houses right now “are supporting a lot more monitors and monitoring systems on set” generally. He adds that Mark Wofford, PC&E’s General Manager, told him that commercial clients, in particular, are starting to grow quite comfortable with monitoring production remotely, and are remarking on savings they can achieve from having fewer team members needing to travel to far-off locations.
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that the industry as a whole has shown a unique resilience to meet some of the pandemic’s biggest business challenges. In particular, Markus Zeiler reports that among ARRI’s most successful initiatives “during this on-going transformation process” has been “identifying innovative opportunities and developing overarching solutions” for clients.
Zeiler says ARRI “has seen a steep rise in demand” for particular types of equipment in the last year. Examples are ARRI’s Trinity hybrid camera stabiliser and the company’s SRH-360 stabilised remote head, among other tools.
“There has also been an increased interest in our new Signature Zoom lenses,” Zeiler adds. “Without compromising on our Signature Prime lens quality, those optics deliver exceptional close-focus, which translates into fewer lens changes, and needing fewer people on-set.”
Likewise, Panavision has discovered that in a time of growth for streaming platforms, content makers are looking for tools that can give them both the best technology for large-screen viewing and protection for future platforms, while simultaneously producing imagery that efficiently translates to smaller screens. George points to IMAX’s new “Filmed in IMAX” programme, designed to certify camera systems from major manufacturers as IMAX origination platforms, and Panavision’s Millennium DXL2 camera’s inclusion in that programme.
“The programme recognises that our camera is an ideal match for the very biggest screens,” he says. “But simultaneously, we see the DXL2 being embraced by OTT platforms for their original programming, including both features and series, as well as commercials.”
George adds that Panavision subsidiary Light Iron’s range of mobile digital dailies solutions have also seen success in the past year as yet another method for close collaboration while keeping crew numbers limited.
“Light Iron evolved its mobile Outpost near-set dailies solution with the introduction of Outpost Remote Control,” he says. “That system can be remotely operated by a dailies colourist working in any Light Iron facility, regardless of where in the world Outpost Remote Control is deployed. So productions can now take advantage of the benefits of a real-time near-set dailies solution, but without requiring a colourist to be physically present.”