Covid's impact on regional media companies, analysis

Regional and international production houses tell of how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted operations and, more importantly, how they have turned a negative into a huge positive
Artology Creative, 7 Production, Starplay original, Maaz Sheikh, Lara ghanem-cunningham, Nick Grande., Mena.tv, Media buying, Coronavirus and media industry
Hao Rui

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Covid-19 has impacted regional studios and the wider production and broadcast industry. The most adversely hit industry, however, is the events sector. Live sports, and the subsequent spectacle of its broadcast, have been suspended since March, along with major trade shows that facilitate content buying and distribution.

A few countries have slowly but surely begun to open their economies, and with it the resumption of certain businesses. It might be some time before events and sporting activities welcome spectators. But studios have begun functioning with social distancing practices in place.

Looking back

Alaa Akawi, founder - executive director, Artology Creative summarises the situation that the industry found itself in as the pandemic spread its global reach. He said: “Covid-19 managed to build fear in people’s minds and forced us to stay away from each other in order to stay safe. Filming involves being in close contact with the crew, cast, and interacting with one another on set. The pandemic has put this practise at risk and as a result has affected the businesses and the entire film industry.”

Akawi added the global economic crisis that has come as a result of Covid-19 does not bode well for production houses that have to contend with added costs while working on slashed budgets.

7 Production found itself in a similar situation at the height of the lockdown. Lara Ghanem, regional director, 7 Production said: “The events industry is the last industry that will get back on its feet simply because its’s all about gathering crowds and that’s the number one thing that shouldn’t be happening right now. Our operations took a serious hit along with all other companies and business came to a complete standstill.”

But in the weeks that followed, 7 Production’s leadership rallied together to complete unfinished tasks and improve business processes, more on that later.

The impact on operations caused by the pandemic hit major corporations as well. Industry powerhouses such as Discovery also took a hit to its operations. Discovery’s MENAT general manager Amanda Turnbull confirmed that filming had halted at its newly revamped Fatafeat studio in Dubai Production City, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, hardware and software suppliers faced output challenges: Several scaled operations down while some shut shop altogether. LED lighting manufacturer Astera, for instance, dedicated part of its production facility to the fight against Covid-19 by energising its 10,000 m2 factory in Shenzhen, along with upskilling workforce, to assist with the delivery of essential personal protective equipment (PPE) items, including face masks.

Meanwhile, a handful of companies were not severely impacted as was the case with Aret Video and Audio Engineering. Dr. Eng. Raffaele Farinaro, presales engineer, Aret said: “From the beginning, we took strict measures to prevent the infection of anyone, and to protect the health of our employees, clients and business partners according to the law.

“We facilitated smart working for all our project, design, administration and finance teams, while production and operation teams were working, even if at a slower pace, in the company facilities and supported by all measures in terms of containing and handling the spread of the disease. Now we have resumed at full speed to complete and deliver ongoing projects,” he added.

Resilience and fight back

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali once famously said: “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”

The resilience and never-say-die attitude shown by local media companies has been nothing short of commendable. Studios have reopened in the Gulf, content filmed prior to the lockdown is currently in post-production and in some cases projects have already been completed.

The turnaround has begun, signifying the darkest days for our industry could well and truly be behind us.

“Covid-19 didn’t impact our Ramadan content which had been thoroughly prepared in advance and is some of the most sought after content that Fatafeat produces each year. In terms of production, due to the operational capabilities in previous months, there was an array of content which we’ve been able to edit and produce remotely as part of our evergreen content offering,” Turnbull said.

Independent filmmaker Faisal Hashmi utilised free time to complete a new screenplay and revise others. In the next 12 months he plans to ramp up pre-production for his feature film projects as the “film industry slowly gets back to its feet again”.

7 Production decided to focus on improving its infrastructure. “We finally had the gift of time, something we hadn’t been afforded for years,”Ghanem added.

“We improved our internal operations, internal infrastructure, streamlined operational processes to make them even better. We started building the 4K OB vans which were meant to come online during CABSAT in March. We also planned on unveiling our 4K custom pod that was being built for the 2020 F1 season.” A busy schedule before the lockdown meant 7 were not in a position to complete the OB vans and fly pack pod. “With the time we have had over the last few months we completed the two OB vans and increased the number of pods to two from one. We have also bought plenty of new 4K equipment,” Ghanem revealed.

The future

Plans are afoot for studios and productions houses as operations begin to swing back into action.

For 7 Production, 10 of its 12 studios in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been filled by MBC to continue productions of TV shows. “Those have been in operation since last month (May) taking precautions such sanitsation and social distancing into account. A lot of major projects were on hold, but the ones that have started have immediately involved 7,” Ghanem noted.

Dubai-founded SVOD service StarzPlay is working on its second original production with Image Nation Abu Dhabi which is also set to face some delays. The show was scheduled to swing into production in October this year, but that has been delayed slightly by the Coronavirus pandemic.

“We were in the process of checking scripts and working with talents, the initial goal was to launch production in early Q4, perhaps October. But that has been pushed back to Q1 2021. We are anticipating a three-four month delay in the production of our original show,” Maaz Sheikh, CEO, StarzPlay said.

Over the next 12 months, Discovery’s focus for Fatafeat will be on its newly launched Genius Kitchen app — the first fully-Arabic food app of its kind in the world. “All of the content for the app is filmed in the versatile Fatafeat Studio, alongside the slew of existing content – from quick recipe social-friendly videos and specially filmed cooking courses from our roster of professional chefs, to Fatafeat TV shows. With the high demand in content for our platforms, combined with increased functionality, we expect an even larger output in the next 12 months than we’ve ever seen before in the studio,” Turnbull revealed.

Mena.tv, a Dubai-founded distributor and content marketer, has witnessed a boom and an uptick of its services. “With trade shows postponed all around the world, Mena.tv is now essential for producers and distributors to reach content buyers. The number of shows listed on mena.tv has jumped almost 100% in two months, and there are now 700 buyers using the platform,” said Nick Grande, CEO, Mena.tv.

Creatives and those working in animation and post-production have also been productive during the lockdown in different parts of the world. “Our plans are to focus more on animated solutions at the moment working remotely. So far it has worked well for us and we are positive of what the future holds,” Akawi concluded.

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