Rising Above

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Tech Jumpstarts New Creative World

“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.” – Duncan Idaho, “Dune,” Warner Bros, 2021

Change comes slowly to the M&E industry … except when it doesn’t.

Back in 2018/19, BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television) and BFI (British Film Institute) were working on an energetic report – A Screen New Deal – a Route Map to Sustainable Film Production. The report was designed to be ton of proposals, recommendations and best practice models for studios to use to become net-zero emissions by 2050.

It was – and still is – a comprehensive roadmap for the industry but the authors couldn’t have anticipated that the pandemic shut down of 2020 would nudge the industry to make changes so quickly that the industry could be there well ahead of their energetic schedule.

Nearly 80 percent of the organizations were accelerating their transition to IP (internet protocol) so projects could be quickly, accurately and economically produced to meet time/financial budgets.

The report noted that 51 percent of a project’s emissions were related to transportation (30 percent air travel, 70 percent by land) and the shutdown forced everyone to rethink how production could be done without a week’s shoot in one city or country, a week in another location and a third somewhere else.

Part of the transportation problem was resolved because a number of industry studies showed that more than 50 percent of the organizations’ workforce was working from home to keep projects on schedule.

But a number of production/post changes had been slowly evolving and only needed “a little nudge” to become standard practices.

Great Beyond – Disney’s The Mandalorian was a crowd-pleaser, thanks to a totally new paradigm in film/show production and a mindboggling new high-resolution LED (light emitting diode) screen that has literally helped take project production to a new dimension. By eliminating yesterday’s greenscreen production, actors can actually see their environment rather than wait for post-production completion. Software will continue to improve for virtual productions.

We always sorta, kinda knew that with a little bit of creative work, organizations could create an ultra-realistic exotic or desolate location or a forbidden place or planet that only exists in the producer’s mind.

The biggest stimulus to the more economic and globally dispersed production can be attributed to the growth ambitions of Netflix and Amazon Prime to grow their subscription bases.

Having quickly captured Canadian/U.S. streaming subscribers by offering them affordable access to great films/series without ads–films that can be viewed when, where they want, they set out to be the world’s entertainment leaders.

Governments were intent on protecting their creative industries and said, “if you want to sell your service in our country, 30-40 percent of the content has to be produced locally.”

That turned out to be a good deal for all concerned:

  • Consumers got to choose from great local and U.S. content
  • Governments got tax money from the services for local subscriptions and production work
  • Local artists/craftspeople had added work opportunities and access to international products/techniques
  • Streamers had access to outstanding/economic projects and production

Plus … streamers received meaningful tax credits for projects produced in the country.

In addition, streamers quickly found that people in neighboring countries liked the same/similar visual stories were appealing around the globe.

Facility Expansion – Content owners/producers have learned that they can use new virtual production studios to quickly and economically create a broad range of video stories. The new advanced soundstages are booked years in advance—even before they are completed— to produce films/shows in one location rather than hopping around the world.

“As shooting projects in a variety of locations became expensive and inflexible; production firms like Pinewood, Village Roadshow, Studio 100, Brightlight, Gaumont, Ajay Devgn, Nikkatu, Regal, Myung, 40 Acres and a Mule, Tyler Perry and hundreds of others had already been exploring new options and constructing new, more technically advanced facilities,” said Allan McLennan, CEP/Media, Head of M&E North America, Atos. “Almost as soon as a new production facility is announced, you can almost count on an announcement that they also have a long-term, multifilm contract with a studio or streamer for their new global film/show production operation – creating a win-win situation.”

Global Industry – Visual storytelling production has long been done around the globe and now countries and cities are offering a range of incentives and assistance to get more content owners to locate their films/shows for local and international distribution.

McLennan explained that content providers typically offer only a fraction of available titles on their platforms at any one time, so there are projects in the works around the clock, around the calendar, around the globe. For example, Amazon offers slightly over 14K titles in its U.S. catalog, which is about 3 percent of the titles available. Netflix offers about 3,500 titles in the U.S., less than 10 percent of their available titles.

In other words, there is an unquenchable demand for newer, better, different genre titles.

While the industry spends all of its attention on the annual list of big budget films from the “big five” majors (Disney, Warner, Universal, Paramount, Sony), the majors have put their primary focus where Netflix, Amazon and Apple have staked their claim. They can easily produce ten to twelve budget films and/or episodic series for their streaming service distribution.

Releasing them in a staged monthly schedule, they can entice new subscribers, keep existing subscribers and dramatically reduce the projects’ massive M&A (marketing & advertising) budgets for movie posters, TV commercials and TV/theater interview tours.

They simply post trailers directly to social media … done and done!

DTC (direct to consumer) looks so appetizing and profitable that today, there are more than 2,000 subscription, ad-supported and FAST (free, ad-supported streaming TV) services available worldwide with content offerings to meet any entertainment taste.

The devastating economic and cultural effects of the pandemic, the BAFTA/BFI report and virtual production came together at a perfect time because continuing the practice of projects being produced across town or by hopping across the world was no longer practical … or sustainable.

That’s about all you heard discussed at February’s HPA (Hollywood Professional Association) Tech Retreat and last month’s NAB (National Association of Broadcasting) show … how are you safely, economically and quickly producing all the new content the boss – and consumer – demand?

Virtual – Planar Studios developed an advanced LED virtual display as well as motion capture technology and VR and XR capabilities to enable today’s video storytellers to be even more effective in connecting with viewers and to do it economically, quickly and consistently.

The new facilities that are being constructed aren’t yesteryear’s shells but a combination of video game engines, camera-tracking technology, graphics-servers and LED screens to create an immersive performance stage.

They are also very reusable because the studio can be quickly and economically reconfigured and repurposed to go from a horror film to a sci-fi cliff hanger to comedy series or police episodic.

The ability to shoot any location without travel has been the prime reason virtual production has been embraced quickly, but another factor is that it can significantly reduce VFX time and cost in addition to enhancing artist interaction.

Amazon and Netflix have embraced the new expanded technology because of the improved final pixel shoot quality. Project directors have found they can significantly improve image quality in front of LED walls and dramatically reduce the time/cost of post-production work.

Reduced Set Personnel – While the pandemic forced producers/directors to reassess how many staff members were really needed for a production, virtual production facilities have also reduced the number of people needed on even the most ambitious projects.

A benefit that hasn’t gone unnoticed by project and streamer management is that virtual set technology reduces the need for scale models and matte painting as well as the demand for on-set production teams and crew members.

Staffing Shift – New advanced cameras, virtual screens and increasingly powerful video production/workflow software have shifted project crews to more technical jobs rather than craftspersons and set production.

Video production costs are reduced by integrating the virtual background environment with live-action footage.

“Once an organization goes through the virtual production experience and accelerated workflow, it is challenging not to include it as a choice going forward,” McLennan explained. “Even diehard celluloid producers, production teams and postproduction people can’t imagine going back to building out sets, stages and facilities or working with greenscreen shooting at the level they had previously.”

Facilities Boost – Studios, networks and streamers have all realized that virtual production facilities will enable them to produce outstanding films/shows more rapidly, with a higher quality and at a major cost savings. Little wonder that new facilities are cropping up around the globe.

The global virtual production market was about $1.4B at the beginning of the pandemic and, based on the aggressive production/expansion of facilities around the globe, is expected to approach $5B by 2028.

In addition to the rush by countries and facility owners to build out new and more flexible studios, virtual production has also boosted the demand for virtual production hardware – motion capture workstations, virtual camera systems and VFX creatives needed to quickly and effectively provide the action simulation, 3-D texturing and post-process work to produce movies that will attract and retain subscribers.

Post Production Everywhere – Thanks to the ready availability of reliable, dependable and economic internet service across the globe, post production work as well as specialty solutions and expertise can be quickly used for projects without relying on expensive, time-consuming digital shipments or relying solely on the teams/specialists close to the production. New high-performance software and connectivity also enable producers and editors to monitor work being done in realtime.

Historically, the challenge was having the best post-production experts close to the production facilities. Regardless of where they were located, filmmakers and project directors were accustomed to working with post-production specialists or secure studio NOC’s to connect directly to creative discussions or updates whether they were in London, Hollywood, Auckland, Mumbai or Berlin.

Technology-based firms provided the solution with a robust, high-capacity global internet and strategically located server/storage cloud facilities as well as safe, secure, reliable workflow products.

Moving beyond the cost and production delays of physically moving project data from one workstation to another or pulling one group of specialists from nearby and on the other side of the world wasn’t the issue. The challenge was in the efficiencies of the production exchange of the remote work. That wasn’t anything new to the content creation industry, it was whether there was the ability to actually leverage the creative technology platforms on an accelerated, secure and stable exchange.

Production Workflow By taking advantage of secure, high-capacity storage, the cloud facilities around the globe, robust video production workflow and specialty software, as well as enhanced content protection software; projects can be produced more rapidly, accurately and securely, saving time and money.

Workflow products from Adobe, Avid, Autodesk, EditShare, Frame.io, Pinnacle, Dalet, Blackbird, Movie Magic and Yamdu and a range of exceptional, secure, scalable web collaboration tools have been developed and proven by the media industry’s distributed workforce.

Local and global streaming services and broadcasters have invested heavily in new production spaces, contracting with proven talent and creating a schedule of major production projects to fill their libraries in anticipation of winning over and retaining home viewing individuals and households.

As Chani said in the closing moments of Dune, “This is only the beginning.”

The major challenge/question is … how will each of the new and established streaming services profitably release their content to win over as many of the global 2B consumers as possible?

Today, they have a dizzying array of new entertainment opportunities including gaming, eating out and yes, going to the movie house.

Marketing will again be the critical part of the creative industry.

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Andy Marken – [email protected] – is an author of more than 700 articles on management, marketing, communications, industry trends in media & entertainment, consumer electronics, software and applications. Internationally recognized marketing/communications consultant with a broad range of technical and industry expertise especially in storage, storage management and film/video production fields. Extended range of relationships with business, industry trade press, online media and industry analysts/consultants.