The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be felt for years. It has especially hit the production and entertainment industries hard as most traditional production has been at a standstill since March 2020.
The Economic Impact Of The Pandemic On Us
I’m a video production person. I’ve been involved in digital cinema and before that traditional video production for quite a while. Since the great Pandemic of 2020, many of us have been looking at what we can utilize our skill set for to keep our heads above water during these trying times. Traditional television and film production began shutting down here in Hollywood beginning in March of 2020. So far, it hasn’t returned to any level of critical mass as of this summer. I have a few colleagues and fellow crew who have been lucky enough to get back to work, at least at some level, but I’d estimate at least 60 percent or more of my colleagues in my circle haven’t worked at all in production since March. They’ve been surviving on savings, PUA and UI money and possibly taking the odd side gig like driving an Uber or Lyft or working at an Amazon warehouse facility. Times are tough and they don’t look to be significantly improving for the remainder of the year and well into next year.
I’ve owned a small production company for about 20 years. We’ve seen all of the huge changes that have rocked our industry over the past few years. We’ve survived, but it hasn’t been easy—at all. Even with hard work, intelligent and logical strategy, the occasional far reach and taking chances to be a market disruptor in our small niche of entertainment marketing, documentary and corporate films, each year it has become more and more difficult to just survive, much less to thrive.
It’s a strange paradox that as video and digital cinema grows in popularity, streaming services compete with the traditional studios and then dominate them in the market and corporate media grows and more clients look at video as a necessary part of their business strategy, it’s become continually more difficult to make a living in this business. Part of it is simply the inevitable march toward the tools needed to create high-quality video or digital cinema are close to free. Either directly or indirectly, this phenomenon has affected all of us in production for the past 10 or so years at an increasing level each year.
Wait, I’ll Just Start Selling Live Streaming…
I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I have a lot of different friends and colleagues in production. It just happened that in January, right before the pandemic really hit the U.S. and kicked into high gear, a friend of mine who I‘ve worked with here and there for about 15 years owns a live streaming company. He’s been in the business for the past decade so he’s the “old hand” at live streaming. Even though I haven’t worked in live television for such a long time, it was enjoyable to TD (technical direct) a live multi-camera event for my friend’s company in January. As the Pandemic loomed over us in February and then into March, my friend and I were in touch every few days. I had a sizeable chunk of shoots that were scheduled in March outright cancel as quarantine came in. I lost about $15,000 worth of booked projects in March and another $10,000 in April from clients who hung on with their bookings convinced that the quarantine would just last a few weeks.
Speaking with my friend, he too had a lot of high school and college graduations on his schedule to live stream. All canceled. We spoke and decided that as a hedge against losing all of our business for the next few months, we’d band together and try marketing live streaming services to larger and higher-budget clients than he had been landing as his low-dollar, high-volume, bread-and-butter projects that were paying his bills. His company has a ton of live stream experience and demo reel material, and my company has higher-end production names, celebs and clients.
Strategy In Place, Searching For A Niche In The Market
Both of us have a lot of years in the media business. We broke down the live streaming market, at least the sectors we want to pursue, in the following way:
Small business, institutional users. This sector is already using live streaming to conduct meetings, round tables and discussions. There are also teachers now utilizing live stream teaching for their students online. This market is already saturated, well served by all of the free or low-cost live streaming commodity services like Skype, Zoom, Google Meets and Microsoft Teams. We also lump in social media content creators into this category. This is the DIY sector; few people on this level have the budget or are spending much money to live stream. They mostly sit at their computers and talk to others in groups online. Production values are low to nonexistent, although there are exceptions to the rule, of course. Many people at this level are using low grade, built-in webcams on their laptops, iPhones or low-cost external webcams. In our opinion, there’s very little business opportunity here for a production company or freelancer.
Basic, low end, logistically simple live multi-camera production. This level of clients may want to hire someone to live stream their event. It could be a wedding, funeral, graduation, a band’s performance, school presentations and events or low-end corporate live events. This level of production can be accomplished with small one- or two-person crews using some simple camcorders or even PTZ remote cameras, running into a laptop or a small, inexpensive switcher like the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro. There’s definitely business here and with volume operation, shooting a lot of these low-end projects, one might expect to at least survive with these sorts of live streaming projects. Generally, this level of production doesn’t center on boring talking heads sitting at computers with webcams, it’s typically driven more by documenting live events that would be happening with a live audience during pre-pandemic times. Many of these events are still happening, just without a live audience, and the entire audience moves to watch the live event online.
Mid-level corporate/institutional live streams. In this tier, we have transitioned from what most people think of and know about as “live streaming” and we’re simply producing live television over the internet. The clients have higher budgets but exponentially higher technical capability requirements. Rather than a simple Tier 2 project with two to three cameras with a PowerPoint live stream, for instance, this level of client and production may ask for much more involved scenarios and requirements.
For instance, one of our Tier 3 clients is a production company that produced a high-end feature-length documentary film. They wanted us to help them live stream the film to YouTube Live in 4K resolution. The film was also produced in a Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Once the film has finished, we transition to a live five- to six-person discussion panel with remote streams from India, the UK, Canada, NYC, Los Angeles and Australia. Each of the panelists in the 4K-moderated discussion is placed in their own box on-screen with animated lower third titles. As each person takes turns speaking, we’re using DVE moves to move the boxes around like tiles and the titles animate and follow each panelist. This production is unique because it’s entirely remote.
Each panelist “signs in” to our system using their own laptop or tablet. Each panelist is using headphones with a lavaliere microphone. We have “trained” each talent, since we can’t be there to shoot their live stream, to carefully frame themselves and their shot. We work with them to find soft, large lighting sources in their home or office and tweak blinds or shades to utilize the window light in their location. The end result doesn’t look as refined as we’d make it if we were there in person shooting it, but it looks and sounds better than the average Zoom or Skype call.
Each project has different requirements. We’ve produced live stream fundraising auctions that have raised over $1.2 million dollars in less than two hours. We recently produced a virtual lunch gala event for a Major League Baseball team and their fans. To execute at this level, we use a crew of at least three to six people and sometimes more if we have remote video crews on location. We have a complex, customized live streaming studio with a virtual green room where remote callers can gather in standby and speak with and receive direction from us and the producers of the live stream. We have sophisticated audio mixing capability and can support up to eight remote call-ins at once, combined with up to 10 live cameras if we’re streaming from a live shoot event.
This tier is sort of an amorphous catch-all for sophisticated, multi-camera production for high-profile clients, the studios and TV networks. Work at this level is indistinguishable from high-end broadcast TV. Often, a mobile truck with potentially up to 30 to 40 cameras may be utilized. This level of production would often utilize crews of anywhere from 10 to 100 to execute. This would include events like music festivals; huge, lavish stage productions; big sporting events and the like.
Tier 4 projects will often have budgets that are in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Often, the live streaming part of the equation is brought in as an adjunct to the live broadcast or simply receives their input from the broadcast’s master output. But, occasionally, the live streaming team operates independently from the broadcast, such as when our team was hired to produce the Facebook Live stream at the NAACP Image Awards Red Carpet in Hollywood. BET broadcasted the awards ceremony, but we live streamed the Facebook Live stream from the Red Carpet.
If You’re Contemplating Live Streaming…
The one unifying factor about live streaming that we should talk about is this: Live streaming is very difficult to do well. No matter the level of production you’re live streaming, there are technical and strategic limitations in live streaming that you probably aren’t aware of if you haven’t done it before.
Everything is dependent on the internet from where you streaming from. This sounds obvious, but think about it. If a location has slow, unreliable or temperamental internet, this will directly affect what you and your client are trying to accomplish. If you add in a remote live stream system like we use, for each “caller” we have sign in, we now have an additional incoming internet stream to be concerned about. Our outgoing service from our remote studio can be fast and rock solid, but if a remote coming in to us from anywhere in the world is flaky, there’s zero we can do about it from our end.
Reliable and Wireless?
You may have seen ads or reviews for various wireless internet live streaming solutions, some fairly expensive and fully-featured “Internet In A Backpack” solutions. We own our own expensive top-of-the-line wireless router, utilizing three different 4G-cell providers. Even with this device, wireless internet for live streaming is, at best, spotty and at its worst, an unreliable disaster. Wireless, even when it’s delivering faster-promised speeds, is all over the map with constant throughput. That’s the problem, the way wireless internet works, there are constantly new obstacles for signals to pass through and there are also constantly changing interference challenges too. Live streaming with wireless is really a no go in 2020. The full rollout of 5G wireless might change this in the near future, but if you’re contemplating streaming in 2020, forget about any solution that relies on wireless internet; it’s just not going to work well.
I’m lucky. My business partner is an audio and webcast engineer. He’s trained and has decades of experience with internet, sound, picture, computing and troubleshooting. I will leave you with this thought: If you don’t have access to a true webcast engineer, trying to do anything above Tier 2 live streaming is going to be a disaster. Doing Tier 2 live streaming may turn into a disaster for you. If it does, how do you fix it? How do you interface with your client’s IT professionals to make sure that your system integrates with their heavily Firewall-protected network? Do you know how to set up and administer a bonded router system? Do you know how to interface and place orders with content distribution networks?
In Tier 2, you might plug into your client’s Ethernet and it might work. But if it does, how knowledgeable are you about IT and internet troubleshooting? What redundancies have you built into you’re A/V and live streaming gear? You’ll need a plan B and, often, a plan C. If your plan A stops working, you go to plan B. But if plan B doesn’t work, you must have a viable plan C. Realistically, if you’re professionally live streaming for clients for money, you need at least two of everything in your kit. Things break, malfunction, are lost, short out and stop working. Live streaming is live (mostly), so if the show is to go on, you have to have redundancies and you need a webcast engineer. Without these, it’s not a matter of if you will crash and burn for your client, but when. Even with all of these in place, you can still crash and burn; it has happened to us and it’s painful. But that’s the nature of live streaming; it’s not for the faint of heart.