Staying Afloat And Pivoting In 2020

I’ve managed to stay afloat in 2020 by shooting and livestreaming a variety of new types of work that I’ve never produced. This is a still from a live stream for WE Spark, A Children’s Cancer Charity hosted by comic Alonzo Bodden.

When you hear the phrase “Staying afloat,” what does that mean to you from a business perspective? As we all know and feel, 2020 has been a very challenging year for those of us in production. Entertainment, where I’ve made the majority of my income for decades, has taken a huge hit. There basically has been no filmed entertainment production in Los Angeles where I’m located for a good part of 2020. Production is slowly beginning to creep back in, but compared to previous years, production is still close to a standstill. The few projects that are shooting have quarantine and screening requirements that are making crews as small and limited as possible, not to mention the need to have crew quarantine together for weeks or even months. I have several colleagues who are DPs, gaffers and sound mixers and I’ve been chatting with them lately about how they’ve been staying afloat in this year of limited work opportunities.

Some have been picking up side gigs, driving for Uber and Lyft or working in fields that are completely unrelated to production. Most of my colleagues and friends who are doing this look at these side gigs as necessary to survive the pandemic, but they universally hope that production will be coming back soon. And to an extent, it is coming back, albeit in a halting, starting and stopping, canceling, then back on sort of way. As we near the end of 2020, I wanted to reflect back on my own journey with my business this year to see what I learned, what was reinforced and what I’ll take with me for hopefully increased success in business in 2021.

A BTS shot with colleague Damian Christie on a five-camera shoot with a famous national food retailer.

The Situation Was Dire

In my market, in my location, it’s often busy in autumn leading into the holiday season, but then as Thanksgiving and December loom, business usually drops off. Not always, but more often than not. And just as often, January and February are also slow with usually just one or two small gigs per month, which means that heading into fall, I’m usually saving as much money for my business as I can so we have cash reserves to weather up to three to four months with little to no business. 2019 into 2020 was no exception—January and February were slow. Then the pandemic hit in March and it stayed essentially dead for the next two months after that. Spring of 2020 found us, like a lot of people, hurting for business and money. I had some difficult conversations with clients and colleagues and found that most of the people in my circle, other than those with education, corporate or government jobs, were in the same situation. I had to look for a way for my business to survive.

If you had told me in 2019 that I’d spend a good portion of 2020 being a producer with remote livestreaming talent from all over the world, I wouldn’t have believed you. Here I am coaching eight remote callers for the Naval Helicopter Association who we were about to go live in an industry panel discussion.

Pivot And Reinvention

When times get tough, that’s usually the best time to take a good, hard look at your business model, your capabilities, your gear, your skillset and what the market is demanding. It just so happened that in January of this year, I happened to have been hired to direct and TD a livestream from Vanguard University for a friend’s livestreaming company. I wrote a bit about my journey getting into livestreaming in a blog from earlier this year. Everything I wrote about still rings true today, a few months later, and I’ve learned an immeasurable amount about livestreaming this year. One thing that I wrote about that still rings incredibly true is exactly how difficult it can be to successfully produce a successful livestream for higher-end clients who have very specific and sometimes unique needs for their livestream.

I’ve learned that if you’re good at livestreaming, you can help your nonprofit clients raise literally millions of dollars for their worthy causes. We’ve produced livestream projects this year for the LA Zoo, a children’s cancer charity, an equine therapy program for autistic kids, we’ve even helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the beleaguered children of Armenia. And those are just the charity clients. We’ve also streamed hours and hours of content and panel discussions for the Naval Helicopter Association, and we’ve done the same for the producers of a feature documentary film that was screened dozens of times with different discussion panels. We even livestreamed a virtual summit for the worldwide builders, owners and management of surf parks. Talk about diversity.

Here I am on talkback mic with a facilitator for a screening of an independent documentary film that we streamed in 4K to a worldwide audience of 170k viewers.

More Than Just Surviving

In the spring of 2020, I was worried about just surviving financially. I was this close to applying for a job to pack boxes at my local Amazon warehouse as there literally wasn’t anything else happening with production. Compared to regular video production (I’ve been lucky to pick up a few decent corporate regular video production projects this year too, in between livestreaming projects), livestreaming budgets are smaller and there’s usually little to no post production, so there’s less opportunity to make any money on the back end of post as I’m sometimes able to do in regular production.

As I was able to pivot thanks to a partnership with my friend’s live streaming company, it occurred to me that while it’s wonderful to make money and survive, 2020 has proven to me that in order to prosper, one must look past their “thing” and embrace what the market it demanding. As of today, the market of production isn’t demanding a lot of freelance producer/DPs, while it’s demanding professionals with a track record of consummate professionalism and successful fundraising in livestreaming. Livestreaming isn’t regular production—it’s actually quite different. Pre-production in livestreaming often involves delving into the minutiae of constructing paywalls, special internet requirements for specific audiences, setting up remote livestreaming in other locations all over the world and many other considerations that aren’t usually needed in regular production.

A birds-eye view of vMix, the main system we’ve been using along with Livestream Studio during 2020. My finger is poised to enter a transition I’ve programmed using the Elgato Stream Deck Mini to save mousing and additional keystrokes.

The Additional Benefits Of The Pivot

Besides the wonderful ability to actually survive and prosper, my pivot in 2020 to livestreaming has yielded some rich, interesting and educational opportunities. Besides learning how a helicopter pilot returning from a dangerous combat mission lands on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a hurricane or how horses have an innate ability to relate to and connect with severely disabled kids in a way that humans simply can’t to how to determine Chlorination levels in a surf pool in Texas after windstorms blow in sand from the Sahara Desert, 2020 has been a very diverse peek into the worlds of our clients. I’m one of those who consider self-education and advanced study of what interests you a lifelong pursuit. I’m a curious person and I love to ask why. Why does this work the way it does? Why do people act and think in this way or that? From a business perspective, it’s been immensely interesting and valuable to learn about the finances, business models and how our clients are successful in their businesses. When you look at it from this perspective, you realize that you’re gaining insights that can’t be taught even at business school, and I never attended business school. Those insights are valuable on so many levels and inform how we’re running our production and livestreaming companies.

A screenshot of a panel discussion I produced with religious leaders from all over the world for a discussion series around a documentary film.

Advice For 2021

As we head into 2021, we plan on continuing on our livestreaming journey and I’ll hopefully still pick up the occasional production project. I see some factors looming on the horizon. It appears that Covid-19 is going to become endemic. This isn’t my opinion; this comes from several scientific journals and the opinions of some immunologists and virologists. Endemic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is (of a disease or condition) regularly found among particular people or in a certain area. This means that Covid isn’t ever disappearing or leaving, which means that all of the pandemic craziness we’ve endured this year isn’t going away anytime soon, if ever. 

What will 2021 bring? Nobody knows. My colleagues and I are optimistic that if we adapt to what the market has a need for, success will follow. Media, entertainment and communications are going through a sea change and it’s up to us to react accordingly.

Along with the pandemic, there has been global political unrest, bizarre weather patterns, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados as well as many other disruptive factors that, while we’ve always had, they seem to be in an abundance that’s unusual. In short, the world is topsy turvy and I don’t believe things will get back to “normal” ever—we’re in a new, uncharted reality. If you work in production, you should take a good hard look in the mirror and be realistic with yourself about your skillset, tools and accomplishments and ask yourself what you can do to survive. If you’re in production, I’m of the opinion that while there’s an increase in media consumption worldwide, you have to find a way to redefine what you are and what you do that makes you desirable in the marketplace. If you’re one function specialist, especially in feature films, right now is the time to re-evaluate and change yourself and how you fit into the world of production. Perhaps if you work in features, re-invent yourself and gain a foothold in episodic and TV. If you work in episodic and TV and haven’t been working enough, what else can you do with your existing skills in an arena that has a demand for what you do?

I wish I had words of optimism for what is ahead in 2021, but at this point, it’s difficult to say what will happen next year, especially in production. Whatever you do, don’t sit there not changing and not reinventing yourself. This year has proven that’s a recipe for frustration and financial difficulty. Plan it out and act upon your plan. Redefine yourself and your role in production and you can achieve success. But it requires uncomfortable change.