How production companies are innovating to create ads during the pandemic
Just before the country went on lockdown, CVS was prepping a new beauty brand campaign with agency Standard Black. The new spots were to build on the retailer’s “Beauty in Real Life” premise with scenes featuring women getting glammed up in their homes. But soon after CVS Health Senior VP and Chief Marketing Officer Norman de Greve signed off on the idea, the lockdown hit.
As COVID-19 raged, production across the entertainment and commercial worlds came to a halt for the foreseeable future. It seemed impossible to create a spot that would require a director, cinematographer, makeup artists, production designers and other crew to gather in close proximity alongside talent, agency and clients. But with a little ingenuity from Standard Black and its production partners, L.A.-based division7 and directing team Similar But Different, the brand was able to produce something remarkable—an ad that looks nothing like an ad created during the pandemic.
The final spot features spirited scenes of women primping at home and playfully performing their beauty rituals, all set to a bouncy track. The production value is high-end, with lighting just right and photography crisp and controlled. Transitions from scene to scene are artfully seamless. The final spot stands out for being polished, upbeat and, in a sense, refreshingly “normal” compared to the user-generated, stock-filled emo-monotony that has marked many recently created spots.
The agency and production company pulled it off through what in other times would be an unconventional production process that involved providing shooting kits to talent (or those living with them) so they could film themselves at home. They also created a remote video village, involving multiple simultaneous Zoom calls, whereby the production team, agencies and clients could be there as the shoots occurred. “It was like a ‘Matrix’ of production,” says division7 Managing Director Kamila Prokop. “Each piece was feeding into each piece.”
The spot “represents a great moment where you can see how production creative is more than a commoditized skill,” says de Greve. “That took creativity that was differentiating.”
It’s quite a feat for these times, but commercial production companies have been reinventing their remit for years now. In the past, their domain had largely been confined to TV spots, but they are now being called upon to realize all kinds of ambitious ideas, whether it’s a video game, a long-form film, an experiential idea or even pulling off an entire Broadway play (as in the case of last year’s “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical,” produced by division7’s sibling Smuggler).
And while production firms have had to become even more inventive with limited resources during the pandemic, they are among the most hard-hit.
Keeping the lights on
Since the coronavirus crisis began, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, the nonprofit organization that supports the commercial production industry in the U.S., has been holding massive Zoom meetings four times a week to help assist production and post-production firms during the crisis. According to AICP President and CEO Matt Miller, one of the biggest issues weighing on the shops remains the “diminished amount of revenue coming in. How do you keep the lights on and doors open?” he says.
In late March, the AICP conducted a survey of more than 500 of its members about their concerns. Most pressing was the issue of outstanding receivables. Twenty-eight percent of the companies reported that they are owed in excess of $1 million; another 23 percent are owed between $500,000 and $1 million; and 16 percent reported they are owed between $250,000 and $500,000. Another 18 percent said they are owed between $100,000 and $250,000; the remainder was owed less than $100,000.
As the virus started to take its toll in the U.S., some of the industry’s production shops were bracing for a major impact and the likely scenario of not seeing revenue for the next three months or more.
“When you think about production companies as small businesses that aren’t owned by big holding companies, and mid-size shops that have 12 to 16 employees and nice offices, not seeing any revenue for 90 days is a real challenge,” says Diane McArter, founder of one of the industry’s high-profile production firms, Furlined, home to top directors including Dougal Wilson, Speck and Gordon and Martin + Lindsay, directors of the award-winning New York Times campaign from Droga5.
“It’s a tough time to be a company owner,” says Shawn Lacy, co-founder, partner and managing director of Biscuit Filmworks, another top production shop with an A-List roster that includes company co-founder Noam Murro, Errol Morris and Steve Rogers. “It’s been quiet because we are traditionally a live-action company. I’m hoping we’re going to be able to get back to shooting in July.”
In this strained environment, booking a job is becoming even more difficult and competitive. “We’re jumping through more hoops than ever before,” says Biscuit Executive Producer Holly Vega. “When they’re asking for all this user-generated stuff, they’re asking in addition to getting on a call and doing treatments, ‘Can you shoot a test?’ It’s an alarming trend right now. It’s more and more time to put into trying to win the job. Is that going to be a new precedent when we all come back?”
The need to innovate
Through it all, production shops have continued to innovate. Along with the CVS shoot, production companies have provided a host of novel solutions to creating ads under extreme restrictions. Last month, TBWA/Chiat/Day worked with Biscuit Filmworks’ director Aaron Stoller to create a story-driven ad for Snuggle that depicted a family doing just about everything in its laundry room. While the mother works at her laptop, three boys play in the foreground (one gives himself a quarancut). Stoller shot the whole spot in his own home, tapping his wife and three youngest sons to be talent (one sacrificed his own ‘do for real) while his eldest son helped with the shooting.
For an ad for Zillow, agency Fig worked with production firm The Mill and director of photography Joe Victorine, who shot his own house and family working and schooling at home.
Wieden+Kennedy worked with production company PrettyBird to create Uber’s spot encouraging users to not patronize Uber due to social distancing, a process that required recruiting directors around the world to capture their own lives at home.
Last week production company Smuggler united the cast members of the musical “Sing Street” from around the world in a benefit performance streamed on Facebook Live, after the show’s Broadway debut had been postponed due to the virus.
And Coors Light debuted an ad that positioned beer as a pandemic coping aid throughout U.S. history. The team at DDB Chicago used stock and brand archival imagery that comes to life through VFX and animation. According to DDB Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Ari Weiss, the project was incredibly ambitious given the quarantine restrictions and a tight time frame, as the ad was created in response to a social post of a 93-year-old woman, Olive Veronesi, who had shared a picture of herself with a sign asking for more beer (an image that appears in the final scene of the spot).
“We needed a production partner that could bring a fresh look to historic footage because the very premise of the idea was grounded in the truth that beer has historically helped America get through tough times,” Weiss says. DDB worked with production company Elastic, founded by Oscar- winning editor Angus Wall, creator of the opening title sequence of “Game of Thrones.”
“Angus’ “storytelling ability, his mastery of mixed media and animation prowess gave us confidence that he and his team could execute this project beautifully,” says DDB Chicago Creative Director Chris Walker.
Live action and other alternatives
Traditional live-action production is still possible. Shoots are still permitted in certain Scandinavian countries and Australia, where lockdown rules are less restrictive. In Sweden, production company B-Reel Films, with offices in the U.S. and Stockholm, has 18 directors who can shoot, though a number of safeguards still need to be followed with on-site production restricted to no more than 50 crew members.
Outside of traditional production companies, there are agency and network dedicated firms like Hecho Studios, part of MDC’s constellation collective. It has been optimizing its processes to fulfill diverse production needs, says Chief Content Officer Tom Dunlap. These range from production to editing and finishing, with the ability to also tap a pool of global talent around the world for directing projects. Among the shop’s jobs were spots for Cloudflare, Truth and the National Football League’s stay-at-home PSA that showed former and current players keeping themselves occupied while sheltering in place.
When they’re not attempting to come up with ways to shoot under current restrictions, shops have been busy trying to book jobs and prep for work that they hope will flood in during once restrictions are lifted.
Some companies are still in the process of applying for Paycheck Protection Program loans, while others have already received funds to get them through the current crisis. “We are lucky to have made headway with some of the relief the government has put into play to enable us to keep our small team together,” says Furlined Executive Producer Ben Davies.
Companies are also anticipating what restrictions the near future will bring when live shoots resume. “The one big question mark for everybody is what are our sets going to need to look like to keep everybody safe,” says Sarah McMurray, partner and executive producer at Hey Wonderful, home to directors including Ellen von Unwerth, Sam Spiegel and Sam Cadman.
To help shops prepare, the AICP recently put out a set of guidelines for the industry to consider. It includes recommendations on everything from sanitation to scheduling, as well as specific guidelines for an array of departments including art direction, casting, craft services, wardrobe and unions.
“As government restrictions start to loosen up, there’s still an element of physical contact risk and unknowns about this disease we still don’t know a lot about,” Miller says. “Everyone’s got to pay careful attention because there will be pressure to get out and shoot, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The first thing everyone needs to look out for is the health and safety of employees, cast, clients, agencies—everyone involved.”