Dealing with Covid-19: How Banff moved mountains to get online

TBI’s coverage of Covid-19’s impact on the TV business hears today from Jenn Kuzmyk, exec director of Banff World Media Festival, about how her team overcame the ‘devastating’ decision to cancel the annual get-together in Canada and went about re-launching a four-month program online.

As January moved into February earlier this year, organisers at the Banff World Media Festival were riding high.

Preparations for the 41st edition of the annual event had been underway for months and the hard work was paying off, with pay pass ticket sales tracking at almost double where they had been at the same time in 2019.

Jenn Kuzmyk

“We were on quite a trajectory by the end of February,” remembers Jenn Kuzmyk, executive director of the festival, which normally takes place in the picturesque town of Banff, nestled among Canada’s stunning Rocky Mountains. But as February moved into March, it became clear that 2020 was turning into a year like no other. Coronavirus was spreading and its deep ramifications on all aspects of normal life around the world were being realised.

“We had an event in London and a couple of weeks after that we met with our board and decided that we had to cancel the festival. It was the responsible thing to do but it was also essential, because we literally couldn’t put it on. People weren’t flying and you have to fly to get to Banff.”

Kuzmyk is one of thousands of people in the TV events business to have had to nix their festivals and conferences recently, oftentimes despite already having spent months lining up guests, arranging sponsorships and promoting their dates in an increasingly crowded calendar. She describes the decision as “devastating”.

“It was just heartbreaking to cancel after so many years and having gone through so much. And we didn’t know what the next step was then. We took a moment as a team to be sad about it – and there was great sadness, because we’d worked almost an entire year on this and the industry really loves Banff, it is a very special event and not having it leaves a hole in people’s calendars.

“But then we woke up the next morning and put a plan together about what to do.”

Down to ‘brass tacks’

Kuzmyk says the approach was to evaluate what Banff meant to attendees and work from the ground up on creating something that would attract viewers online. But it was still a soul-searching time.

“We chose to look at this as an opportunity rather than devastation – like others, our team hasn’t had a day off since March working 15, 16 hours a day,” she says. Those record number of pay passes required refunding, as did sponsorships with the cancellation of the live festival. “We had to create something from absolute zero, but that had value for delegates and other companies that we work with. And I think we’ve done it. There has been tremendous goodwill.”

Where once there was a Banff-based four-day event pencilled in for mid-June, the event is now stretching out over four months – with a tent pole ‘Banff Day’ that takes place 16 June. A masterclass featuring a sneak peek of Netflix and TNT’s post-apocalyptic drama Snowpiercer, produced by Tomorrow Studios, has already taken place while a raft of industry panels and interactive video sessions are also in the works. The Rockie Awards will still take place on 15 June, followed by Banff Day, which will offer an array of showrunner and senior exec sessions.

“We did something really early on which others have done too but it was to really go to brass tacks in terms of who we are and what our USP is and what we do” Kuzmyk says. “We are a place where people come together to do business on the creative side and we needed to facilitate that. There are lots of finished programming markets and while that business certainly does happen here – acquisitions do happen at Banff – a lot of people go to talk about projects together.”

Virtual networking & thinking

Using the backing of parent Brunico, Kuzmyk and her team focused efforts on BanffXchange, an “internal social media platform” allowing people to upload projects and talk. “It’s been up and running for years but is becoming much more important now, so we threw a bunch of work to upgrade that and make sure it could do the things it needed to do. Now, people can post projects, buyers can look, we can generate reports and people can connect and send messages to one another.”

Banff will also still offer its “thought leadership” sessions, Kuzmyk says, “which will bring together media executives who are plotting how things are going to move forward” while there will also be room for “celebrating and gathering” she adds.

“We’ve put a big stake in the ground in our usual real estate in the calendar, which is mid-June, with Banff Day and we’re packing a bunch of programming in there, plus then the Rockie Awards with a tribute gala and the programme competition. Judging for that was already well underway and we’d almost announced the nominations so knew we had to carry on. It’ll be pretty cool, we’re trying to have fun – producing a full-on awards show with people at home and celebrity presenters.”

The 2020 Rockie Awards International Program Competition winners will be announced in a global live stream broadcast on YouTube, with stars of CBC/Radio Canada’s Baroness von Sketch Show hosting virtually, joined by celebrity presenters such as Niecy Nash, Jason Priestley and Lainey Lui. More than 125 nominees from 35 countries will feature, with funds being raised for the Bow Valley Covid-19 relief, which aims to support the residents of the town of Banff, which has suffered over 85% unemployment due to closures resulting from the global health crisis.

New opportunities

While the deep impact of Covid-19 has been felt at all levels and on a global scale over the past few months, the ensuing lockdown has also thrown up an opportunity to reflect on working practices.

“For us it has created an opportunity to do new things,” Kuzmyk says, “maybe things we wanted to do but didn’t have the bandwidth to do or just entirely new innovations. With the Rockie Awards, we’ve started doing roundtables with the nominees which is so cool. And why wouldn’t we? If we have some of the people who made the best TV in the world, let them talk together and to each other.”

Roundtables featuring talent such as Sharon Horgan and Russel T Davies have been recorded, while other event discussions are to be held live.

And Kuzmyk admits that the longer term effects of the pandemic on the Banff event could see it “changing up” its program schedule in future years as it adapts in 2020. “It has been a challenge,” she adds, “it was innovate or die. And we chose to innovate.”

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