Marblemedia CEO Mark Bishop on turning lemons into lemonade in 2020

Mark Bishop, co-CEO of Toronto-based indie Marblemedia, says that the unprecedented challenges of the past year have left Canadian indies well-placed as they head into 2021.

This time last year, nobody could have predicted how much the world would change, and how much TV production would be impacted as a result of Covid-19. As 2020 now rolls to a close, some may think it unwise to look too far ahead, however, for the independent production sector in Canada, I feel this past year, while ‘paused’ for a while, has actually set us up ready to ‘fast-forward’ into 2021.

In January 2020, we welcomed big changes for indies as a result of Canada’s long-overdue Broadcasting and Telecommunications Review, with its 97 key recommendations. But with Covid, this has not played out as quickly as expected. Instead, domestic producers like Marblemedia have had to be resilient and rely on their own innate fire-fighting and problem-solving skills. As an industry, most of us have tried to make lemonade out of the lemon of a year we were handed. With many even going that extra mile; adding sweeteners and setting out their stall!

So where does this leave us for 2021?

Although not Covid-free, Canada continues to have fewer cases than many countries, presenting advantages for filming here, especially for US producers able to hop over the border. Production servicing is already booming, which benefits the entire industry. And independent producers are an increasingly attractive international co-production partner, helping to get shows made quickly and safely, providing an opportunity to fill gaps in US and international schedules.

Blown Away

With viewer/subscriber figures up everywhere, the pandemic highlighted the importance of great content. Combined with the production hiatus, the knock-on effect has been an increase in demand for premium content. But the nature of that demand is changing too. Social justice issues are topical, and as we move forward there will be an enhanced focus in both scripted and unscripted production on authenticity. So, if we are telling stories about race or gender, for example, we need to hear from creators steeped in that world. Pale, male and stale no longer makes the cut! Periods in lockdown saw an up-take in ‘maker’ hobbies and an appreciation of going back-to-basics. There are already many popular series in this space, including Marble’s own Netflix Original Blown Away and the successful BBC title The Repair Shop, but I predict there will be many more by this time next year.

I also predict that we will see more family or co-viewing content, often with a blue sky, optimistic lens to help distance ourselves from the harsh realities of 2020. The pandemic changed behaviour and brought families back in front of the TV to enjoy content together. Broadcasters and SVOD platforms are now looking for new programming to keep them there. As both a producer and a dad, I welcome this development and anticipate it will continue. We’ve just gone into production on two interconnected family sitcoms, The Parker Andersons and Amelia Parker, for broadcasters in the US and Canada, and have another slated for production in early 2021.

When life hands you lemons…

Alongside ‘Covid’, ‘pandemic’, and ‘lockdown’, ‘pivot’ and the dreaded ‘new normal’ have joined the unfortunate lexicon of the production community. Many of us have made big changes, adapting our working practices and processes, and largely these have had positive outcomes, shoring us up for the future. The universal pivot online is also something here to stay. While I really miss in-person meetings and the sociable nature of industry events, the ‘Zoom’ world is delivering some surprising advantages. At Marblemedia, we are developing content differently, getting to broadcasters more quickly – and receiving more immediate responses and feedback. Many events have moved online in a meaningful way and will undoubtedly continue as focal points in the 2021 calendar. However, without being able to pitch face-to-face in the same way, the pressure is off to present projects at Realscreen, Kidscreen or MIPTV. Instead, we pitch them when they are ready, not just when people expect to see something at the markets. This has proved quite liberating and ultimately, commissioners get to see our best possible creative at the right time

So, farewell 2020. It’s been a wild rollercoaster of a ride – the corkscrew, super-scary variety – with ups and downs and twists and turns. We’ve worked hard to hang on over the bumps, often feeling whiplash in the process. But what goes down invariably comes back up and I am feeling optimistic, not just for my own business, now entering its twentieth year, but also for Canada’s wider independent production industry, as we head into the unknown frontiers of 2021.

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