Navigating COVID-19 – Insights From the Heart of the Industry
The COVID-19 outbreak hit our shores on 23 January 2020 with the first confirmed case, causing waves of disruptions across all industries. While its damage is not as visible as frontline industries such as tourism and retail, the creative and cultural industry hasn’t been spared. We explore how the film and TV production sectors of the industry have been affected by the outbreak.
Jasmine Ng, Co-Founder and President of the Singapore Association of Motion Picture Professionals (SAMPP) describes the effects of COVID-19 on the industry: “In this situation, there is great impact on the economy, which affects those with full employment across many industries, but even more so for the film and TV sector freelancers.”
Based on the preliminary findings of a survey done by the SAMPP on the impact of COVID-19 on work for media practitioners, 85.1% of its respondents indicated themselves as freelancers. About 53.2% of all respondents indicated that they have been “heavily impacted”, with the leading causes amongst all surveyed being no new assignments being commissioned and existing assignments being cancelled or postponed.
“Broadcast commissions from such as Mediacorp should be relatively unaffected for now, unless they are filming abroad. technical crew like videographers who cover events, have been affected due to cancellations of the events. Generally, depending on the type of work you do, there are various implications,” said Jasmine.
“When it’s broadcast drama or infotainment shows, these are likely to go on as planned because in Singapore, many of these commissions are publicly-funded (IMDA-PSB commissions) and the funding would have been already set aside.”
“In an economic downturn, if media isn’t the core business of the client or if it’s reliant on corporate sponsorship using media just for marketing, then project cancellations, postponements or a stop on new commissions from corporate clients would be common, because first cuts to any business budgets tend to slice off marketing, as it’s seen as non-core operational costs. So those working on corporate videos or commercials, would likely get hit the hardest. Freelancers must be mindful of this.”
Many production houses outsource different elements of their projects to them, from actors to post-production to technical crew. Freelancers hold a significant number of jobs in the media industry. In a study done by the IMDA in 2018, it estimates that in 2017 there were 4000 Singaporeans and Permanent Residents who worked as freelancer on media related-roles and whose only source of income came from such freelancing engagements.
“There have always been many freelancers [in the industry]. Many production roles are fulfilled by freelancers, because most are not filming [for productions] every day and so many won’t have in-house crew on their payroll, only hiring freelancers per project needs. Now, there is a lot more non-broadcast work, because everyone wants content for online platforms, and much of this work can be taken on by independents, freelancers. That is the trend right now, because much more content is being generated than before,” said Jasmine.
We spoke to two industry freelancers about how COVID-19 has affected their work.
Jonathan Choo is a freelance director, writer, and winner of National Youth Film Awards 2016 for Best Direction. He expressed concern about this trying time, especially when he is in the midst of diving back into the industry, and how to combat it: “I think every industry is being affected. I just hope that whatever I have potentially lined up will still proceed. I can afford to suffer a little in these few months, but hopefully it turns around soon by April or May.”
“I have been using this time to write, without wasting it. For the technical side, such as crew, I truly wish them all the best because it’s tough without shoots in this lull period. The only positive is that they are healthy and are able to spend a bit more time than usual with their families.”
Additionally, Jitenram Kiran Bala, a freelance actor for the past 11 years, also shared that he has been relatively less affected: “It boils down to taking a pay cut. I know some friends who have taken huge pay cuts due to projects and events being called off. Postponement is still alright because the payment is delayed, not cancelled. For someone to agree to events A, B and C they need to decline events D, E and F. Now with the former few being cancelled, they just lose out on everything, as a whole.”
“The same things go for productions as dates are just all muddled up. That means a period of having no jobs at all and that puts you in temporary limbo of complete uncertainty. Dates are a very vital part of productions and this virus has put everyone in a spot.”
While industries such as tourism and aviation are at the forefront of COVID-19’s effects, the media industry is not far behind. Production houses are at the heart of the industry, driving most broadcast and non-broadcast content.
Basil Yeo, CEO and Co-Founder of TokuAsia, a digital entertainment company that aims to develop a series surrounding Singapore live-action superhero character, Singa, shared how the virus disrupted his plans: “We had plans to do events and outreach for Singa that were postponed due to the virus outbreak. These were preemptive cancellations. For now, we are redirecting our focus to online efforts.”
“We had aimed to look for investors to come in for the pilot during this period of time but have postponed. We had about $30,000 worth of projects cancelled but I’m sure others had much more. We are a small outfit so it may be tough but our overheads are not as high as most others.”
Desmond Tan, head of boutique production house atypicalfilms, reported that he is starting to see the effects of postponement and even cancellation of jobs at various stages. The production house focuses on TV commercial works. In fact, projects that would not have ordinarily landed on his lap, seems to be now, because of China’s suspension on all shoots.
He also shares how atypicalfilms handles new shoot protocols: “The only thing that has really changed for us would be the way we do things such as casting. Instead of people coming in for casting, we are trying to get them to do self-casting. Almost all meetings with clients are done remotely now.”
“We are also putting our own protocols in place for contact tracing and we are sending out COVID-19 forms to crew, talents and clients to fill out before shoots. If they fulfil the symptoms they will not be allowed to come to set,” explained Desmond.
With such a diverse range of effects, the question of how the industry can help and support each other, then arises. SAMPP, an association with almost 100 members run by volunteers from the film, TV and digital content community, spearheaded ground research by surveying media practitioners to document their consensus.
“Our recommendation from what we know would be that people are willing to take on training, if it’s heavily subsidised or free with training allowance. In this economic downturn, people will be more prudent with money and more hesitant about paying for training from their own pockets,” revealed Jasmine. She also points out that associations have the responsibility to amplify the voices of practitioners from the ground.
Desmond pointedly noted the power of banding together as an industry to lift each other: “All these concerns can be shared online, that is where we can pull our resources together to come up with ideas and solutions. I think that is when we can put our ego aside. This is a time to really get to know each other and help out. There is no better time to do that than now.”
Apart from lobbying together internally, members of the industry were also asked how the government can help ease the burden. Jitenram praised the efforts undertaken: “These are circumstances that nobody could foresee. The authorities have been quick to think on their feet and balance the reactions.”
“Postponing productions and events do reduce the risk of exposure. It’s also a matter of how long these postponements and cancellations go on for. If they go on for a much longer time, production houses need to work alongside government bodies to ease the burden on the general workforce. Everyone’s part, when played well, goes a long way.”
Singapore Budget 2020 was delivered on 18 February, invoking different reactions within the industry. Basil commented that the outcome was not surprising: “The arts/media/sports/culture industries are lumped again into one single Fund [Our Singapore Fund] which tends to spread opportunities thin, compared to sizable figures pumped into other industries.”
“On COVID-19, I don’t think the government had ample time to fully understand the impact that the outbreak had on all industries, but there seems to be effort to reach out, and I hope that the feedback from our fellow industry peers is taken into consideration.”
Jasmine reminded all freelancers about their obligations and the consequences of not managing those responsibilities: “Some freelancers don’t declare income tax or contribute to CPF. There is no official government record of them working, no record of their status as a freelancer, self-employed or sole-proprietor. Many government relief measures are tied to your work status, income level, or the size of your flat / ownership of property, so that they know how much help is required. If you don’t declare your status, then how can these government relief measures apply to you? As a freelancer, we are our own accountant and HR department, so we need to learn to deal with these things. This is part of our own professional management. And in turn, we can help the government help us.”
It’s clear that there is no one size fits all solution that can be administered across all bodies in the industry. However, the general consensus focuses greatly on banding together and helping each other during this trying time. From production houses to freelancers, everyone has a part to play in ensuring continuity of the arts. As creatives, Jonathan encourages all to use this time: “Art is a circle, someday this emotion is going to crawl its way into your work and that is a good thing.”
(Banner image credit: motionelements)