‘Be nice and nimble:’ Paul Bronfman’s advice in a crisis

The William F. White International head says the safety and security of employees is priority number one, while the industry works hard to survey the financial damage. (Unlocked)

paul bronfman1 (1)As Canada’s film and TV industry copes with the widespread impact of the COVID-19 crisis, industry veterans and organizations have come out in front to lead the way amidst the uncertainty.

Among them is William F. White International co-chairman and CEO Paul Bronfman, who tells Playback Daily he was immediately jumping into meetings with government officials and industry associations to get a sense of the short- and long-term damage. He won’t mince words either, calling the situation a “shitshow” for the industry, as the potential timeline for shutdowns gets longer and longer.

“If things don’t recover in a couple of weeks or a month, there’s going to be serious residual damage done,” said Bronfman. “Production needs to continue because the theatres and the OTTs need new shows. They’re going to burn through their inventory.”

The film equipment and studio rental company has operated in Canada for more than 50 years, with Bronfman at the helm since 1989, after it was acquired by his company Comweb Corporation. With productions shut down across the country, Whites operations are at a near-standstill. Its equipment is currently scattered between warehouses and studios, since its storage facilities don’t have the capacity to accommodate it. “We can’t take it all back, we don’t have enough room for it,” he said.

Whites is well-positioned to weather the storm, according to Bronfman, thanks to its acquisition by U.K. company Ashtead Group, which he says has been “incredibly supportive.”

Having seen the company through production lulls and past recessions, Bronfman has a few items of advice for companies struggling with the shutdowns.

Safety comes first

The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented for the industry, because on top of the economic disruption is a significant risk to health, with Bronfman comparing the situation to a combination of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. So, while owners contend with keeping their businesses afloat, the number one priority must be the safety and security of their workers.

“Be nice and nimble,” advises Bronfman. “Do everything you can to minimize employee disruption for their families.”

For Whites, that means ensuring all office employees are able to work remotely and scaling back operations in their warehouses to keep workers home with their families, but measures may vary between individual companies. “There’s no way you can compromise people’s health and safety,” he says. “This is just money.”

Be thrifty

With the number of COVID-19 cases in Canada rising starkly each day, it’s still unclear when productions will be able to start up again. But when the dust eventually settles and producers get the all-clear from the government, a new problem will rise: the added cost of re-mounting a show.

“Canadian producers don’t have as much financial runway as Americans, so they’re even more challenged trying to get their shows righted and somehow work through this crisis,” says Bronfman.

Government funders have added some clarity to how producers will handle financial concerns for restarting production, with Telefilm advising that they are looking into funding budget overages caused by COVID-19. But that still may not be enough to recoup the full extent of the damage.

“Look at all your costs and see where you can trim back,” he says.

The silver lining

At the end of the day, Canadian filmmakers and producers are still competing on a global scale, so cutting back on costs can’t equate to sacrificing the quality of Canadian films and series.

“If we’re going to do work post-COVID-19, the quality still has to be top notch,” he says.

The silver lining, according to Bronfman, is that no one is alone in this. Maintaining production quality in the face of an economic downturn is a challenge, but the industry has already “galvanized” to “work together for the common good” and ensure Canadian film and TV makes it through the crisis. So far that has taken shape as a COVID-19 task force, made up of associations, which has set out to survey the damage done by the shutdowns.

“There’s a lot of smart, engaged people here and we’re really committed to this business,” he says. “For us, it’s more than just a job. I’m committed to righting the ship here for our industry.”