C21 Formats Lab: Phil Gurin lockdown update

Phil Gurin, co-chair of Frapa and CEO and president of The Gurin Company, talks through the challenges posed to gameshows, shiny-floor reality and live events by the coronavirus lockdown.

Phil Gurin

How has the coronavirus affected your business and the formats business in general?
It’s a very interesting time for the entire television business. I’m predominantly a live events studio producer and most of our projects are now on hold. We had several pilots we were gearing up to start shooting but clearly getting a studio, working with contestants, working with an audience, assembling a large crew and a big sound stage is all on hold for me and everybody else for the foreseeable. We can take the development of those ideas out as far as we can go, we can work on the script, tape packages remotely, work on the scene design, the graphic design and music composition – but ultimately, everybody is working from home. Getting into a studio… I don’t know when that will happen for us or anybody else right now. The speculation changes every day.

We recently launched a new format co-created with CBC in Canada called Fridge Wars. It’s a Thursday night primetime studio-based cooking show that would have been our big launch at MipTV. Obviously, we’re not going to Cannes but the nature of the show – what you can do with the contents left in your fridge – is very timely. I’m fielding questions suddenly for the finished tape and we’re finding interesting ways to recreate the format to comply with the lockdowns.

At Frapa, we’re seeing more and more companies register formats through our format registration service. People are registering ideas left and right with us. They’re sitting at home with more time to develop.

We’ve heard a lot about finished tape sales being big business right now to fill slots, but that doesn’t really help a US format producer, presumably?
The library is valuable and a lot of platforms are looking to license library they may have overlooked. I don’t work in the library business, I work in formats and formats can be created digitally just as you and I are talking right now. Everybody is out pitching formats like that. Also, clip shows. In the two weeks since we began working remotely, I have probably pitched more content to buyers than in the previous three months. I started my career and company doing clip shows.

I had three conversations yesterday with networks. They’re inundated. They have their own ideas for short-term solutions for when the run of shows they currently have on the air or stuff in the edit is finished. They’re hearing from every producer and developing internally. It’ll come down to who they want to work with, who they have the best relationship with.

It’s a great time to be an indie, which is not something you would think I would say. An indie can make a deal faster if they have a relationship with the buyer and make a decision quicker than behemoth companies who have to go through multiple layers to get sign-off to do something that may not be in the standard playbook for how they do deals. A freelancer or indie facing a threat to their livelihood can get a commissioner on the phone with an idea and if they like it, figure a deal out in 24 hours and get going. Removing layers is good for freelancers and indies.

If this goes on for a prolonged period, is there a way to produce new formats, or will it all be library and clip shows?
I don’t have a lot in the production pipeline. Every one of my friends who had a show in the field is telling me horror stories about trying to get people home, how to collect on insurance, what is the state or government saying, is it force majeure on insurance. I read about channels saying, ‘You’re on your own mate, sorry.’ Everybody is looking to survive. We’ve just had the highest claim of unemployment in a single day in the history of the country.

Fridge Wars was co-created by The Gurin Company and CBC in Canada

We have to find good news or we’ll go mad, and that good news is clip shows and virtual shows. Can you take live award shows, live events, game shows, studio shows and translate and transfer them into something you do on Skype or Zoom? Can you do a show on FaceTime? We’re all going to try. We’re trying to create formats that can be done virtually and remotely. My company has to shift right away if we can’t do a studio show. Let’s use the skills of our craftspeople – we still have writers and editors, we have directors who can shoot things interestingly through Zoom and Skype. If we’re working with celebrities, they have set-ups in their homes, garages, and gardens. Things can be done that way.

It has to be entertaining. The mood needs to be light. If you have the news on all day you want to jump out of a building. My company and I are in entertainment.

How will the loss of trade shows, conferences and markets like MipTV affect your business?
There’s nothing better than face time in Cannes, Miami, Content London or the things we all go to. It’s not necessarily the scheduled half-hour meeting, it’s when we congregate at restaurants or bars and share stories. That will suffer.

You can still do face time. From the first day we started working remotely I’ve been doing virtual lunches and drinks with friends. I treat my 18.00 after-work drink the same as I would in the old days. I schedule the same with my friends and business partners then sit with a glass of wine here in my office, they sit with a glass of wine in their office and we talk. I did a virtual lunch yesterday with a US broadcast exec. It’ll never replace hanging out together, walking down the Croissette and talking to people. We’ll do the best we can to replicate that. It’s so vitally important. Don’t just pick up the phone; everybody has the technology to FaceTime or Skype. See your friends, reach out, try to create a sense of normalcy if you can.

The green agenda had already been posing questions about whether it was right and/or sustainable for TV execs to be flying to events as often as they were. Will we all just get back on a plane after this or do you think there will be permanent changes to the circuit?
I sit on the board of Natpe, I’m very close to Reed Midem through Frapa, I go to Banff in Canada – every trade show and market has been having challenges anyway because of the way consolidation works and the ownership of streamers. It’s been a challenging business for conventions and market. You need them for face time. You need to see people and be around them, but some things will not survive. The business will change.

We’re reinventing how we do our lives and it will impact how we do business. You’re already seeing people realize they didn’t need that many people in the office and didn’t need to spend that much money going to trade shows. We don’t need everything we’ve built up and thought we needed. There will be a cleansing here, a purge. Some people will never survive this professionally and they’ll go on to something else. Some companies will re-examine how they’ve done business then there will be new, leaner ideas.

I will always want to go to the big markets; it’s how I’ve spent my life. But not because I want to hang on to what’s not there – I know it’s vitally important to see your friends and business partners. I don’t want to name events that might suffer a death knell but there are a few out there that may not come back from this. People will ask, ‘Do I really need to go to that one?’

Presumably, live events, studio gameshows, shiny-floor reality and so on will be hit harder for longer because you require an audience or crowd?
We’ve already seen Elton John and I Heart Radio announce a big concert. James Corden is doing something big with CBS on Monday night, we’re working on something big. You can do entertainment programs virtually this way. I’m in business with Twitch, Amazon’s live-streaming platform. We were going to shoot a gameshow with them; we’ve already had the conversation about how we shoot that virtually with no studio.

I’ve been talking to production designers who build the sets. The day this country opens and we can all go back to work there will be a mad dash to book venues and find the scene shops that build things if some of the scene shops survive. We may not be able to get crew, venues, build sets. There will be this mad dash and it will take time for the calendar to flesh out. The Grammys, The Brits, Bafta, how will all this work? Who knows? Live events will happen differently.

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