COVID-19: What’s Next for Distribution?

As it gets closer to easing out of lockdown, the audiovisual industry is beginning to move beyond crisis management. Now what? We know there will be changes to the industry in the short and medium terms. But what about long term? How is the industry reacting to ― and anticipating ― these changes? What are the big questions that we need to ask ourselves moving forward, and who will answer them? This article is the second in a series about what’s next for Canada’s TV production sector as it slowly emerges from the shutdowns put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19.

> Read the other articles in the series

While the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled television production, the distribution of Canadian television content has remained strong. With people around the world stuck at home for weeks on end, demand for new content surged. 

Canadian producers and distributors are well positioned to take advantage of this moment. 

New opportunities

Buyers are looking for finished content. But, as fewer new productions are on the market and productions that were to be delivered are on hold, many find themselves reexamining projects that they had initially passed on. 

“If the buyers didn’t like the project, they still won’t, says marblemedia Co-CEO Mark Bishop. But now, buyers have gaps in their catalogues, as new productions fall out. There are opportunities, as they circle back to look at projects they liked but didn’t have room for.” Distribution 360, marblemedia’s distribution arm, is also seeing an uptick in acquisitions, as other producers look for distributors who can take advantage of existing relationships.

Over at Rezolution Pictures, Executive Producer Christina Fon reaches out directly to buyers ― whereas before she might have used a sales agent or distributor ― and talks to larger companies that have the international connections Rezolution lacks. Fon finds that being unable to travel does not impede her ability to make deals. In fact, she feels that the conversations she has are now more intimate than those she would have had on a busy trade show floor. As people work from home, they seem to have more time to talk, so it is easier to connect, have in-depth conversations, and build relationships. 

Mark Bishop agrees that buyers seem to have more time for conversations and thinks it has proven that some of the business travel in the past wasn’t necessary. He therefore expects to see a lot less of it in the future. Similarly, Mosaic Chief Operations Officer Eric Rebalkin will not fly until there is a vaccine for COVID-19. “As a parent, to do otherwise would be too much of a risk,” he deems. In the same vein, Boat Rocker Media Chief Executive Officer John Young says he is “personally not missing the time or expense of travel,” but worries that he could be “missing something,” and adds that time will tell if he is right.

Following new trends

Some markets, like MIP TV, have moved online and offer showcases, pitch sessions, and networking tools. But Christina Fon says that they are not always easy to navigate. 

However, the collaborative approach we see in the development of production protocols is also seen in distribution. Markets have always been competitive. But now, everyone is working under the same restrictions. This has levelled the playing field between producers and distributors of different sizes and from different territories, as everyone works to find new ways to conduct business. “There’s a different energy as we try to get the same results in new ways, says Entertainment One President of Television for Canada Jocelyn Hamilton. There is no more fear of missing out.”

Some note a shift in what buyers are looking for. According to Christina Fon, they now look for light and entertaining documentaries and avoid darker subjects in scripted dramas unless, as with Rezolution’s sixties scoop story ‘Little Bird,’ in development for CBC, it is framed as a hero’s journey and is, ultimately, a hopeful story. Rezolution is also developing an escapist action-adventure that seems right for the time. 

Shaftesbury feels well positioned to take advantage of new opportunities. Their current prime time drama slate (‘Murdoch Mysteries’ and ‘Frankie Drake’) is popular internationally because the shows aren’t as sombre and heavy as comparable productions.

Shaftesbury Chief Executive Officer Christina Jennings thinks that non-serialized, character-centric, and hopeful content has an advantage in the current market. Her company is selling into new markets as a result. For its part, marblemedia sees a global trend in favour of family-friendly and co-viewing content. Mark Bishop notices that buyers are looking for everyday heroes and relatable content. “Now is not the time for renovation shows with big fancy houses,” he adds.

Lastly, production restrictions in the United States provide an opportunity for existing Canadian intellectual property, as U.S. broadcasters and platforms need to fill voids in their programming. They could thus turn to Canadian productions, knowing they are quality content. ‘Transplant’ being sold to NBC and ‘Coroner’ finding a home on The CW may be just the first manifestations of that.

Photo credit: Maximilian Bühn / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 


Kelly Lynne Ashton
Trained as an entertainment lawyer, Kelly Lynne Ashton has been working in the Canadian film, television and digital media industries for over twenty-five years. She has worked as a business affairs executive in several Toronto television production and distribution companies, including Atlantis Films Limited and the Owl Group of Companies. Kelly Lynne then entered the world of digital media to act as Senior Producer at children’s web studio Big Orbit Inc. While at Big Orbit she also developed, managed and marketed the online youth research company Reactorz. She has also worked in government relations and media policy as Director of Policy at the Writers Guild of Canada. Kelly Lynne is currently bringing together the different strands of her career in the Canadian media industries - legal, business, marketing and research - and providing consulting services to clients in all areas of the industry including evaluation services for various funds, authoring research reports and programming industry conferences. Kelly Lynne obtained a Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College and now provides clients with diversity and inclusion consulting services.
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