“One of the things I love most about entertainment is when there’s a problem, you can figure it out, make something, or get around it.”

The Wharton Media and Entertainment Club (UME) hosted its first virtual conference, UME-Chella, on December 4 and 5. More than 100 undergraduates Zoom-ed in to hear from Penn/Wharton alumni in the media and entertainment industry, representing Universal Music Group, Youtube, CBS, Warner Bros., ABC Television, and more. The conference touched on both the creative and business sides of the industry and highlighted a variety of career paths in film, television, and music.

One major theme was the impact of COVID-19 and how the industry found creative ways to work with pandemic limitations.

Overcoming Challenges

Production teams ran into different kinds of shooting complications.

Larger production companies had the budget to afford COVID’s in-person health and safety protocols, but logistics, large casts and crew, and the dilemma of allowing family members on set quickly plagued production.

Kerry Kennedy, C’93, senior vice president of ABC Television said, “At a company like Disney, it’s amazing to be so big, because you have so much power and so many choices. Where it’s harder is that there are so many layers of people (…) that have to approve things like testing, that we got behind the ball. So some of the smaller, more nimble companies got all the testing and then we were behind.”


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Companies had to balance costs with safety.

Filming during a pandemic comes with health risks and the fear of shut-downs, but also high costs.

“It’s one of these things where we’re learning as we’re going. It’s at a tremendous cost to our bottom line. We’re already in a somewhat challenged industry in terms of ratings. CPMs (cost per thousand impressions) are going down because of COVID, many businesses are in trouble, and the cost for COVID between the testing, additional people we need on set, and the precautions we need to keep people separated have added a tremendous burden to the budget,” said Kerry.

While larger companies have been able to continue production and implement the required testing and health measures, Jason Heyman, C’91, UTA talent agent, emphasized how COVID has had an especially negative impact on small, independent films. Safety procedures and testing protocols are expensive, and those costs make up a substantial portion of films with more modest budgets and smaller company backings.

Finding Creative Solutions

Creatives honed in on scriptwriting.

Once production halted in March, roles in the entertainment industry shifted. Creative work (such as script-writing) was able to continue, while in-person roles (such as filming) were put on hold.

“Working on scripts shot up. Writers were giving me scripts back in two weeks when it would usually take a month. It was a constant: read a script, give notes, get it out,” Royce Reeves-Darby, C’15, creative executive at Picturestart, said. “For the first couple of months, no one knew what was going on. But one thing we could do is make sure our movies are ready to go once things start to film again.”

Filming of unscripted content was prioritized.

Unscripted TV shows offer more flexibility than scripted content, partly because production teams can “bubble.”

“On Bachelorette and shows like that, we do a tent city, like a bubble. Almost like they would do on CBS Survivor. Where you basically isolate everyone for two months. You go through various levels of testing, and you can’t leave. If you leave, you have to go through all the stages to reenter the bubble,” Kerry said.


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Teams had to get creative for shows like The Bachelorette, which usually features exotic destinations but was now limited to one location.

Barrie Bernstein, C’95, executive producer of The Real Housewives of NYC, continued production after implementing testing, limiting the number of staff on-site, and essentially reworking the show, balancing network scheduling with COVID protocols. “Normally, everyone will be on set. That doesn’t happen anymore. We can’t have our two executive producers in the room at the same time. Remote producing, who would’ve thought of that before?” Barrie said. “But we’re making it happen. And frankly, we’re all so thankful nothing’s shut down. Everyone’s doing everything they can to keep working.”

Companies pursued projects that worked with COVID restrictions.

Companies seized the opportunity to shoot and produce films that were a better fit for pandemic restrictions, like those in the horror genre. Networks pursued creative programming like The Disney Family Singalong, a special that features remote video performances from a star-studded cast.

“My friend is a writer on Grey’s Anatomy and she said they’re doing it normal — because the actors wear PPE and it’s part of the show,” Royce said.

“One of the things I love most about entertainment is when there’s a problem, you can figure it out, make something, or get around it,” he added. “There’s no one-plus-one equals two. One-plus-one can equal two this way, or however you can get there.”

— Erin Lomboy, W’21

Posted: December 21, 2020

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