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Content Without Handshakes

It’s hard to imagine now but a fortnight ago Pact was preparing to welcome a group of broadcasters and indies to the 2020 Content Without Borders Drama Symposium at a hotel in Surrey. Following Government guidance at the time, the event went ahead with some adjustments. Our Managing Director of Business Development & Global Strategy, Dawn McCarthy-Simpson shares her round-up...

After months of planning, 24 hours before our Content Without Borders Drama Symposium was due to start we still didn't know if it was going to happen or not. No one could have predicted that the week before we were due to bring together broadcasters and UK indies at a hotel in the leafy English countryside, the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) would dramatically escalate around the world.

Pact's Dawn McCarthy-Simpson

I started getting daily phone calls from overseas broadcasters who were due to attend, with some of their companies eventually deciding to impose travel bans. Behind the scenes we kept calm even though we needed to amend the schedules and agenda several times a day. Once we had confirmed with the hotel that their measures for ensuring it would still be safe to run the event were adequate, and checked that it wouldn’t be contravening official Government guidance, we decided to go ahead.

Applying a producer’s mind to it, we looked for ways to minimise the impact on our production so we could still deliver a quality programme, embracing technology to aid our mission. Planned one to ones with commissioners who could no longer attend – such as Stephen Mowbray of SVT in Sweden, Trine Fossan of NRK in Norway and Junior Volpato of Globo in Brazil – would instead be hosted via video link.

To get a conference event off the ground at all was amazing and to have packed the agenda so usefully was fantastic.”

Will Hanrahan // Founder & Creative Director, FirstLook TV

The broadcasters who couldn’t offer one to one video meetings because of time zone differences instead set up pre-recorded webinar briefings with our Growth Accelerator partners, Boom PR!, meaning attendees were still able to hear from Zee TV in India, NHK in Japan and PBS in the US.

That’s not to say there weren’t any broadcasters at the event! Those who did manage to join us were mainly UK-based but working for international networks such as SBS, Amazon Audible and HBO, as well as UK commissioners from Channel 4, UKTV, the BFI Young Audiences Content Fund and S4C, amongst others.

Content without handshakes... practising the Namaste-like greeting

Every attendee received guidelines about COVID-19 on arrival, and we introduced them to our ‘Content Without Handshakes’ method (basically a version of the Hindu Namaste greeting: own hands together and a head bob) meaning that physical contact could be kept to a minimum.

So, with suitable procedures in place, things could get underway. The broadcasters arrived first and were treated to a peer to peer dinner and the chance to get to know each other. The following morning we worked with another Growth Accelerator partner, The Storm Collective to provide them with a social media session.

By 11:00am all of our indie attendees had arrived and we were united in the main conference space: a beautiful wood-panelled room with velvet curtains, antiques, and grand paintings hung from the walls, providing the perfect setting for our drama gathering.  Once I had delivered the introductory speech – like a Basil Fawlty for our times, trying desperately not to mention the virus! – we opened up with our first panel discussion, exploring what makes an idea global with HBO Europe’s Steve Matthews, Red Planet Pictures’ Alex Jones and UKTV’s Philippa Collie-Cousins.

After lunch it was straight into the 15-minute one to one meetings, which were spread around the hotel.  Whilst those were taking place we also had back-to-back 30-minute briefings going on, meaning everyone was kept busy throughout the day.

By 4:00pm, with brains ready for a break, we donned our hardy footwear and with a sense of adventure headed out into the hotel grounds. Split into four teams, the competition was on as we were put to the test in shooting, archery, controlling birds of prey, and axe throwing. Many attendees showed particularly strong potential for future careers as axe throwers (make of that what you will!).

The day ended with dinner, team awards and a few night caps in the cosy hotel bar.

Day two was filled with more one to ones and broadcaster briefings, as well as a panel discussion about managing the demands of co-productions, which was kindly moderated by the Department for International Trade’s Tony Humphrey – who stepped in on a couple of occasions during the event where scheduled moderators had been unable to attend. Fortunately Tony has the gift of the gab, knows his stuff, and is always up for a challenge!

To round off the gathering we all convened in the main conference room with tea and scones and enjoyed a group discussion about the drama industry, its challenges (Coronavirus aside) and potential future developments with most, I’m pleased to report, maintaining an optimistic outlook.

Huge thanks to everyone who attended and for your understanding and flexibility during what was a particularly challenging event to run.

Dawn McCarthy-Simpson
Managing Director of Business Development & Global Strategy