Consuming commercial media comes second nature to Americans. It's a language we speak fluently, learned through osmosis, tailored around illusive data and marketing schemes designed to hit us right where it matters: in our primal need to hoard goods. Nationwide, the entertainment industry employs over 400,000 people a year, and Texas (and Dallas in particular) are large contributors to those numbers, through a robust local industry of commercial media production.
As commercial media is produced in close quarters with large crews, the rates of employment in media have decreased drastically. The pandemic has resulted in a host of constraints on proceeding “as normal,” and commercial media production companies are navigating through the changes.
For every 60 minutes of TV broadcasting, there are approximately 17 minutes of advertisements. Before coronavirus, the average American spent approximately three hours a day watching television, which means that the same average American viewer will spend approximately 12 days a year with their eyes on products they didn't know they wanted. The fact that media consumption in the country has increased exponentially since coronavirus suggests that these numbers are a mere starting point.
Advertising is also heavily pointed toward the interest of frequent buyers and, as an ever-increasing number of Americans are becoming more politically and socially aware, even audience responses to advertisements have shifted. Surveys show that since lockdowns began in March, viewers are most comforted by advertisements that make them feel “safe” and “normal.” In the current climate, safe and normal images in advertising exclude social contact; images showing contact closer than 6 feet apart (including hugging and kissing) inspire discomfort in consumers. As a result, over 40% of advertising agencies across the U.S. have decreased their video content budgets and called for a reassessment of responsible advertising.
“For the most part yes,” write casting couple Tisha Blood and Matthew Taylor of Buffalo Casting in an email, concurring that in a lockdown era, a social revolution and election year, everything must change. “Clients understand the importance of showing what they are offering is relevant in this time and don’t want their spots to look dated.”
For the past 19 years, Buffalo Casting has played a key role in bringing the Dallas media scene out of the woodwork. Blood and Taylor work with an eclectic assortment of clients, ranging from big names such as Ford, to Texas-bred film alumni.
“One of our first gigs after the lockdown was a global campaign for a social platform — finding users who were protesters on the frontlines of the BLM movement and using the platform to share their stories with their friends and followers,” Blood and Taylor say. “The final spot conveyed such a sense of urgency and unity. ... We were very proud to be a part of that project.”
The pair opened a new studio space under the name Pretty Bastard Studios before coronavirus hit. Now, they are working from home.
“Prior to the pandemic, it was not uncommon to accept selfie tapes and host virtual callbacks with clients participating from various global locations as needed,” Blood and Taylor write.
Even with taped auditions, chemistry reads and in-person meetings are still essential in the casting process to determine whether an actor possesses the je ne sais quoi required for a role. Instead, Blood and Taylor are giving more specific directions to actors in order to find their spark.
“These days we labor over the audition instructions so everyone has a clear directive to put their best foot forward,” the pair says. Recently, Buffalo cast a music-driven project, where actors were asked to “dance and express joy."
“Those auditions were extremely entertaining to watch. It was a nonstop dance party,” the couple says.
Although auditions via video were commonplace before COVID-19, the transition to video-only casting has been a challenge for actors, as it's not easy to find chemistry with other actors through two screens.
“I still get the jitters that I always get before a callback, even though I’m in my house, just in front of my phone or computer,” says Dallas-based stage and screen actor Carine Rice, who was at a costume fitting for a commercial set to begin filming the day the lockdown measures in Texas were put into place.
“There is a certain energy that you can get that, you know, being in the room, especially if you’re reading with another actor,” Rice says. “Acting is reacting, and so you’re always feeding off of that person. ... It’s definitely harder, in my opinion, to do callbacks virtually because you have to hype up that energy for yourself. You’re not feeding off the energy in the room anymore.”
As lockdown measures have lightened, castings have remained virtual. Productions, however, are beginning to see the green light and resume business. Dallas sets are learning how to adjust to the overall needs of cast and crew as they come. The use of face masks, as well as COVID tests and temperature checks where companies see fit, are being implemented, but actors still remain vulnerable, as they are the only employees on set required to be in maskless contact with each other.
Although media productions are steadfastly ensuring all employees remain safe, it's the producers who are responsible for calling the shots on safety measures.
“How does a producer try to prevent content from changing too dramatically? You have to change the process,” says Dallas-based producer Jeff Walker. “You don’t necessarily want the product to feel different than it would under normal circumstances. But, in order to achieve that you do have to kind of change the process and have solutions.”
Walker, who has a long history as a producer of both independent films and commercials, has developed a keen awareness of the many unexpected restrictions that can be placed on productions. Commercials must maintain a certain corporate sheen, which budget restrictions have the potential to jeopardize. This is where experience in independent media-making comes in handy, as those with experience in the field are used to wearing multiple hats to deliver the product.
“I’ve done every job I would ever ask a crew member to do on set,” Walker says. “It allows me to find efficiencies in some areas and to help carry that burden, so you’re not overburdening that crew member.”
Extensive safety measures have also been put into place under his authority, such as masks and facial shields, sanitization and social distancing when possible.
“It’s definitely just about being very vigilant,” Walker says.
Vigilance in overall commercial production also extends to what is presented on screen. At Lucky21, a production and post-production company based out of Austin, the entire team has worked closely to ensure that their media are responsible. Most commercials are shot months ahead of being aired, which means that production companies like Lucky21 and their clients have to make calls on how they want to present their brands.
“For the background, for people crossing the street, what do we want to do? Do we want to have these people in masks so that we can show people being socially responsible?” says executive producer Brandon Tapp. The solution requires footage to be shot both ways, showing actors with and without masks, to leave space for whatever the future holds.
“The content has been steered towards being more responsible. ... This has been first and foremost on [clients’] mind," Tapp says, "how to put out a spot that does not put out there a message that would be contrary to social distancing, or the measures that need to be put into place right now.”
Commercials are, in many ways, the eyes and ears of the present, and if companies are not on the pulse of what people want, their revenue will inevitably decrease. Studies show that half of media consumers feel that media is responsible for the restriction of coronavirus in the United States. Commercial media also wields a certain influence over a viewer’s general perception of the world outside of their home.
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Advertising's purpose will always be to sell, but local companies are still presented with an opportunity to exert a positive influence when global health is balancing on thin ice.
“There has always been a push to have more diversity, not only in the workforce but in the world of advertising,” Tapp says. “It was prevalent before but it’s even more so now, and that’s not something I see going away.”
In North Texas and beyond, sets are set to change accordingly, and seemingly for the better. Now, safety and security for every cast, crew member and client are examined under a magnifying glass, with the intention of developing long term change. How marketing will change according to the desires of an audience will continue to fluctuate, but the immediate response has been one of heightened awareness — onscreen and off.
"Our industry has never been about doing things the easiest way, but about making the best film possible while staying true to the creative,” note Blood and Taylor. "We don't see that changing.”