Even though live-action productions around the world have ground to a halt, the pandemic isn’t stopping Belgium studio Sputnik Media from drawing tweens to its digital-first series wtFOCK.
The show is an adaptation of Norwegian teen drama Skam, which airs on NRK. Similar to its inspiration, wtFOCK revolves around a group of teenagers in Antwerp dealing with everyday life and growing up. Commissioned in 2018 by Belgium broadcasters SBS and Telenet, Sputnik produces video clips, and posts that are published on the character’s social media accounts on a daily basis to keep the show current. Once a week, the prodco launches a longer 22- to 30-minute video by bundling the shorter clips from the show’s website and YouTube channels, to air on Belgium broadcaster SBS’s linear channel VIJF.
Its previous three seasons have built up a following online of more than 600,000 viewers on its site in total, and 150,000 Instagram followers, according to Sputnik Media.
In early March, as the pandemic panic began building, Sputnik’s owner and managing partner Rutger Beckers realized making the show wouldn’t be business as usual. The team had shot about a third of the series, with approximately 20 days left to shoot. On March 17, the Belgian government declared a lockdown for the entire country, shutting down production. Rather than give up and wait out the pandemic, Sputnik’s production team pivoted its production strategy to create short videos featuring the show’s characters living life in lockdown and post them online.
SBS and Telenet encouraged the team to change up the story and release videos exclusively online, instead of putting them all together for linear broadcast, as part of a bigger push to have content that addressed the pandemic, says Beckers.
“We were scared [of what the pandemic meant] and unsure what to do at first,” says Beckers. “But we knew we could either stop and do nothing, or find a new way to get content out to our audience.”
To keep production going during the pandemic, the studio had the idea to use the pandemic and its effects as part of the story. It reduced its on-set crew from 50 people to 10 (the Belgium government has prohibited all private and public gatherings with more than 15 people until April 19). In less than a week, it tasked the writers, who all worked remotely, to craft scripts that focused on the characters communicating from their homes, while the directors and post-production crew also moved to work from home. The process took about two weeks from inception to execution, and new two-to-five minute clips began airing April 1.
The prodco rehearses the scenes with the actors via video calls, but the script now acts more as guidelines, and some improvisation is allowed to give the show a more realistic feel, says Beckers. The actors record their scenes on their own phones and laptops with assistance from the team, and the content is then edited and published to the show’s website.
Titled #wtFOCKdown, the new videos have already started connecting with viewers, says Beckers. Viewership on new content has stayed steady, and because of the increased number of teens stuck at home, there’s been an increase in views for the first three seasons, he adds.
The characters also have their own Instagram accounts and occasionally the actors can post content there that isn’t essential to the main storyline.
However, the switch hasn’t been without challenges, and the team had to quickly go through its new videos to add subtitles to the Flemish series to meet an increased demand from international viewers, says Beckers. Sputnik is also trying to determine how much it wants these new videos to fit into the broader season four narrative, or if the clips should stand alone, and entertain and retain viewers until the pandemic ends.
Beckers isn’t sure how long kids will stay interested in seeing the characters at home, or how Sputnik will continue to tell a story with all the characters separated, he says. But with the pandemic continuing to shake up the industry, all the studio can do is experiment and try out new ideas, he adds.
“We’ve heard from fans on social media that this show is resonating, and it’s a light in the tunnel for the teens who are all locked inside,” he says. “However, this is a difficult time for live-action producers. It’s a time for all of us to look at the ways we make stories, and try something new.”