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Master of Ceremonies

Ric Birch, Executive Producer of Filmmaster Events, a division of Filmmaster Group, is the ultimate ‘Master of Ceremonies’ in sport. The man behind many of the sporting world’s famous event ceremonies told #SAC2014 – The Review how media scrutiny has increased markedly since he first made an impact on the scene more than three decades ago.

#SAC2014 – The Review:

What is the secret of producing a perfect ceremony
for a major sporting event?

Ric Birch:

“The secret to producing a perfect ceremony is the same as for any major production and that secret is: money, quality, time – pick any two. It’s virtually impossible to produce a perfect ceremony unless you have an appropriate budget and it’s totally impossible if you don’t have enough time. This does not mean you need an unlimited budget or endless time, simply that you need enough of both to deliver a perfect ceremony.

“Organising committees can research the ceremonies that they’ve liked, find out the budgets and talk to the producer responsible. If the organising committee wants a ceremony of similar quality, a producer should be selected no later than 30 months prior to the event and preferably longer, and the budget should be commensurate with the production values required. A perfect ceremony is not achieved by cutting the budget or shortening the pre-production period!”

#SAC2014 – The Review:

Has the importance of the ceremonies for major sporting events
changed since you first became involved in such projects?

Ric Birch:

“The ceremonies for major sporting events now attract far more media scrutiny and public interest than when I started in 1982 with the Commonwealth Games, or even in 1984 with the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Since those days, a huge increase in television satellites and now the internet and social media networks have allowed people from every nation in the world to have full access to sporting events, including the ceremonies.

“Inevitably, as the level of media interest and global sponsorship has increased, the expectations for ceremonies have also risen and now an Olympic Opening Ceremony is probably the pinnacle of live production. But even back in 1982, the UK Times journalist who was covering the ceremonies said, ‘these days one must be a cross between a theatre critic and a defence correspondent to review an Opening Ceremony’. So perhaps things haven’t changed very much after all.”

#SAC2014 – The Review:

How have the parameters (and expectations) of ceremonies
for major events changed over the years?

Ric Birch:

“Expectations for ceremonies have increased in line with global television audiences and organising committees are well aware of the importance of an Opening Ceremony in promoting and enhancing their event. The overall parameters haven’t changed dramatically over the years because the ceremonies are staged in athletics stadiums of similar sizes, so that the number of performers and spectators has remained fairly constant.

“That is starting to change as Winter Olympic Games in particular use purpose-built venues for the ceremonies – like Sochi 2014. Until now the ceremonies for the Summer Olympic Games have always been staged in the track and field competition stadium, but Rio 2016 plans to host the ceremonies in the Maracana football stadium.

“Producers have always managed to stretch the facilities of a stadium to the maximum – like incorporating aerial rigging, as was done for the first time in Sydney 2000, or flooding the field of play, as was done spectacularly in Athens in 2004. However, if venues are no longer required for competition, the opportunities for enhanced staging and production facilities will obviously be taken advantage of by the the producer of the ceremonies.

“Personally, I feel it is a mistake to take ceremonies away from the competition venues because the ceremonies are ultimately a celebration of the world’s greatest athletes. So if the ceremonies take place in a theatrical venue, they lose their connection with the athletes and lose, to some extent, their authenticity.”

#SAC2014 – The Review:

What was the favourite ceremony you have worked on so far?

Ric Birch:

“My personal favourite ceremony was Barcelona 1992, although Sydney 2000 was also important to me. Each ceremony occurs in such a different time frame and under such different circumstances that it really is impossible to compare them, except on a personal level.

“Barcelona was special to me because we were able to produce ceremonies that broke new ground creatively and theatrically, which greatly influenced the ceremonies that followed. I also met a group of incredibly creative Catalans who contributed their talents to the ceremonies and we became very close friends, so Barcelona will always be of special importance.

“For Sydney 2000, I was also able to assemble a very talented creative team and I am still working with many of them in different parts of the world. I was born in Sydney and the opportunity to produce the Olympic ceremonies in one’s own home town is very rare and very satisfying.”

#SAC2014 – The Review:

What is the biggest challenge of staging a major event ceremony?

Ric Birch:

“I don’t think there is one single challenge; instead it is a whole collection of challenges. The organising committee greatly affects the ceremony production unit – a committee that trusts and allows the production team to do their work without too much interference or influence will get better results. An Olympic Opening Ceremony requires the participation of almost every functional area within the committee, so one of the biggest challenges is maintaining communication within the committee while also maintaining the necessary secrecy about the contents of the ceremonies.

“The only reason to keep the ceremonies secret is to create elements of surprise and theatrical revelations that the whole world can enjoy at the same moment. However, nowadays the media see it as their role to ferret out all the moments of impact in a ceremony and portray them as ‘scoops’ to their readers or viewers, so one of the challenges is simply maintaining a level of confidentiality.”

#SAC2014 – The Review:

You became Executive Producer of Filmmaster
Events in November. Tell us about your new role...

Ric Birch:

“I’m really excited about being back at Filmmaster in Milan. I was first there in 2004 to work on the Torino 2006 Winter Olympic Games and made some very good friends, so it is like returning home. My new role is to develop the next generation of special event producers who will bring their talents to the global platform of ceremonies and other major live productions.

“Antonio Abete, CEO of Filmmaster Events, has a vision for the future of the company that I find very exciting, so it’s a great pleasure to share my experience and knowledge with a group of young producers that we are assembling from around the world, to build on Filmmaster’s already impressive record of international production and take it to even higher levels for the future.”

#SAC2014 – The Review:

Is there anything more organising committees
can do to make the process more efficient?

Ric Birch:

“I wish organising committees would spend more time thinking about the best way to choose and appoint a creative producer for ceremonies, and less time following a selection process that is more appropriate for finding a company to construct a stadium. These days organising committees often require producers to prepare reams of documentation, much of it based on financial records, and sometimes require detailed creative concepts, lists of suppliers and key personnel with contact details, detailed budget estimates, timelines and milestones.

“This is totally inappropriate and simply costs money and wastes time. Instead, the committee should perform their due diligence by reviewing the ceremonies or events that they admire, and then contacting the various producers involved and conducting personal interviews. They will learn far more about ceremonies that way and will be able to form an opinion about the people involved.

“After all, no-one ever asked Beethoven or Bach to submit their qualifications before commissioning them to compose a symphony. Instead, they listened. If organising committees could do the same, the ceremonies would benefit.”

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