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Cover Story: The Virtual Show Must Go On

Barkskins Virtual FYC panel
Virtual FYC events include ones for Nat Geo’s Barkskins. (Image credit: Nat Geo)

Spring in Hollywood is a time when billboards bloom with For Your Consideration ads, and almost every night offers a glamorous red-carpet event for Emmy voters. 

Not this year. 

With so much shut down due to the pandemic and protests, the Emmys and ABC have moved quickly to institute changes. “We’ve been talking with ABC quite a bit, and there are a lot of conversations going on,” Maury McIntyre, president and chief operating officer of the TV Academy, said. “The good news is, we are all committed to having a show on Sept. 20. We think there’s a value right now in celebrating TV, which has been keeping us together and informed through all of this.” 

It won’t be a typical Emmys, both in terms of the broadcast and the networks’ awards campaigns. Voting for the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards has been moved back and will now start July 2, with nominations announced July 28. With more new platforms in the mix, submissions are already up, McIntyre said. And this year is the first for the TV Academy’s online viewing platform, which allows voters to either watch screeners on the platform or link out to other streaming platforms. With voters having more access and more time at home, use of the system appears to be robust. 

Voting for the winners kicks off Aug. 21 and runs for 11 days. The Primetime Emmys will take place as scheduled on Sunday, Sept. 20, although whether there will be a live ceremony at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles remains to be seen. Jimmy Kimmel will host; a producer is pending.  

Snowpiercer Virtual FYC

TNT set a virtual FYC panel for Snowpiercer (Image credit: TNT)

While the Primetime Emmys are happening, the rest of the events around the ceremony have either been canceled or will be virtual. Last week, the TV Academy said it would not hold any of the three Governors Balls it typically hosts after the two Creative Arts ceremonies and the Primetime Emmys. In addition, the Creative Arts Emmys, which honor craft and technical categories, will be handed out this year via virtual ceremonies held over several nights in September. 

RELATED: Jimmy Kimmel to Host Emmy Awards in September

Similarly, networks, studios and streaming services have had to pivot, innovating new ways to deliver their messages. Along the way, they have discovered a silver lining: What’s working now will help them deliver immersive experiences to a broader range of audiences going forward. “Why reach a local audience when you can reach the world through a virtual event?” Eileen Quast, VP of events for WarnerMedia, said. “I hope that we’ll be able to take our virtual premiere learnings and combine that with live events in the future to reach a much larger pool of Emmy voters.” 

Charity Instead of Celebration 

While networks canceled their premiere Emmy events this year — including HBO’s gala party at the Pacific Design Center and Netflix’s FYSee experience at Raleigh Studios — they, in turn, donated that money to charity. HBO gave $1 million to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles COVID-19 relief while Netflix gave $1 million to the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. 

Amazon, instead of launching an elaborate billboard campaign during a time when people aren’t commuting, donated $1 million to Jon & Vinny’s Restaurant Group to prepare meals for those going hungry. Amazon then converted its billboard buy from For Your Consideration messages to For Your Community messages, encouraging people to visit and donate. 

On June 15, the TV Academy joined in, saying  it will donate $1 million to The Actors COVID-19 Relief Fund, which provides assistance to those struggling to pay their bills due to layoffs, furloughs and just an overall lack of work. “The Actors Fund oversees distribution and aid for anyone who works in entertainment and that was very important to us,” McIntyre said. “We understand that some of our members are hurting, and we also know that a lot of people who are hurting are people who couldn’t be members yet. We wanted to make sure that whatever aid we were giving went to help as many of those people as possible.” 


Netflix let viewers explore shows such as Hollywood on a virtual FYSee website. (Image credit: Netflix)

For entertainment companies, it’s about accurately reflecting the culture in which they live and work. “Marketers always have to be aware of the environment in which they’re in,” said Todd Beck, president of Beck Media, which helps entertainment companies create and conduct events and awards campaigns. “This doesn’t feel like a time to be overly celebratory. This FYC season, we’re working to honor the storytellers and their work while being a part of creating a better world.” 

Beck Media helped National Geographic stage a virtual event around its limited series, Barkskins, which premiered over Memorial Day weekend. The series, based on the novel by Annie Proulx, is set in New France in 1690 and stars David Thewlis and Marcia Gay Harden. 

“We had to think about what we would normally do at this time of year and then how we could adapt to achieve what we are supposed to achieve,” Beck said. “We do these things because we are trying to spotlight content and honor talent and the work that’s being done. When we throw an event, it’s because we are trying to reach a certain audience and cause them to have an experience which, in turn, creates a feeling and causes them to take a positive action. 

“So how do we recreate that experience virtually?” he continued. “How we get as close to what we used to do is level-one thinking. There are certain things we can’t do anymore, but there are other things we couldn’t do before that we can do now.” 

Pushing Virtual Events to the Limit 

Instead of using Zoom to screen a show and invite hundreds or even thousands of people to attend, entertainment marketers took those tools and went to work pushing them as far as they could go. “We created a landing page where you could get a feel of the show,” Chris Albert, executive VP, marketing strategy and global communications, National Geographic, said. “Barkskins is a really complex, intricate series with a lot of character and plot twists, so we wanted to put viewers into the world of Barkskins before the screening even started.” 

Love Life on HBO Max

Virtual FYC events for HBO Max’s Love Life, starring Anna Kendrick, included a Manhattan-mixing class and relationship advice from a professional matchmaker.  (Image credit: HBO Max)

After the screening, Nat Geo also took a unique virtual approach to the Q&A. “Instead of a Q&A that you might attend at a premiere, we produced a virtual Q&A with about 12 different panelists, including the showrunner, director, writer, production designer, costume designer and some of the cast,” Albert said. “We prerecorded it in different Zoom rooms with a moderator who went in and out, and then we edited it so it flowed like one panel.” 

Around 3,000 people tuned in, which is about three times more than are able to attend a typical National Geographic in-person premiere event. 

“We didn’t just invite press and influencers and other people in the industry,” Albert said. “We expanded the invite list to include guild members as well.” 

Nat Geo ran the screening twice — once at 5 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 17, and again at 5 p.m. PT for the West Coast. People also tuned in from abroad, giving the event far more reach than if it had been held in one physical location. 

RELATED: Pandemic Brings Daytime Emmys Back to Broadcast

Barkskins is just one of many virtual screenings Nat Geo has been running during quarantine. Other events have taken place around reality series Life Below Zero and the new season of Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

Many other networks and services have taken the virtual screening and premiere route, including HBO Max, with Love Life starring Anna Kendrick and Legendary, a ballroom competition series; and TNT’s long-awaited drama Snowpiercer

“For each of these premieres, we had several goals,” Quast said. “First, we wanted to give back to the community philanthropically in an appropriate way. Also, we wanted to find a way to bring our industry together during a time when we are all supposed to stay apart. We wanted to try to do this and still capture the excitement and buzz that we’d normally receive from talent walking the carpet at a typical premiere.”


Throwing Virtual Parties 

To accomplish this virtual feat, WarnerMedia hired Jay Rinsky, founder of the digital studio Little Cinema, to help figure out how to bring its exclusive “red carpet” premieres and gala afterparties to life in the virtual world. “Jay specializes in fusing film, music and theater into special performances,” Quast said. “For the afterparties, Jay drew from his experience producing immersive theater and created an afterparty that brought our community back together and promoted social interaction. We accomplished this by creating different rooms our guests could explore, be entertained and mingle with each other.” 

For the Love Life virtual premiere, Rinsky created different rooms where guests could experience virtual Manhattans mixed by director Paul Feig; dance to a set by DJ Michelle Pesce; receive relationship advice from matchmaker Amy Van Doran; and sing karaoke with other partygoers. 

HBO Max and other networks also have sent attendees gift boxes or dinner and drinks as part of their overall experience. For Love Life, guests received a “Dinner for Two” delivery with a make-your-own pizza kit from L.A. hot spot Pizzeria Mozza, as well as customized Love Life candles, wine glasses, a heart-shaped Connect Four game and a karaoke microphone. Guests also were given a Manhattan cocktail kit — which included a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon, vermouth, bitters and Luxardo cherries — so they could follow along with Feig.

DJ Mike Q for Legendary

The FYC afterparty for HBO Max’s Legendary included an MC, live music and lots of home-delivered swag.  (Image credit: HBO Max)

Legendary’s afterparty was hosted by MC Dashaun Wesley with live music from DJ MikeQ and appearances from the show’s celebrity judges: Law Roach, Jameela Jamil, Leiomy Maldonado and Megan Thee Stallion. 

Attendees also received gift boxes including everything they might need to attend a virtual ball: A cellphone stand to catch every dance move; an “essential voguing fan,” judging card and wand; as well as nail polish, makeup and plenty of glitter. Each attendee also received the Legendary: Inside the Ballroom Scene coffee-table book. 

Also as part of Legendary’s premiere, HBO Max donated to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis-intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people and GLSEN, a national education organization focused on ensuring safe and inclusive schools for all students. 

For its part, Netflix took its entire FYSee experience and recreated it virtually at Netflix describes the site as “an innovative new platform showcasing Netflix’s 2020 Emmy contenders with heightened, 360-degree experiences for voters and guild members alike. An offshoot of the experiential space known as FYSee, the digital initiative is a content hub that celebrates storytellers, performers and craft artists — and gives an exclusive look at footage, dynamic conversations, thematic industry panels and so much more.” 

The site allows visitors to explore such Netflix shows as Ryan Murphy’s limited series Hollywood, comedies Dead to Me and Grace and Frankie and reality series Queer Eye.


Considering New Content Opportunities 

Beyond virtual events, Nat Geo took the opportunity to launch entirely new content in the form of FYC-focused podcast Consider This, featuring interviews with series stars such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jane Goodall across 12 episodes. It’s an idea that could live on post-pandemic. 

“The one thing that worked to our advantage was that everyone we wanted to work with was stuck at home, so we had access to them,” Albert said. “In a year when people are out working, you might not be able to get something like this done.” 

Producing the episodes required overcoming some logistical issues, but Nat Geo worked with a podcast company, sending equipment to each of the participants so they could record episodes from their homes. 

Marketers see these new ways of offering content as opportunities they hadn’t previously considered. That said, they’ll also be happy to return to live events — with all of the energy and engagement those provide — as soon as they are able. 

“Being able to expand the events we do to include more of the community is something we’ve always thought about and struggled with,” Albert said.
“The virtual world that we’re in now has really opened our eyes.”

Paige Albiniak
Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.