Pandemic Brings Brutal Hit to Awards-Season Economy: "I'm Basically Living Off Savings Right Now"

Pandemic Brings Brutal Hit to Awards-Season Economy Illustration by Nien-Ken Alec Lu
Illustration by Nien-Ken Alec Lu

The caterers, florists and other vendors that contribute to creating a glamorous round of parties in a typical year are suffering major losses and have laid off staff as events including the Golden Globes continue to be largely virtual.

Beyond the acceptance speeches and red carpet looks of a usual awards season is a massive industry of those who work to create glamorous moments on and off-camera. Event planners, florists, limo drivers and DJs count the typical January-to-March window between the Golden Globes and Oscars as their most profitable. This year, amid the pandemic and an awards season that looks to be almost entirely virtual, those industries will miss significant portions of their annual income — for some, millions of dollars — after an already trying 11 months. An L.A. County report released Feb. 9 found that 125,900 hospitality jobs and 37,300 arts and entertainment jobs were lost in 2020. Ahead of the Globes, THR spoke to dozens of L.A. vendors about what this season will look like for them.

CATERING

After 19 years in business and with clients like Netflix and Apple, Bread & Wine Catering has been shut since March and may permanently close, says co-owner Daniel Flores: "We might just shutter. I've been waiting to see what's happening." Awards season for Bread & Wine used to mean events for CAA, UTA and studios, with a per-event catering budget averaging $100,000; now, "I have a number of friends who are caterers, and they all are just trying to hold onto their kitchens," says Flores. Hollywood favorite Patina is closed until further notice, and gone are the days when Wolfgang Puck and a staff of 300 chefs would provide 7,500 shrimp and 1,500 bottles of champagne for the Governors Ball alone, as they did in 2019. Meanwhile, Rise and Shine Catering — which has served the SAG Awards and other events, accounting for 25 percent of its business — has been kept alive by resumed filming in L.A., says owner Sean Heyman: "It's all film and television production, commercials and photoshoots. That's what's out there right now."

RED CARPET

In a typical awards season, L.A.'s Red Carpet Systems supplies 150 events, from Elton John's annual Golden Globes party to the SAG Awards, with carpet and step-and-repeat packages ticketed at $7,000 for a 35-foot setup. The company now is looking at losing 30 percent of its income with a virtual season, says CEO Toni Kilicoglu. Another company, Celebrity Red Carpets, has furloughed its eight employees and is facing a 35 percent decline. For some virtual awards events, "all they needed was some banners printed," says CEO London Moore. "The staffing that we would normally use to have guys go out there and set up stuff with big trucks, all that's gone."

SALONS

"The celebrities are still going to get their hair done," says Meche principal stylist Neil Weisberg, but "that's just a celebrity. It's not the producers and the agents and the managers." Awards season typically brings his Beverly Hills salon a 15 percent to 20 percent customer boost, but with nominees and presenters the only ones on camera during an awards show, the party crowd and entourages are mostly opting out of beauty spending. Ted Gibson of Starring by Ted Gibson salon, who counts Christina Applegate and Sandra Oh as hair clients, adds that the virtual season has delivered a painful "big hit. Not only financially but also just the fact of being creative and being able to work with a stylist and the makeup artists and the publicist and come up with the look." Airbrush tanning expert Alexandra DiMarchi says she's typically booked solid 72 hours before any awards show, and "there [were] times during awards season where you can almost make your month's income in a week. [It's] the peak of the year." Amid the slowdown, though, DiMarchi has maintained some clients with a mobile service.

PHOTOGRAPHERS

With a career that spans 35 years, Alex Berliner has captured everything from intimate backyard gatherings with Hollywood elite to the biggest red carpets. Berliner says that easily more than 50 percent of his company’s job load comes from September through March as awards season brings with it a long list of charity events in the latter part of every calendar year. “Q4 is a truly impactful part of our year,” he says, estimating that during the busy months, they are often doing four to five jobs per day. “I’m basically living off savings right now,” Berliner says, adding that he had to lay off his entire staff and in order to cut costs, he’s only eating meals at home and not ordering any delivery or eating out. “Luckily, being a vegetarian for 30-some years, it’s less expensive.” He's optimistic that things will turn around soon but is taking a measured approach. “The outlook is better, but it’s still not rosy right now.”

EVENT PLANNERS

Tony Schubert, founder and CEO of events firm Event Eleven, estimates that his company, due to the pandemic, has missed out on about 15 events during awards season at a loss of $5 million to $6 million. His roster of events in past years has included Entertainment Weekly's Emmy party, Amazon's Emmy and Globes events and WME bashes.

“We run a small ship but with respect to our vendors, that means a loss in the hundreds covering catering, valet, security, lighting, staging, technical and creative teams,” Schubert says. “These are people we’ve had relationships with for more than 20 years and they are suddenly out of work and forced to shift careers.” One such person is Bart Kresa, who does projection design for HBO’s annual Golden Globes party, and has pivoted to doing museum installations and at-home projection systems as a result of the shutdown. 

Sarah Lowy and Jodi Cohen of JOWY Productions have put on the InStyle/Warner Bros. Globes party for the past six years, as well as other celebrations for Warners and NBCUniversal. Awards season typically accounts for 20 percent to 30 percent of their annual income. "I think most everybody is trying to survive and hoping that it will come back," says Cohen. Adds Joe Lewis, who works with the Academy to organize the Oscar red carpet: "An event that you used to be able to produce with, say, 20 people is now virtual, and you need four people to do that. It's devastating what it did to our team."

FLORISTS

In 2020, floral designer Mark's Garden, with a staff of 40 working for five days, created 400 arrangements for the Governors Ball. While this year looks much different, the company, says co-owner Michael Uncapher, is still getting some business from a virtual season. "We are doing something small for the Globes this year, so we're excited for that." Eric Buterbaugh counts on live events for 75 percent of his floral business, 20 percent from a rotation of 10 to 15 annual awards-season parties. Though missing out on the typical 40-arrangement awards gala, he's pleased to be getting a rush of orders for "congratulations on your nominations" flowers. “I feel very lucky that I'm going to weather the storm and be just fine afterward,” Buterbaugh says. “I think a lot of people are really suffering in this industry.” 

DJs

Michelle Pesce is among awards season's most in-demand DJs, spinning everywhere from the official Grammy and SAG afterparties to the Night Before Oscar gala in addition to running Nona Entertainment, a DJ agency that works with more than two dozen DJs on a non-exclusive basis. “January and February are my bread-and-butter months as they are typically the busiest months with the most revenue," she says, adding that in 2020, they booked 21 awards season events including Sundance during that window. “This year, on the books for awards season, we have one event thus far.” The lost business translates to over $250,000.

“It’s humbling,” she says of the devastation. “We used to be a part of these inspired, sexy environments and experiences with some of the top event producers and brands in the world, filled with talented and interesting artists, actors and filmmakers. Now we are DJing in parking lots where we can hardly see the people. I will say, though, that honking horns at the drive-in has become the new version of 'wave your hands in the air' on the dance floor. You can still feel the energy. And I'm in awe of every client and event producer who has gotten the green light for an event to promote a project or product this past year."

DJ Spider (aka Oliver Nathan), who has worked for UTA, Amazon and HBO, says "it's pretty quiet on the DJ front at the moment without the parties happening," though he has played virtual gigs through platforms such as Zoom and Twitch.

FURNITURE RENTALS

Since 2005, Chameleon Chairs has regularly provided seating for the Golden Globes, SAG Awards and the Governors Ball — at that event alone, the company rents out 1,500 chairs. Also providing seating for some awards parties, “it’s a lot of dollars,” says CEO Jerry Smolar. “With the shows being basically gone, it's a zero." Blueprint Studios, which provides lighting, tables, chairs, lounge furniture and Instagram-able installations for nearly every awards show and its official afterparty, typically rents out thousands of pieces per event, at “tens, if not hundreds, of thousands from a revenue perspective,” says general manager Dominic Venn-Lever. Including FYC events as well as shows and parties, the season typically accounts for 40 to 50 percent of the company’s revenue, the loss of which has led Blueprint to pivot into the virtual events space. Adds Venn-Lever, “All of those stable jobs that you can rely on year-in and year-outm in essence, disappeared through COVID.”

HOTELS

The Beverly Hilton, home to the Globes, is an awards-season staple: The three months between the Globes and Oscars typically sees the hotel's International Ballroom (holding 1,200 people) hosting a gala four to five nights a week, says manager Michael Robertson, noting the "huge impact on the business" the shutdown has had. COVID, he says, has hurt "our hotel in particular because we have a higher percentage of our revenue that comes from [events]," including the Globes' array of on-site afterparties. Occupancy of its 566 guest rooms also has taken a hit; they typically would be nearly sold out from the Rose Bowl through the Oscars, and plenty remain unoccupied. The Beverly Hilton has launched its "Healthy Hotel" initiative as a result of the pandemic, with UV robots and electrostatic sprayers employed to create a lower-risk environment.

The Four Seasons Los Angeles, which hosts the pre-Globes BAFTA Tea Party and Mercedes-Benz Oscar gathering, usually sees awards shows as "sellout weekends for us, and we won't be nearly close to being sold out this year," says marketing director Ana Cruz. The hotel also holds blocks of rooms for each studio for their nominees and execs and expects a major decrease this year. Says Cruz, "Those studios that would give us 20 or 30 rooms that weekend are maybe not sending anybody or sending only the ones and twos that absolutely have to be here." With rates far below what they would reach on a typical Oscar night, the Four Seasons is offering an awards show package for guests to rent a suite for the day to watch the show, with an accompanying special menu. “We usually don't really promote rooms during this time because we don't have space to do it,” says Cruz. “This year we do, so we're giving staycationers or people who are in L.A. the chance to stay in one of Hollywood's favorites for the award season.” 

LIMOS/VALETS

Chuck's Parking has provided valet services for 50-plus years, working WME and CAA parties, among other awards-season celebrations. This year's nonexistent party scene has put the company's 125 employees out of work and resulted in "hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses," says founder Chuck Pick. "It's not just the [official] events themselves, it's the Saturday when Barry Diller has 500 people at his home." The limo industry has been similarly crushed: Limousine Connection typically has 50 cars ordered for show days but this year has five set to take a handful of presenters for in-person Globes segments, notes director of operations Kristin Hundley: "I have to be a realist about it and realize that this awards season is shot."

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.