Paul Feig Bartending, Ballroom-Style Vogue Battle, Chatty Elmo: How WarnerMedia Is Reinventing Virtual Events

When some Hollywood studios shifted to simple Zoom-style gatherings to promote new content, these media executives rallied to put together a virtual events task force to figure out how to maximize talent and make a big splash with new content.
Courtesy of Justina Mintz/TNT

It could’ve been easy.

Send out a screener link, host an afterparty on Zoom, invite talent for a post-premiere Q&A, maybe deliver a bottle of bubbly or snacks for guests to consume while watching from their respective sofas in compliance with strict safer-at-home mandates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

WarnerMedia executives — charged with unveiling a slate of new content in May for TNT and soon-to-launch HBO Max — didn’t want simple. They barely let the shock wear off from announcements by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti in closing gatherings of any kind before they called action and mobilized a virtual events task force comprising various divisions across the company, knowing they had to act quickly as plans were underway for a series of events tied to major launches of WarnerMedia content.

There was an event for Graeme Manson's Snowpiercer set for Hudson Yards and The Top of the Standard in New York in May, followed by an immersive mommy blogger event at h Club in L.A. that was to host interactive experiences with HBO Max talent and creators, in addition to sneak-peek screenings of an HBO Max kids and family programming. Then, an animation festival on the Warner Bros. lot was to showcase HBO Max’s animated series that would culminate in Bugs Bunny’s 80th birthday hosted by WB.

Meanwhile, HBO Max’s Anna Kendrick-starrer Love Life from Sam Boyd and executive producer Paul Feig was poised to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival mid-April, a festival that was forced to change dates due to the crisis. So, instead, a May 21 virtual event got put on the books. And finally, a big event to celebrate HBO Max’s ballroom competition series Legendary was in the works and forced to pivot to virtual May 26.

"We threw all the plans out the window, took a hard step back and started from scratch," explains Eileen Quast, vp WarnerMedia special events. "Nobody really knew everything there was to know about virtual events, what can be done, what works and how to proceed."

The same questions were being asked all over Hollywood from March through April as event insiders grappled with just how to proceed during the COVID-19 crisis, which brought "normal life" to a screeching halt. Many event insiders that The Hollywood Reporter has spoken to in recent weeks said it took some time for reps and publicity pros to wrap their heads around how to match audience appetite with what was appropriate considering the climate. The overarching answer was that restless audiences were ready for events as long as there could be a way to give back while doing so. 

Quast had the same response but first she wanted to know what was possible, so she called trusted collaborator Jay Rinsky, founder and CEO of creative studio Little Cinema, which specializes in immersive experiences for film and television. Quast and Rinsky put their heads together to study the landscape and generate ideas. "What we were seeing didn’t really excite us," she said. “So we started looking outside our industry for inspiration.” Cue deep dives in late-night, the music industry and even nightclubs to see how those industries had made the pivot amid the pandemic.

"We studied the world," she said. "That’s when we presented to leadership what we thought the best examples were and what we could do. They told us to run with it."

They did so in unison with the virtual events task force, which included representatives from various departments representing WarnerMedia Communications and Marketing; WarnerMedia Innovation Lab; HBO Max; WarnerMedia Studios, 10th St. Live Events; WarnerMedia Sales and Distribution; TNT; TBS; TruTV; HBO; CNN; Adult Swim; Cartoon Network; Fullscreen; Rooster Teeth; Warner Bros. theatrical, Warner Bros. TV, Turner Sports and AT&T.

Quast and Rinsky were quick to credit forward-thinking bosses Kevin Brockman, executive vp global communications; Jori Arancio, executive vp communications for HBO Max, TNT, TBS and TruTV; Raina Falcon, newly promoted vp HBO Max; and Ronni Cobern-Basis, executive vp awards, events and talent relations for WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer. "These leaders empowered and encouraged us to be innovative and take risks," she said. "We put our running shoes on and we planned three premieres and a festival and here we are."

That’s where it gets complicated. What they settled on was to create dedicated and tech-savvy micro sites for the three premieres and the festival that would allow for live events during which guests could navigate through curated experiences while engaging with talent, performers and perhaps even Paul Feig bartending. "Necessity is the mother of invention," says Rinsky. "This current situation is forcing innovation on multiple fronts and problems have been solved by working together across different departments at WarnerMedia and various disciplines at Little Cinema."

Organizers opted to break out the adult animation into a separate event slated for summer and focus on the kids and family block leading into Mother’s Day as a festival — HBO Max Playdate: A Virtual Kids and Family Festival featuring a weeklong celebration.

Leading the blueprints of each individual event is the charge to somehow marry content narrative with a fully immersive experience. "We want to bring our guests into the worlds of these shows in a way that reflects the heartbeat of each show," Quast explains. Rinsky adds that they’re accomplishing that by using key art, plot points, settings and characters and building from there. Also crucial: Proper content security to protect the IP and live stream. 

Snowpiercer will mark the first test case when it premieres next Thursday on a website designed to mimic a Wilford Industries train car. The series is set more than seven years after the world has become a frozen wasteland forcing all remaining humans to exist together on a perpetually moving train. Guests — close to 300 and culled from the studio’s typical premiere invite list including talent, producers, press, influencers and studio friends and partners — will log on to find a fusion of theater and cinema all designed in the show’s art deco format. Like a normal premiere, there will be opening remarks, this time delivered by star and Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly offering up the series debut.

Following the screening, guest will be invited to a virtual afterparty that will see guests break off into different Zoom-style rooms like they’re joining a party on a train car. There will be different features throughout including Snowpiercer star and Tony Award winner Lena Hall who will perform live along with Nick Atkinson and Ava Lee Scott, both known for their work in the immersive Sleep No More; Queen of The Night, Katherine Crockett, illusionist Matthew Holtzclaw, and DJ David Kiss. Meanwhile, guests may be able to incorporate items from home received in special Snowpiercer themed packaged mailed ahead of the premiere.

"While other people are building Zoom events, we’re really focused on narrative, live human interaction and how do we get people at home to feel like they’ve been in this real-life experience," Rinsky adds, noting that other features will include virtual photo booth that places you in the movie poster and other experiences just like a typical premiere. "It’s a brave new world and nothing has been tested. We’re just going for it and I think this says a lot about WarnerMedia’s push for innovation and forging new creative grounds.

Rinsky says the biggest challenge has been adapting to the technology and the new normal. "This is still being written," says the audiovisual expert who has staffed up a 30-person team to lead the effort on his end.

For Love Life, a romantic comedy anthology series that follows a journey from first to lasting love, the plan is to create a virtual party atmosphere that will come complete with a delivery including everything required for a couple’s rendezvous (think dinner for two) set against the skyline of New York City. Added bonus: Feig mixing drinks and a karaoke microphone as a party favor that could be put to use.

For Legendary, the plan will be to utilize the talents of charismatic MC Dashaun Wesley and DJ Mike Q to give guests a taste of the underground ballroom scene as part of the afterparty. There will be a voguing, photo booth, swag package and talent meet-and-greets.

Quast said that before a decision was made to move forward with virtual events, a call was placed to the studio’s corporate social responsibility division to determine how each event could be tied to a significant initiative of giving back that made sense respective to the content. For HBO Max Playdate, they selected UNICEF; for TNT’s Snowpiercer, the nonprofits are United Way and Conservation International; for HBO Max’s Love Life, the nonprofit is NYC Health + Hospitals’ COVID-19 fund; and for HBO Max’s Legendary, the nonprofit selected is The Actors Fund.

"I feel like I’ve been through graduate school these past four weeks," Quast says. "The amount of support we’ve needed and received from a number of departments has been remarkable."