Plastic Shields, Interview Pods, No More Entourages: Red Carpets' New Normal?

15/40 Productions rendering - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of 15/40 Productions

Under Los Angeles County's Safer-at-Home directives aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, red carpet events have been shut down since mid-March. The ban has been a huge blow to the events industry, and insiders have floated several proposals to get Hollywood’s once-booming red carpets back on track, everything from interview pods and plastic shields separating media from stars, to mandatory face masks and the elimination of entourages.

1540 Prods., a top firm that designs, executes and produces 350 events a year (recent efforts include Game of Thrones' final season premiere in New York, Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards afterparty, and the ESPYs post-party) shared renderings with The Hollywood Reporter, one example seen above, that show how drastically different the landscape could look post-lockdown.

“We’ve been meeting with city officials to redesign the experience in a way that works while accommodating social distancing to make talent more comfortable, says Craig Waldman, president and chief creative officer of 1540 Prods. "It limits the number of folks that are actually walking the red carpet and gives press a better opportunity to produce what they need to produce.”

Waldman says entourages will be eliminated while medical staff could be increased to provide temperature checks should those become ubiquitous at large events. The upshot: more space, fewer guests, healthier environments. The question that remains is: when? 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that the state would be relaxing some mandates and moving into phase two of a four-phase plan for reopening the state. Beginning Friday, businesses that fall into a “low risk” category will be allowed to open doors, and that includes bookstores, florists, sporting goods and clothing stores. Phase three will include higher-risk workplaces like movie theaters, gyms, hair salons, nail salons, in-person religious services and sports without live audiences. The final and fourth phase will see the reopening of concert venues, conventions, sports stadiums and larger entertainment venues, which could take months.

Every sector of the entertainment industry is grappling with how to return to work and what that will look like, including domestic and international producers, casting directors for live theaterwriters, and major studios like The Walt Disney Co., a global conglomerate that has many divisions and forms of re-entry to consider. Red carpet events represent a meeting space of sorts where professionals from all corners of Hollywood converge. Everyone interviewed says health and safety should remain a priority, even if many are itching to get back to business. 

One of Hollywood’s leading event reps said the toughest part is not knowing. “It’s day by day,” said Andy Gelb, a partner at Slate PR who oversees many of the industry's top events. “The initial shock has worn off and now people are gearing up. It’s a difficult time, but it’s a creative town and everyone is relying on those skills to come up with different scenarios. It will happen, eventually. Hopefully sooner rather than later.” 

Many who work on large-scale events say they’ll be ready when the green light appears.

“We know our industry will be last to come back,” says Waldman, who with executive vp Elizabeth Tramontozzi, has kept 37 staffers working while putting a temporary hold on 1540’s carpentry shop since there are no build-out orders currently. “We’ve been doing this 40 years so we know that it’s now about reinventing who we are. We have to weather this storm and come back with ideas and new avenues for [Hollywood] to be able to put their product out.”

Some ideas include virtual arrivals, digital ticketing, drive-in experiences, and LED screens that stream fans in from their homes. Even more attention will be paid to theater capacity in order to accommodate for proper spacing between guests. Just don’t expect to see massive parties with free-flowing hors d’oeuvres. “Gone are the days of putting out a buffet,” Waldman says, adding that event catering will shift to individually wrapped food or chefs behind glass.

Dr. Agus, founding director and CEO of the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine at USC, says it could be 12 to 18 months before a vaccine and because of that, changes are necessary to fight a virus that has proven to be devastating for some while others don't even know they have it. “This is an insidious enemy,” he notes. “Asymptomatic people can spread it, so even though you feel good and nothing is wrong, you may be a spreader. That’s what we all worry about and that’s why there’s going to be extra precautions for large gatherings.”

Agus adds that modes of interaction will have to be redefined including seating, spacing and even who is allowed in. “There may be immunity certificates showing those who can’t catch or it spread it any longer, allowing those people to walk the red carpet with confidence.”

Still, others remain skeptical that major events will return before there’s a vaccine or herd immunity. “Everyone feels this liability issue, so I don’t think we’ll see large-scale premieres or junkets until there’s a major breakthrough,” says one A-list publicist who questions how events will accommodate fan interactions, especially those during fan conventions and international press tours where stars can make personal contact with hundreds of fans.

The rep adds that while everyone is champing at the bit to get back to normal, the move to virtual events has proven that there’s always another option. “Virtual junkets and events, by the way, are so much cheaper,” she said. “You might see independents continue to use them to save money. But look, everyone is itching to spend money when the time is right — just not right now. It’s not like Disney can turn around and build out some crazy junket or shut down Hollywood Boulevard and put the Millennium Falcon on there.”

Others caution that optics are more important now than ever. Stars walking red carpets while unemployment is at an all-time high — 30 million at last count — and many Americans are struggling to put food on the table or pay rent isn’t the best look for Hollywood, say multiple sources. What works now is feel-good news and seeing celebrities use their influence for good. “Everything has to be tied to a charity,” says one insider. “It will be a long time until we see someone on the cover of Vogue just for the sake of a celebrity interview. No one wants to be exposed like that anymore.”

All eyes are on Warner Bros., a studio that has yet to move its major summer tentpoles — Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (July 17) and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 (Aug. 14) — from the release calendar. “Everyone will be reacting to what they’re doing if they don’t end up moving,” says the publicist. “I’m sure they will do it in a very sophisticated way.”

Another major date on the calendar is Sept. 20, when the Television Academy will host the Primetime Emmy Awards. THR reached out to the academy for how it would proceed with social distancing guidelines for the show, and a spokesperson said academy officials are “in discussions on a number of scenarios both internally and with our broadcast partner ABC.”

THR also reached out to the L.A. County Department of Public Health to see if director Dr. Barbara Ferrer and her team could give specifics on what guidelines they will provide to organizers when events resume. While a spokesperson said they’re not yet ready to provide those to the public — “We want to remind everyone that we are not yet on the other side of this pandemic and need to stress patience,” he said — they do want to reiterate that any return to normalcy remains predicated on several factors. Those include widespread testing capacity, the implementation of physical distancing protocols, the ability to care for those who are sick and/or need healthcare services, and widespread infection control practices.

Darin Pfeiffer, founder of events and publicity firm Pfeiffer Consulting, has been involved in many virtual events since the pandemic crushed in-person gatherings. His first was for Amazon Studios’ Blow the Man Down, a film by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. When the March 18 New York premiere had to be scrapped, Amazon shuffled plans to “eventize” an in-home premiere by first putting a focus on helping small businesses and restaurants that had seen business decimated by the pandemic. 

In doing so, Amazon coordinated influencer deliveries that included dinner for two featuring a menu by Annie Campbell Catering, linens by Heather Taylor Home, and dessert from Valerie Confections, a move that helped buoy proprietors, including Pfeiffer's company, who was activated to help in the effort. His company then worked on a Nat Geo virtual tastemaker event for Jane Goodall: The Hope that drew a long list of influential stars and creatives including Whoopi Goldberg, Judd Apatow, Rob Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Billie Eilish, Paul Bettany, Christiane Amanpour, Martha Stewart, Debbie Allen, Lisa Ling, Bill Nye, Dan Rather, Al Roker, Bob Woodruff, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Elaine Welteroth, Sharon Osbourne, Rosie Perez, Julian Lennon, Elijah Wood, Alicia Silverstone and Josh Safdie.

Pfeiffer says he’s seeing benefits to the new model, so much so that it could have an impact long after restrictions are lifted. One such benefits, he says, is that virtual gatherings are not limited by location or logistics. “There are also people who don’t love to go out to events and yet, they have a powerful voice so they can see a film and post about it and not have to deal with getting ready, leaving their house and going somewhere to be photographed,” he explains. “We’re seeing such strong results from people who are busy.”

It's continuing, too, through the summer. Pfeiffer confirms that his agency has already booked projects for May and June from companies including Orion Pictures, HBO, HBO Max, Apple TV+, AMC, Hulu and TNT. All eyes are also on WarnerMedia Entertainment as it has activated many of its divisions to help support the launch of HBO Max on May 27. Specific details on those groundbreaking virtual gatherings is forthcoming.

Others are also seeing success as virtual gatherings have become the go-to option. Geffen Playhouse announced an extension (through July 5) of its The Present, a live interactive theatrical experience written and performed by master illusionist Helder Guimaraes and directed by Frank Marshall; Center Theatre Group launched Art Goes On to spotlight content at home; Prodigal Son is hosting a virtual scoring session with composer Nathaniel Blume and Dermot Mulroney on the cello; and the list goes on and on. 

Brett Hyman, president, CEO and founder of experiential marketing and production company NVE Experience Agency, tells THR that when virtual events became the solution of choice for the industry his firm developed a number of "zero-to-limited contact experiences" by flipping the framework on conferences, trade shows, red carpet premieres, brand activations and interactive programming.

"But what we soon realized is that while concepts are great in theory, we need to proactively and directly work with clients specific to their business objectives and IPs to make sure our upcoming productions and amplification strategies allow for scalability and flexibility based on the framework, timeframe and restrictions," he says. "While textbook large-scale events are not currently possible, you can see that people are seeking meaningful experiences more than ever before. Brands have an opportunity to realign their marketing objectives in order to become the key facilitator in helping audiences around the world enrich their lives through connection and community right now."

He's not expecting a return to large-scale events until there is a vaccine or therapeutic available, but they'll be ready when there is. "I am optimistic that we may be surprised with a great therapeutic solution in Q4 2020 but I have to be honest that unfortunately I don’t see a scenario in which mass gatherings like Coachella will happen in 2020. The second we have an effective treatment, events will start to come back, but we will likely need at least two to three months to prepare before a strategic and safe return."

Some of those who’ve spent years reporting from the red carpet are eager to get back to work and see their peers earning paychecks again. “This is a very tight-knit community of photographers, reporters, publicists, and all the security guards,” says Entertainment Tonight veteran Kevin Frazier. “We’ve all been doing this for a long time and we care about each other. It’s weird not seeing them on a regular basis.” 

Frazier, who cut his teeth as a camera man and sports reporter before segueing to ET — skills that are paying off now during in-home shoots — says social distancing guidelines will change the look and landscape of red carpet events. “Imagine if you have a big premiere and you have a star like Harrison Ford, a national treasure. You can’t afford to get Harrison Ford sick walking down the carpet. You’ll have to check everyone, stand six to eight feet apart,” he explains. “What you’ll never see is the way the Oscars carpet is packed with outlets stacked back-to-back for five, six hours, even longer, all bumping in to one another. What celebrity will want to walk and talk in that close of proximity and what workers will want to be in there?”

Frazier predicts the social distancing changes will have a negative impact on smaller outlets as red carpets get pared down to outlets with the farthest reach. “That’s a problem; some of these outlets are going to go away [amid media consolidation and cutbacks].”

No matter what happens, Dr. Agus says what the industry has is a chance to set a healthy example for the world. “Hollywood is looked on as a leader in behavior. What we do here matters, not just for ourselves but the rest of the country. We have to be at the forefront of doing things right and helping influence positive behavior changes. It’s a tremendous opportunity and responsibility.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.