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The epicenter of Emmy campaigning now resides 15 miles due east of the TV Academy’s North Hollywood headquarters.
In lieu of the organization’s state-of-the-art cantilevered theater, home before the pandemic to an annual marathon of screenings and cocktail hours, what in-person schmoozing is to be found this FYC season is taking place in the parking lot of a 99-year-old stadium. At Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, a handful of programmers are courting Emmy voters almost nightly with that COVID-era novelty — the drive-in.
On a recent May evening, some 250 cars, 100 of them carrying at least one Emmy voter, rolled down the Arroyo Parkway for a screening of Bravo’s Top Chef. There was a drive-up photo booth, a taped message from Padma Lakshmi and company at the top of the episode and, in a marriage of circumstance and content, auto-bound guests were delivered re-creations of the meals served on the 70-foot screen via a carhop.
“The world is opening up,” says Ellen Stone, executive vp entertainment brand strategy and consumer engagement for NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. So confident is she in the gradual return to normalcy that she recently set in-person festival BravoCon for October in New York. “People are getting vaccinated,” she added. “They’re feeling better about being in social situations that follow protocol and are safe.”
Safe, if you’re going for scale, still means a drive-in. There have been car-less events — like April’s intimate season three premiere of FX’s Pose in New York and Disney’s subdued red carpet for Cruella in Hollywood — though nothing is on deck for the nomination round of Emmy campaigning. For 10 nights in May, WarnerMedia held Rose Bowl screenings for potential heavy hitters such as The Flight Attendant (HBO Max) and Mare of Easttown (HBO). Each accompanied a pretaped panel with talent. And, May 25 through June 18, the suite of Disney TV brands will screen 12 series.
Perhaps buoyed by their recent in-person events, Disney is actually bringing talent on site. A Pose event will feature a panel and a musical performance by stars Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez. Cynthia Erivo will be on hand to plug National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha — as will Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross for Black-ish. “Campaigning live and in person has always been a powerful driver of conversation and excitement among the Academy voters,” says Shannon Ryan, president of marketing at ABC Entertainment and Disney Television Studios. “Coming up with a safe, innovative live experience to celebrate our contenders was something we prioritized.”
For awards strategists and marketing executives alike, the scope of these events is a welcome shift from the first phase of Emmy FYC in 2020. Not only did the early days of COVID-19 kneecap budgets, but no one wanted to look as if they were campaigning — even though nearly everyone did it with quietly promoted virtual screenings and panels.
Still, not all are ready to return to experiential. Netflix, the biggest FYC spender in recent years, is keeping its events strictly digital by airing panels of all eligible series on its branded FYSEE platform. For voters particularly nostalgic for the free eats associated with Emmy season, the streamer devoted a significant portion of its FYC spend to partner with independent L.A. restaurants to deliver branded bites — Pitfire Pizza for Kevin Hart: Zero F**ks Given, macarons from Pastreez for Emily in Paris and Trejo’s Tacos for Selena: The Series, among others — to those who signed up in time. (Amazon, for its part, is strictly digital — save a pop-up restaurant in support of The Boys.)
Most strategists expect more in-person events as soon as the second half of FYC this summer, but none forecast a world in which the virtual panels of the past year ever go away. Talent, who often flew to L.A. for even a single campaign event, has grown accustomed to literally phoning it in — and, even once 600 Emmy enthusiasts can again cram into an enclosed space, there’s only one way to guarantee that content is available to all 20,000-plus voting members of the TV Academy.
“There’s been a paradigm shift,” says Stone. “I don’t think we’ll ever walk away from virtual. That’s now part of the expectation. But we’re still looking to swing into experiential, because people have missed that. Once there is more confidence, there’ll be more opportunities.”
This story first appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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