Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: Hard-Hit Publicists Fight To Survive In The Ashes Of Cancellation
Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email [email protected].
When the premiere of Tichina Arnold’s new Netflix film, The Main Event, got cancelled due to coronavirus shutdowns, her publicist Lana Walker refused to admit defeat. Despite currently facing the potential collapse of the publicity industry as she knows it, with no events on the calendar whatsoever, she started thinking creatively to give her client what they deserved. Teaming up with Jen Birn of boutique publicity firm, Simply Jen Creative Consulting, a plan came together: a virtual premiere.
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Using Netflix Party—a new Google Chrome-exclusive add-on that allows you to simultaneously view Netflix with friends on separate screens—Arnold’s premiere will go ahead, in a brand new way. On April 10, she will invite a group of friends and media into her Netflix party. It’s even sponsored. “We thought, dinner and a movie,” Birn says, “so I asked Postmates and they’re going to sponsor the dinner.”
This is the new publicity in the face of the coronavirus. Providing a vital bridge between creatives, the press, and the consumer, publicists’ bread-and-butter is so often in events. And suddenly, all of that is gone.
“It’s adapt or die,” says Jane Owen, who heads up her Los Angeles-based boutique firm Jane Owen PR. Owen has lost almost all her work. “It was a bloodbath,” she says. “Within about five hours I lost 100% of my business.” Given her clientele, which included a film company at Cannes, a concert in Iceland and a festival in Scotland, finding some kind of virtual solution was not really an option.
With her whole family hit hard by a suspected case of coronavirus (they were refused testing), Owen is fighting her way back to some income. “We’ve had fevers of 104, and been really ill, but I’m trying to find other ways outside of events to make money. I’m trying to be inventive. I’m working with a company now that helps to find royalties for actors that haven’t been recouped yet from smaller countries in Europe. It’s something I’ve never done before, but you have to try to adapt.”
She’s been discussing putting on virtual events, but says the logistics of planning larger gatherings online are hard. “Nobody knows how to organize these things. How could you get the amount of people you would need to log on at the same time? If it’s going to be VR, how do you get people access to the headsets? The idea is great, but the logistics of it are just not there yet.”
Fortunately for Walker, taking junkets online has become a viable option. Teaming up with the African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), she is putting on a virtual junket this Thursday with Arnold for both The Main Event and for Clover, a film coming out on VOD. “I thought, how do we continue to build all of the tools we used to use as publicists to help them spread the word,” Walker says, “to let them know that we’re not in a silo? So, the first thing that we came up with was, ‘We’ve got to get some press junkets going on.’”
Walker plans to do a full tour with these virtual junkets going forward. “You look at everybody doing cocktail chats on Zoom,” she says, “people doing all of these meetings. I said, ‘There’s room for us to do a virtual tour junket.’ You can tape it, you can podcast it, you can do whatever you want to do.”
After 20 years of working publicity and marketing in Los Angeles, Owen has found this start-over experience very humbling, but she is resourceful. She’s doing client outreach, going back to writing press releases, doing the things she did when she was first starting out in the business. And she is more worried about the people who may not have a way to stay in business at all. “What about the people who make things for events,” she says, “how will they survive? People who print step-and-repeats for premieres, or who physically produce the stages, the lights, or the decorations? I’m lucky that there’s a percentage of my business that can still be done by email.”
For Birn, who also immediately lost clients in the shutdowns, it’s become not just about finding work arounds for events, but also about thinking of new ways to market the brands she represents. “Brands can’t sponsor events right now,” she says, “which is a big loss of awareness for them, so instead, I’m sending brands direct to talent and media in little care packages. Then they’re sharing on social [media], because nobody has content, so that’s going out.”
Birn also points to the music industry, which is littered with cancelled concerts and tours. She sees ways to make it work going forward. The online ‘Together at Home’ concert series by Global Citizen in partnership with the World Health Organization has become hugely popular amid self-isolation. Niall Horan, Common, Coldplay and John Legend were early adopters of the program that uses Instagram live. “I think eventually brands will start sponsoring those concerts,” Birn says. Right now, it’s Global Citizen, which is great, but eventually it will be a brand.”
Her mobile software client, Geene, was all set to roll out an immersive 360-degrees experience at Cannes Lions—the now-postponed annual advertising and marketing festival that takes place a few weeks ahead of the film festival. “We were going to do a big thing to really show off the technology, and we can’t do that now and that was going to be the big reveal.”
But there’s a silver lining there. Instead, Geene has partnered with digital marketing agency Pretty Big Monster and Disney and launched an AR mobile in-home experience with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Anyone can see it now, no festival attendance or fancy equipment required. And Birn notes that mobile experiences can get a solid foothold in the marketing space now. There has been a widespread acceptance of virtual experiences like Zoom meetings during these shutdowns, thus, marketing plans like this AR experience could be embraced more than they would have been before.
Walker says the innovative and adaptive plans publicists are making right now could bring some good for lower-budget productions in future. With lower overheads and more accessibility in the virtual world, a lasting, accessible marketing space for independent film and television could evolve. “To quote Jeff Goldblum [in Jurassic Park], life finds a way,” she says. “This is going to level the playing field for VOD, for streaming, because now you can do virtual in the living room, and that income can go elsewhere. I think for the companies that don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars for marketing, or millions, I think this maybe gives the little guy another shot at marketing, and bringing it into people’s living room.”
Will the publicity business ever get back to normal? And if so, will real-life events still be a big part of it? “I think there are always going to be events,” Birn says. “But I don’t know what’s going to happen to a thing like Coachella, for example. I think it’s going to be a while before people feel comfortable getting in big crowds again. I think eventually there will still be movie premieres, there will still be the glitzier things.”
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