Junket Prods. saw it coming. Back in February, when President Trump said the virus would soon dwindle to “one or two people,” veteran behind-the-scenes producers Jody Pritchard (in Los Angeles) and Suzanne Marvier (in New York) rushed to get ahead of the crisis. Soon, they mounted three virtual press junkets for Netflix: “Coffee & Kareem,” with stars Ed Helms and Taraji P. Henson talking from their homes to “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra,” and “Access Hollywood,” indie film “Tigertail,” with filmmaker Alan Yang and actress Christine Ko; and Iliza Shlesinger, star of “The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show.”
And on April 6, Junket worked with Quibi cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg as he launched the new streaming app with a crack-of-dawn appearance on the Today Show followed by other press outlets via a day-long media junket. He never left his Beverly Hills home.
Even in a global pandemic, the shill must go on. In a cultural moment when Zoom has become the communication multitool, it’s a key player in the press junkets that act as the lifeblood for promoting television and movies. However, it’s not without its limitations.
“Zoom chats can be challenging,” said Prichard. “Nothing beats being in a room one-on-one with talent. (And press) are dying to get back out. They are going to want to return to the way it was.”
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It took some trial and error before Junket found the right formula for virtual junkets. Initially, they lined up closed-off, sanitized floors at junket-central hotels the Whitby and Four Seasons, betting that even if press wouldn’t fly into these locations, talent would settle into their well-lit TV shooting suites.
“The talent would be in there 100 percent by themselves with digital backgrounds behind them,” said Marvier. Added Prichard, “They would be the only person in the room with a remotely operated camera and recording systems in a room next door. We were marketing the whole social-distancing aspect.”
In the second week of March, after Trump announced travel restrictions, they realized that plan literally wasn’t going to fly. By the time New York and Los Angeles went into lockdown, they mobilized their tech team and worked closely with talent to ensure that they could be ready for broadband without the help of an entourage.
Junket overnighted a ring light to Chicago for Henson, but she was on her own for hair, makeup, and wifi. The actress finally found a corner of her bedroom next to her router where Zoom would work on her iPad. Helms set himself up well, rigging up his own side and front lighting. “He was beautiful, said Marvier. “We might hire him.”
An online junket isn’t much different from the real thing, although Junket asks all participants to watch a training video to ensure they’re up to speed on Zoom. At her assigned time, journalists click a link and check into a “hospitality room.” After the junket tech team ensures that everyone’s figured out the tech specs, wifi, audio, and lighting (sitting by a window is best), media wait their turn in muted Zoom portals. Then, they’re ushered into a “breakout” room with a blank screen where interview subjects pop into frame, one at a time.
“Tigertail” was the first virtual junket for AP film reporter Lindsey Bahr, who spoke with Yang as well as actors Ko and Tzi Ma from their respective homes. Various PR folks and others lurked in hidden mode, listening, and text messages frequently reminded her of the time she had left. After the interviews, she received a link to HD videos, both two-shots and separate ones of herself and the talent; these were of much higher quality than the live Zoom.
“I was half expecting them to deliver bottled water and cookies,” she said, “but that was not the case.” While Bahr found the junket’s beats familiar, she was left a little underwhelmed. “It’s sort of awkward, when you’re all so isolated and you just see a face,” she said. “It was a hyper-controlled atmosphere. With some phoners, they could have gone on forever. Having a middleman managing the time, that was not happening.”
For Quibi, Junket supplied Katzenberg with a laptop loaded with the apps he would need, which they controlled remotely. (If needed, they can provide a device to boost the talent’s internet.) The Today Show was via live satellite feed. “He’s streamed into the satellite studio sitting in the comfort of his own home,” said Prichard. “He also did KTLA with Sam Rubin. He got around the world from the virtual junket.” Katzenberg hopped on and off Zoom interviews, interspersing them with Skype conversations and the occasional break, from 4:30 AM to 4 PM.
While studios have yet to go the virtual route (unsurprising, with theaters closed), Junket said it is now lining up remote promotional events with such usual studio clients as Sony and Paramount. Universal does have a virtual activity kit, complete with downloadable games and throw-your-own-premiere instructions, for DreamWorks’ “Trolls World Tour.” It will premiere via premium VOD April 10 via Universal.
Like virtual writers’ rooms or widescale working from home, virtual junkets are yet another real-time experiment for the entertainment industry. It’s an idea that’s been long considered, but no one was going to risk the execution… until, of course, there was no choice. And it could change press junkets forever.
Certainly, talent in Los Angeles and New York will still want to meet the press face to face. However, it’s likely that cost-cutting studios and streamers alike will no longer fly in out-of-town media.
That said, forcing the journalists who carry the message to work from home also means studios are vulnerable to unseen challenges. Said Marvier: “We don’t know if a kid is going to hop on and start playing video games and suck up all the internet capabilities and dilute our image.”