“Graduate Together,” a virtual commencement ceremony featuring over 30 speeches from celebrities and world leaders, will qualify for the Primetime Emmy Awards in 11 categories, it was revealed this week.
Should a nomination or eventual win come for the special, shot virtually from coronavirus quarantine, it will surely mark the strange and unprecedented time Hollywood is currently living and working through. But it also tells us something about the future of community engagement and inspiration, say experts who spoke with Variety.
LeBron James, President Barack Obama, Megan Rapinoe and Zendaya all offered up their advice to the high school class of 2020 on the May 18 special — any of whom would be A-list gets for the average graduation, or even the most exclusive thought leadership conferences held annually around the globe.
In the past weeks, numerous digital commencement events have gone up thanks to platforms like Zoom, Hollywood’s beloved black tie fundraisers found a way to survive, and star chef Samin Nosrat held a streaming lasagna-making party for hundreds of thousands. These workarounds are quickly becoming customs that will linger after coronavirus is neutralized.
“Think about the conflation of not just the virus and the economic downturn, which will get worse before it gets better, to the division and civil unrest as a result of George Floyd and all that has opened up, it creates a place where people feel unsettled and confused. Leadership and maturity matter,” said Walter Robb, a former co-CEO of Whole Foods who presented to 2,000 grocers in Central South America this month over video conference.
Robb is a client of CAA Speakers, a division of the Hollywood talent agency whose business has exploded with gigs for in-house education and awareness around connecting during COVID-19.
“We had some experience in the virtual space, but it was only about 2% to 5% of our overall business outside of live appearances. Now, it has become most of the business we’re booking,” said CAA’s Peter Jacobs, who heads the speakers unit.
“Around 70% of that is corporate bookings. A lot of tech firms have moved all of their conferences, some through 2021, so we’re seeing a huge trend in that direction, and I think the virtual trend Is here to stay. Companies are realizing this a way to potentially connect with even more people to reach a bigger audience,” said Jacobs.
The bookings bring revenue at a time when production is still struggling to come back online, but going deeper, the speakers can be lifelines in times of civil unrest. CAA recently hosted a conversation with two of the Exonerated Five — Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana — wrongfully implicated in the rape and assault of a Central Park jogger in 1989.
The agency also held its annual Amplify summit in town hall form, featuring conversations with Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade, Jamie Foxx and Joy Buolamwini of Algorithmic Justice League.
“Many people in the Amplify community are being called to lead right now – whether it’s within their communities, their companies, their families or the industries they are working in. By keeping them connected to each other and ensuring they continue to have access to some of the country’s prominent experts, we can empower and support them as they take action,” said Ruben Garcia, a top CAA executive who advises on diversity and inclusion.
Growing conversations are also bubbling up in less urgent sectors. Robb said crafty commerce platform Etsy has “exploded” as a market for bored home bakers to sell their wares. Jacobs said clients from chefs to fitness gurus are in demand for audiences seeking reprieve from the virus and the news cycle.
Live events and gatherings will likely “come back and come back big time,” Jacobs concluded, “but we are anticipating a good portion of our business moving forward will be virtual events, during and after COVID.”