Coronavirus Crisis Throws Emmy, Film Awards Campaigning Into Disarray

Aaron Paul Westworld BTS
Courtesy of Hulu

As concern quickly grows over the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Emmy campaigns have gone from “FYC” to “F-Y-Wait-and-See.” The television awards season has been upended by Hollywood’s move to cancel virtually every upcoming event on its calendar — including those For Your Consideration screenings and panels that make up a large part of network and studio Emmy strategies.

Depending on how long the crisis lasts, both the television and film campaign seasons could be dramatically impacted by this unprecedented shift in how networks, studios, streamers and others premiere and promote their major awards contenders. While Academy Awards season is still months away, the “Road to the Oscars” has already been affected by the cancellation of early film festivals like SXSW and Tribeca, with more potentially coming.

But the coronavirus outbreak has an immediate consequence for the Emmy race. FYC season got underway on Feb. 29, with the first event being a joint panel for Warner Bros. TV’s Fox drama “Prodigal Son” and Hulu limited series “Castle Rock.” In the days that followed, some events proceeded, while others were canceled — until the Television Academy finally halted all FYC events last week.

Moving forward, the organization is offering networks and studios the option of presenting FYC panels without a live audience and either live-streaming the event or taping it to post at a later date.

The edict comes as in-person experiential events have become a central part of Emmy campaigning. Netflix and Amazon spend millions of dollars each year to create monthlong pop-up installations where voters can take selfies with stars, interact with props from various programs and fill their stomachs with free food and booze. 

This year’s Emmy campaigns had already been disrupted by the move to eliminate DVD mailers and switch to online screeners only. In-person events could have at least helped awards strategists gauge audience reactions and guarantee that some voters would see the programs (even though it seems that many members attend more for the meal and the opportunity to gawk at celebrities). With that out of the picture, some wonder whether just streaming panels will have much of an impact.

“I’m not convinced they are worth doing without the press line, photo coverage and journalists in the room,” says one studio exec. It’s unclear how many networks and studios plan to produce some sort of FYC video or livestream, versus focusing on outdoor, digital and trade advertising coupled with media coverage. 

“It’s still March,” says an awards strategist at another outlet. “We’re exercising caution and thinking about what’s right for talent, the public and the voters. It forces you to look at the playbook and figure out new ideas. When you’re dealing with the health and safety of your casts and crews, dealing with business implications and a potential writers strike, it puts things in perspective.”

In some ways, the cancellation forces the networks and studios to streamline their Emmy campaigns — and perhaps levels the playing field for smaller outlets that couldn’t compete at the scale of big-budget events. Campaigners are likely also hoping that the pandemic will abate by June, when nomination voting takes place. 

“Should the virus be contained, we will contemplate a truncated FYC event season with an audience in hopes that we can accommodate partners impacted by early cancellations,” the Television Academy said in an email to networks and studios.

In the long term, should the Primetime Emmy Awards — scheduled for Sept. 20 — be delayed, there’s precedent: In 2001, the telecast had to be moved twice in light of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent military action. A smaller, more subdued Emmys finally took place that November. The Golden Globes was scrapped altogether in 2008 due to the Writers Guild strike, replaced with a press conference announcing the winners.

On the film side, awards season begins at the Cannes Film Festival. And there’s no better example of the festival’s impact on an awards contention than last year’s “Parasite.” The path of Bong Joon Ho’s Korean-language film to its historical best picture Oscar win began in May in the south of France, where it took the Palme d’Or.

With the possible cancellation of this year’s festival — and the already canceled SXSW and postponed Tribeca — and the uncertainty of the weeks and maybe months ahead, studio execs and awards consultants say it’s too early to form contingency plans for awards campaigning. “It’s just one big wait-and-see,” a consultant says.

If the Venice Film Festival (Sept. 2-12), Telluride Film Festival (Sept. 4-7), Toronto Film Festival (Sept. 10-20) and New York Film Festival (Sept. 25-Oct. 11) take place as planned, contenders should have plenty of time to campaign before Oscar voting begins in January. However, if those events are canceled or large gatherings are still being curtailed in the fall, traditional premieres and Q&As as well as tastemaker and guild screenings will be off the table.

Virtual campaigning, as with the Emmys’ Q&A livestreams, could wind up being the driving force in the Oscar race as well.

“Everyone is trying to stay optimistic that the fall will be a fertile time to kick off the awards season, if not sooner,” one studio exec says.