The leaders of Women in Film knew they had to do something different with its annual fundraiser in 2020. But they had no idea their brainstorming would lead to the organization’s first TV special, “Women in Film Presents: Make It Work,” which airs Wednesday on the CW.
“We’ve been looking at our annual gala as a fundraiser for a couple of years in terms of how to pivot to something slightly different or more evolved,” Amy Baer, Women in Film board president, tells Variety. “It just felt like the format was getting tired. But it was also a necessity because we’re a nonprofit and the annual gala is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the organization.”
When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, plans to try something new quickly turned into necessity. And as both Baer and Stephanie Allain (WIF board member and “Make It Work” executive producer) noted, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
WIF’s annual gala, previously known as the Crystal + Lucy Awards, will be take shape as a virtual variety show, mixing comedy and musical numbers with celebrity testimonials from its star-studded cast, all in service of promoting women in the industry and WIF’s Hire Her Back Fund. The goal is to promote understanding that women often face a harder time with career transitions and in seeking employment after a recessionary period — not just in the entertainment industry but in the broader economy as well.
“Women and people of color tend to be the first laid off and the last rehired, and rehired at a lower salary,” Baer says. “This special is grounded in the screen industries because that’s our focus but we wanted to amplify the idea of ‘Hire Her Back’ across the country.”
From the initial concept, dreamed up by Baer and fellow executive producer Monica Levinson, the virtual fundraiser quickly evolved into a broadcast production, thanks to the support of a host of women along the way, including Gaye Hirsch, the CW’s executive VP of development.
“We’re so lucky to have the talent that first started showing up,” Levinson says. “Jane Fonda saying ‘She’s in’ from the get-go really helped us to pull together. Alfre [Woodard] was one of the first people to jump in — it was just a call from Stephanie. Sherri Shepherd who worked with [Amy and I] on ‘Brian Banks’ said ‘Yes,’ with Kym Whitley and they bring such humor and fun to the show.”
“It was really the generosity of so many women who stepped up, who did their own setups, who helped us make this show,” Allain adds. “From the elder stateswomen from Rita Moreno and Alfre and the amazing Hillary Clinton down to new younger folks who just came together. It just really makes you understand the power of women coming together.”
Shivani Rawat, whose company ShivHans Pictures helped produce “Make It Work,” also worked as a producer with Baer and Levinson on the 2018 football drama “Brian Banks.” She was eager to team up again on a project that is also close to her heart.
“This is pure power. This is representation, little by little,” Rawat says. “This just shows what women can do when we support each other.” Rawat’s ShivHans Pictures provided the initial seed funding for WIF’s “Hire Her Back” campaign.
Allain notes that she brought insights into crafting “Make It Work” from her experience producing the Oscarcast in February.
“One of the biggest things that I’ve been working on throughout my tenure in Hollywood is the importance of inclusion. And that’s something that I think was brought to the party at the Oscars and certainly to the show [on Wednesday],” she says. “Just so many voices out there that really needs to be heard and seen, and, you know, that was in the DNA of the show that we put together.”
Allain added, “We really wanted it to be a female democracy, we really wanted every person’s contribution to be as weighted as the next and so it felt like the right way to go was hostless.”
The decision also allowed the team to create a more natural flow of conversation between guests versus having an anchor virtually toss to the next segment. Another challenge the team faced was physically producing the show remotely. No soundstages were used in the making of this show and every filmed themselves (or had a family member film them) from home. The producers used a video conference platform called Evercast for the filming and editing process, so that all of the producers were able to watch filming as it happened live and able to communicate with their guests.
“A lot of people already have their setups, like Alfre’s been doing a lot of things she had a whole set up, she didn’t need anything and some people did so,” Allain says. “She was one of the first people to send us her segment. And there’s a beautiful painting in the background and Monica was able to track down the artist in South Africa to get permission.”
Harder though, was cutting down all of the content to just 42 minutes (and four seconds), versus the relatively unlimited amount of time attendees expect from the usual dinner and a show model that has dominated the fundraising industry for decades.
“That’s our theme of the show, how to make it work when you have imposed restrictions,” Allain says. “It’s kind of exciting because what happens is you cut away the fat and get it down to such a tight 42 minutes that we hope and we expect that the audience will feel riveted by, and they’ll stay with us, and we’ll leave them wanting more.”
The team of producers also feel that a new world has opened up with virtual productions – especially seeing the success of non-industry events like the Democratic National Convention. Baer points to Fox’s Elton John-hosted “I Heart Living Room Concert for America” benefit and the 2020 BET Awards as having been particularly instructive in terms of creating this broadcast and looking at the landscape to come.
“And I think that moving forward, we’re going to see how it works with the Emmys, and the VMAs, and with the Tonys who have now just announced they’re going virtual,” Baer says. “So it’ll be interesting to see what works and what sticks. I think that everyone’s looking at the way it’s being done right now and going, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of really good, smart stuff we can learn from this moving forward.’”
“Not to mention cost-cutting,” Allain adds. “Because you’re not paying for that chicken dinner. You’re not paying for the hotel site fee, you’re not paying for transportation, it goes on and on. I think there’s a lot to learn.”
(Pictured: Showrunner Mara Brock Akil featured in “Women in Film Presents: Make It Work.”)
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.