Quarantine Inspires Virtual Premieres to Kick Off New TV Shows Like HBO Max’s ‘Love Life’

Michael Schneider

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HBO Max’s premiere event last month for its new romantic anthology series “Love Life” had all the trappings of a typical Hollywood launch fete: The show’s executive producers, along with star Anna Kendrick, opened the festivities with a few words. After screening two episodes, guests were whisked to the after-party, where DJ Michelle Pesce spun tunes in one room as attendees sipped Manhattans and chatted with fellow guests.

But these are stay-at-home coronavirus pandemic times, and the “Love Life” event didn’t take place in person. Participants were sitting at home, watching and joining in via their laptops — along with hundreds of fellow remote guests.

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“We really wanted to create these virtual events that allow people to have similar connections and feelings that they would if they were at one of our in-person parties,” says Jori Arancio, exec VP of communications for HBO Max, TNT, TBS and TruTV.

That meant delivering gourmet pizzas (from Mozza in Los Angeles and caterer Mary Giuliani in New York) and mailing cocktail kits to several hundred attendees’ homes. 

After watching two episodes of the half-hour show (which premiered the same day HBO Max launched, on May 27), the virtual crowd was given the choice to visit several different “rooms.” 

In one, executive producer Paul Feig was in his kitchen, mixing drinks and dancing to Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money.” In another, guests could hook in a microphone to sing karaoke. Matchmaker Amy Van Doran distilled advice in yet another room. An active chat component allowed guests, including the show’s stars, to interact both during the screening and then in each room.

Jay Rinsky, who heads digital studio Little Cinema — which built the software and platform for the premiere — says the retention rate for the event was at about 88% of visitors, who stuck around for the hourlong party after the screening. (Around 1,000 virtual guests took part.)

Rinsky also touted the “feel-good” element of the event: “You’re putting an industry that’s suffering at the moment back to work,” he says. “Working with local restaurants and local vendors and trying to reimagine what food and drink feels like in a virtual space is exciting.”

Besides “Love Life,” the same WarnerMedia team also threw similarly large virtual events for the premiere of TNT’s “Snowpiercer” — which simulated events in different train cars inspired by the show, including some staffed with singers and bartenders — and HBO Max’s underground ballroom competition show “Legendary,” which found a way to showcase dancers from their homes. 

This wasn’t the original plan, of course, when Eileen Quast, WarnerMedia’s vice president of special events, was planning the launch of HBO Max. Quast had organized an event showcasing the streamer’s kids and family programming, including a screening of “The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo.” An animation day, highlighting Looney Tunes and leading into Bugs Bunny’s 80th birthday, was on tap. An immersive party for “Snowpiercer” was set for New York’s Hudson Yards. “Love Life” was getting a big premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. And then, for the HBO Max launch, Quast had drawn up what she calls “an epic party” on the Warner Bros. lot.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a quick halt to those plans in mid-March. “I essentially dropped everything, and I tried to take a new outlook and think about what are we trying to accomplish, and what’s the best approach,” Quast says.

The number of virtual premieres has grown in recent months as stay-at-home orders have taken hold. Amazon Studios held an event for “Homecoming” that included sending attendees fresh berries and a bottle of sparkling wine. NatGeo’s virtual premiere for “Barkskins” included a Q&A with the show’s cast and producers, while Amazon’s splash for “Upload” was hosted by Conan O’Brien.

Most TV premiere parties cost around $300,000 — although the high-end events for top-tier shows at major outlets like Netflix or HBO might be closer to seven figures. 

It’s believed that ultimately, WarnerMedia’s ambitious events came close to the average cost of an in-person event. Sure, there are no venue fees, but throwing a virtual party comes with its own logistical nightmares: figuring out dietary restrictions, timing the delivery of food and swag boxes and making sure the performers are properly wired in. (Pesce, for example, was performing her DJ set from Hawaii, where a sound engineer had to dial her in.)

“If you are going to do it with the same level of care and attention to detail that you would do in a real-life event, it really is one for one,” Rinsky says.

Rinsky and Quast say music festivals and awards shows have reached out for help on how to emulate their success with these events. Eventually, the world will be back to normal and in-person premieres will return. But Rinsky believes some of the virtual elements they’ve done will become a permanent part of the experience.

“We always ask, ‘Where do we spend the money, in L.A. or New York?’ [For instance], we could do a small [event] in L.A. and a big one to the world. I’m sure we’re going to start seeing a more blended approach as it becomes safer to get together physically.”

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