Read the full 2020 New York Women’s Impact Report here.
Work on this report was well underway when the pandemic effectively brought the entertainment industry to a halt in mid-March. We initially moved it and our annual Power of Women New York luncheon to July, but that date also proved problematic given the pandemic’s severe toll on the region. Once we pivoted to a virtual Power of Women event, we surveyed the women in this report — selected pre-pandemic based on their impact on the entertainment industry in the past year — for their COVID-19 heroes and experiences, lessons learned so far and the outlook ahead. Their experiences varied widely: Some had battled the coronavirus, others had watched their work disappear overnight, and at least one had a baby in the middle of the pandemic. Many learned how to juggle Zoom calls and home-schooling, overcoming obstacles that once would have seemed daunting.
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And all of this was before protests about racial inequality erupted around the country.
Eliza Hittman, who wrote and directed “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a searing abortion drama starring Sidney Flanigan that received awards at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals earlier this year, is feeling better now, but was very sick in mid-March, when the pandemic wreaked havoc on her Brooklyn neighborhood. Her live-in partner and editor on “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Scott Cummings, eventually tested positive for antibodies. Months later, she’s still coming to grips with the experience.
“I feel relieved that we’re no longer at this heightened moment of people dying in the city,” says Hittman. “I live in a co-ethnic enclave in Brooklyn, and in mid-March while I was sick in bed under layers of blankets being treated for pneumonia, I would sit up in my bed and look out my window, and from this aerial perspective I could see my neighbors being hauled out of their buildings on stretchers. And that is kind of an unshakable image.”
Focus Features released “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” on premium VOD after movie theaters closed, and while it didn’t get the kind of distribution Hittman originally envisioned, “ultimately I am happy that people have access to the movie in this moment, given the springboard launch of Sundance and Berlin and given that simultaneously to the unfolding of this global health crisis in our country we have politicians that are deeming abortion non-essential,” says Hittman, who has been quarantined with Cummings and their 5-year-old son. “The urgency, the relevancy of the film, became more heightened, and hopefully there are young people in this country that this film reaches that might be stuck in a similar situation as the main character.”
Her hope: that the movie, which Variety critics recently named one of the best movies of 2020 so far, will continue to resonate through the year and beyond.
Elsewhere in the metropolis, Katori Hall watched five years of her work shut down overnight. “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” which she co-wrote and produced, went dark on Broadway in March due to the coronavirus; the tune-filled look at Turner’s life received three Olivier nominations during its run in London’s West End prior to its Broadway transfer. “The Hot Wing King,” her Off Broadway play that debuted March 1 at the Signature Theater, also abruptly closed. Broadway is not expected to reopen its doors until Labor Day at the earliest.
“All this stuff that I had been working on for five years shuttered in less than 24 hours. Gone. That’s a deep and big loss for me to deal with,” Hall says, quickly adding that she’s grateful that her family’s healthy.
Hall had also just delivered eight episodes of Starz’s upcoming “P-Valley,” an adaptation of her play, just prior to the pandemic’s arrival in New York, and was planning on taking a break to recharge creatively in March. All those plans have flown out the window, but she has squeezed in some time to write in between homeschooling.
When a producer on the “Today” show tested positive for COVID-19 in March, staff quickly dispersed and began creating the morning mainstay remotely.
“We all went home on March 16, not knowing if we’d return in a week or a month,” says Joanne LaMarca Mathisen, executive producer for the fourth hour of “Today,” noting that one month has already stretched into several. “But on March 17, we produced the first two blocks of the show from our pajamas, over the phone and via a laptop. At the end, we virtually high-fived and were thrilled with ourselves for getting a show on the air, even if it was just 18 minutes of a show. A week or so later, we were outfitted with all the technology we needed.”
Rashida Jones, senior VP, NBC News and MSNBC, has continued to work at 30 Rock headquarters during the pandemic — one of a handful of staffers there to make sure the news programs air without a hitch. When COVID-19 shut down much of the country, her team immediately pivoted: Out went enterprise stories pegged to the election as COVID took center stage. “Our priorities shifted really from ‘let’s figure out how we can creatively get in front of new big ideas’ to ‘what is the most effective way to cover the one story that everyone cares about while also thinking ahead to at some point we will get beyond this story,’ ” Jones says.
One month into the country’s virtual lockdown, Universal Music Group exec VP Michele Anthony executive produced Global Citizen’s massive One World: Together at Home benefit concert. Lady Gaga curated the April 18 event, which featured performances from Billie Eilish, Lizzo and the Rolling Stones; late night’s Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon served as hosts.
The catch: Everything had to be done remotely. Organized in three weeks, it raised $128 million for healthcare workers via corporate sponsorships and drew 260 million viewers worldwide.
“You know, we often talk about music’s uniquely powerful role in inspiring and uniting people across borders and differences to help heal the world,” Anthony tells Variety. “With One World: Together at Home, we saw that healing power in action.”
Over at Comedy Central, “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” has been calling attention to worthy organizations on a nightly basis.
“Obviously, providing laughter is an amazing thing to be able to do, but that’s our normal gig,” says Jennifer Flanz, executive producer and showrunner. “These charities are the ones truly doing the hard work. We just want to support them.”
But for many, the biggest adjustment has been shifting from working in an office to doing so at home.
“The deals are still happening. We are as busy as ever, if not busier,” says Lisa Alter, partner, Alter Kendrick & Baron, who handled more than $800 million in music publishing deals in the past year. Purchase price multiples have been going through the roof the past few years, “so we went into this pandemic with a lot of deals on the table, but new deals are being made.”
Alter attributes that to the value still attached to music assets, in addition to another sad reality: more people need to sell, as their livelihoods as touring artists fall.
“If this had happened five years ago, I don’t know what we would be doing, not being in that physical space together,” says Alter, who was able to work through a mild case of COVID-19 earlier in the outbreak while her husband remained asymptomatic.
There have been pandemic-related hurdles to overcome: courts have been closed and therefore unavailable for lien searches; the IRS is more backed up than usual. And members of the firm had their own personal issues to navigate, from having a child (law firm partner Katie Baron) to canceling a wedding (Alter’s daughter).
“Little kids, teenagers, you name it, we’ve got it going on here, but everyone is just being amazing,” she says.
When the pandemic started making headlines in New York, “Hadestown” creator and songwriter Anais Mitchell “made a very sudden decision to leave the city at 38 weeks to give birth in Vermont, where my family’s from.”
Her daughter Rosetta was born one week later via midwives. Mitchell, who won a 2019 Tony for “Hadestown’s” original score, had one previous child with husband Noah Hahn.
Kerri Mackar, meanwhile, has been “playing a lot of pass-the-baby” with her husband while both are working from home and simultaneously caring for their 7-month-old daughter. The executive VP brand partnerships, Republic Records, feels lucky to watch her develop, but concedes that the juggling act has been a challenging one.
Food Network has also adapted on the fly. Amy Schumer and chef husband Chris Fischer gamely shot their new show, “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook,” shortly after relocating for quarantine; their nanny helped staff the cameras when not tending to the couple’s 1-year-old son, Gene. And the network filmed takeout editions of shows such as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Courtney White, president, Food Network and Cooking Channel, calls the ability of staffers and culinary talent to pull off these new self-shot shows inspiring — and instructive.
Other TV execs feel the same way. “The main lesson I learned is that we can adapt and survive even in the most unimaginable working circumstances,” says Katie Hockmeyer, EVP, late-night programming, NBC Entertainment, who lauds “Tonight Show” host Fallon and “Late Night’s” Seth Meyers for rising to the occasion and figuring out how to handle audio, lighting, camera duties, plus hair and wardrobe, without usual staffers nearby.
The outlook ahead is murky: COVID-19 has not been contained nationwide, and restrictions were just starting to be lifted when violent protests erupted around the country, prompting curfews in many cities. When will Americans feel safe enough to go to movie theaters, stage productions and concerts en masse? Entertainment execs grapple with this question on a daily basis.
Hall, for one, hopes that inequities exposed during the pandemic will help propel further change.
“We shouldn’t go back to normal because normal is what got us here,” Hall says.
From her perch inside 30 Rock, Jones has been charting the duration. “I’m looking through the glass of my office at a stack of New York Times papers that’s — let’s call it 2½-feet tall — abandoned New York Times newspapers because no one’s been here to read them,” she says. “It’s my daily reminder how long this has been going on and how far we’ve come.
“One day, these desks, these halls, will all be filled, but it’s just so surreal and remarkable how things turned on a dime.”
Steven J. Horowitz contributed to this report.