How TheWrap’s 2020 Innovators Conquered the Pandemic: ‘We Don’t Want to Go Back to Normal’

TheGrill 2020: “If you have a business, and you are in any way, not even growing, just still available in 2020, hats off to you,” says Triller’s Bobby Sarnevesht

It would be the understatement of the century to say that 2020 has not gone according to plan. Rocked by the worst pandemic in more than 100 years, while at the same time facing a reckoning over systemic racism decades in the making, the world heads into the stretch run of this year completely changed. For TheWrap’s 2020 Innovators, every single challenge not only tested their mettle and resolve, but provided an opportunity to lay the groundwork in hopes of building a better future. Or at least a much different future. Take Emily Ramshaw, co-founder of The 19th*, a nonprofit newsroom run by, and aimed at, women. The pandemic reared its ugly head in the United States about six months before The 19th* was set to launch. “There was like a week where my husband had COVID, and I was pushing a four-year-old out of the Zoom screen as I was trying to raise money,” Ramshaw said Thursday at the Innovators panel at TheWrap’s TheGrill conference, presented by Sony. When The 19th* did launch in August, it was the place where Kamala Harris gave her first interview after being tapped to be Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. “It’s totally making lemonades out of lemons,” Ramshaw continued. Bobby Sarnevesht, executive chairman of video-sharing app Triller, thinks anyone still around after six months of a pandemic should be commended. “If you have a business, and you are in any way, not even growing, just still available in 2020, hats off to you and your management team.” Eugene Hernandez had the unenviable task of taking over as director of the New York Film Festival just weeks before COVID-19 wiped out every single in-person gathering through the year. He faced an existential question: How do you reimagine a film festival when nobody is allowed to be in the same room? “We had to create a virtual cinema, so that our audiences — and we have a lot of really loyal members — could figure out, could watch movies,” Hernandez said. “The platform that we built is tremendously successful. We’ve exceeded all of our revenue projections for this year’s festival.” While major studios were delaying release, or rerouting them to streaming thanks to theaters across the country being shuttered for months, IFC Films took the contrarian path of keeping its films  on the big screen. It’s just that the big screen was now a drive-in screen. That risky bet paid off, but Lisa Schwartz, co-president of IFC Films, argued that “being at peace with failing” is the only way to get to true innovation. And there’s certain aspects of her business she thinks will stay even after the pandemic is over. “One of the most effective things we’ve found is virtual press junkets,” she said, adding that it’s particularly useful for foreign language films, allowing actors from all over the world to participate in the press run-up to a film’s premiere. “It will become a matter of how you define that. How normal gets defined going forward.” For Adam Arrigo, CEO of Wave, this year “crystalized something core to entrepreneurship,” that there’s only so many things you can control. Wave, which allows musicians to stage virtual concerts, partnered with The Weeknd to put on a virtual concert with TikTok. One day before, Donald Trump first mentioned his intentions to ban TikTok, citing security concerns. The shutdown of physical concerts also brought everyone to Wave’s doorstep, including many of those they had tried to get on board years ago. “I went around to everyone in the music industry for four years,” he said. “Some people thought I was crazy, and then this year all of a sudden, everyone was emailing and calling us.” For Arrigo, there is no going back to the old pre-pandemic world. In fact, that old normal is what got us in the mess in the first place, he argues. “There is no ‘normal,’ it’s a total illusion,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to normal, because ‘normal’ f—ing sucks.” The three-month sports shutdown provided an opportunity for Lee Trink’s esports group, FaZe Clan, a team of gamers, but also a challenge. All the major esports competitions were called off. At the same time, Trink was trying to launch a live events part of the business. “We had to reimagine,” he said. “It was definitely the moment where a crowded hallway in entertainment and sports got uncrowded. Everybody had to pull over.” Now? Trink is getting ready to actually put on a live event: A drive-in premiere for the company’s first feature-length film, starring FaZe Clan talent. “We’re taking a huge chance that we can execute a COVID safe event.” Steven Galanis, co-founder and CEO of Cameo, said he was one day away from signing a 10-year lease on an office in Chicago before the pandemic went from a terrifying thought to an even-more-terrifying reality. “That night, the NBA shutdown and the market crashed the next day,” he said. Since then, he’s relocated to Miami and completely rethought how his company should work. “We wouldn’t go back to the office if there was a cure tomorrow.” Remote working helped him realize he could hire anyone, no matter where they lived. “It’s also the time you get an incredible amount of clarity in the storm,” he said. “We’re going to hire the best people,” and not only look at those in Los Angeles or Chicago. Julie Uhrman, president of Angel City Football Club, the L.A. women’s professional soccer team set to start play in 2022. Uhrman, who partnered with Natalie Portman to start the club, said the pandemic forced her to “build the company completely different than I had imagined.” That included hiring many employees over Zoom, but, as with all the Innovators, the challenge provided opportunity. For example, on Thursday Angel City held an Instagram Live with Eva Longoria and America Ferrara. “They talked about Angel City, but they really talked about Hispanic Heritage Month and what it meant to them, which was the whole point of having them together on the platform,” Uhrman said. “If I had to try to get them together to do that, it would have been impossible, not near impossible, it literally would have been impossible. Eva was in Mexico, America’s in New York. And so just logistically wouldn’t even have been an option.” Check out TheWrap’s full 2020 Innovators List here.


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