As Hollywood enters awards season, two rising stars in the publicity machine are making a name for themselves
On a recent evening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Andrea Oliveri and Nicole Vecchiarelli maneuvered their way through a bumping, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at a premiere party for “Hustlers.” They chit-chatted with publicist Liz Mahoney, a partner in Narrative PR, which represents a range of celebrity clients from “Eighth Grade’s” Elsie Fisher to Constance Wu and Richard Madden. Mahoney has known Oliveri and Vecchiarelli for over 15 years, largely in their former capacities as magazine editors at a range of publications including Teen Vogue, Details, InStyle and DuJour (where Vecchiarelli was founding editor).
But that night, in Toronto, the three women’s conversation was not about the magazine trade — not directly, anyway. It was about Oliveri and Vecchiarelli’s new and thriving business. Together, they run Special Projects, which is best described as part integrated marketing consultancy, part partnerships advisory, part editorial bookings agency and part event planning SWAT team.
The energetic duo has made waves for producing conferences across the fashion, luxury, media and tech spaces in recent months, with high-profile clients including Business of Fashion’s BoF West, a live event “that explores the powerful intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley’s creative and technology-based businesses with fashion,” for which Special Projects booked Serena Williams to appear on the cover of a BoF print issue as well as speak in person at the event. Other recent projects include Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Health and The Cut’s How I Get It Done event. At Amazon’s presentation of Rihanna’s Fenty x Savage fashion show at New York Fashion Week earlier this month, Special Projects filled the front row with a range of in-demand showgoers, including model Ashley Graham, Chris Rock, Diplo, Lil Kim, Paris Hilton and country chanteuse Kacey Musgraves. Next month, they will orchestrate a W Magazine dinner introducing Sara Moonves’ inaugural issue as editor in chief. Their list of regular clients includes the Wing, Edie Parker Flower and Kate Spade.
Editorial bookings also constitute a significant portion of Special Projects’ business. The duo works closely with Kristina O’Neill, editor in chief of WSJ. Magazine on an ongoing basis to book celebrity covers. Up to and inclusive of the September 2019 cover, they also booked every celebrity cover for Town & Country this year (although according to Vecchiarelli, that relationship has come to an end as T&C Editor in Chief Stellene Volandes has decided to take editorial bookings in-house).
The women also contribute to the magazines in other ways, such as proposing talent and photographers for special portfolios. In February of this year, for instance, WSJ. launched a “Talent & Legends” cover with Lucas Hedges.
“Andrea was instrumental in identifying not only what made sense for the editorial but also how to build it into a package. She helped us get Lucas on the cover but then also celebrated the issue with a dinner that Julia Roberts and I cohosted,” said O’Neill. “They really see things in a 360[-degree] way — it’s not just the magazine but it’s how to experience the magazine through an event. Celebrities are inundated with ‘asks’ these days, and what makes an opportunity with WSJ. so meaningful is that it’s not just another echo chamber.”
Special Projects began in September 2016 as an “editorially minded celebrity booking and creative content agency that elevates media, fashion and consumer brands through the unique use of celebrities and storytelling,” as the company’s web page puts it. Now that Special Projects has proven its chops in the media and live journalism conference space, creating cultural capital by handpicking the right celebrities and jigsaw-puzzling them together with the right media or the right conferences, Oliveri and Vecchiarelli see a new sector of their business emerging: the entertainment industry itself. This year, the two have produced premiere and tastemaker events for “Blinded by the Light” with Warner Bros., “What We Do in the Shadows” for FX and “Sweetbitter” for Starz.
With their growing roster of film and television projects, Oliveri and Vecchiarelli, both 43, now compete with the very same awards season Svengalis whose screenings and dinners they attended as magazine editors in years past.
The business of organizing premieres and parties to generate buzz around a film is a niche that requires deep social contacts and organizational skills — specifically, the ability to fill a theater and then after-party with the right media and the right industry folk whose buzz will make or break a film’s success. A small yet established crew of event planners has occupied this space for years, including Andrew Saffir, Darin Pfeiffer and, until recently, Peggy Siegal. In July, Variety reported that Annapurna, Disney-owned FX and Netflix were among the Hollywood companies to cut ties with Siegal after the Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times reported on her long-standing connections to controversial sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The 72-year-old publicist has long been a fixture in New York society, wielding her hefty Rolodex to organize exclusive screenings and parties to generate buzz, as well as awards season momentum, for her entertainment industry clients.
While Siegal’s potential fall from grace might create more space on the playing field, Oliveri and Vecchiarelli have already made their mark and established their niche. As Variety put it, the two “are quickly gaining steam for their lists [and are part of] a new generation of event planners who can put together an intimate cocktail party for Town & Country but also spearhead Kanye West’s album listening party in Jackson Hole.”
Their age certainly does seem to be in their favor.
“They’re younger than many of the other people in that space, and it gives them a different perspective,” said Leslee Dart, founder and co-chief executive of public relations firm 42West. “Their editorial background helps them create the right mix. You don’t want the same people at every event. The person who likes ‘Joker’ is not going to like ‘Downton Abbey.’”
Oliveri and Vecchiarelli’s strategy for creating the perfect guest list goes beyond inviting the same Rolodex of socialites over and over again — something for which their predecessors in the event-planning space have drawn criticism. It involves comprehensive research, taking an editorial approach to curating a cross-section of who might be genuinely interested in a film.
“We have a foundational list that is very robust from our years at different magazines, but we customize everything we work on to feel really special,” Vecchiarelli explained. “We draw on various communities we think the film would appeal to, and then fill in the blanks. We’re not going to recycle the same list for every event we do.”
A Special Projects guest list may include the usual roster of media and industry executives, but it might also include wellness buffs, or tech upstarts, or Gen Z skater dudes. For a screening last October of Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, the skating-themed coming-of-age tale “Mid90s,” the two spent hours on a deep dive through Instagram researching influential and in-the-know skateboarders they could invite. “We had the event at the West L.A. courthouse, and there were all these skater kids just hanging out and having the best time. It was so cool,” said Oliveri.
Ultimately, Hill’s team considered the event a success. “The industry is changing so much right now, and trying to do things the way they were done 25 years ago isn’t realistic,” said Liz Mahoney, Hill’s publicist. “There are a lot of premieres on Hollywood Boulevard where you have a red carpet at the same old place and an after-party next door, but these two always think about how to really make it an event and bring in people who are excited to be there.”
And what it all comes down to, ultimately, is the guest list. Tailoring the list to each client and each project is crucial. “When you work from one list with a one-size-fits-all approach, that’s when things are a little ordinary and obvious,” said Oliveri.
After all, the ultimate goal is that elusive, nebulous Hollywood concept: buzz.
“Buzz starts when you hear about something from varied communities,” said Oliveri. “It’s our 20-something assistant mentioning something, then hearing an older client mention the same thing, then one of our parents is talking about it too.”
Having the right mix of attendees at a tastemaker screening is not just about generating buzz, however. As awards season begins to shift into high gear, the pressure is on Special Projects to deliver the goods.
“You’re spending a lot of money there,” said Dart of tastemaker screenings being a key component of awards season battle plans. “But if the studios weren’t seeing results, they wouldn’t be willing to pay the tab.”
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