National Geographic Strives To Live Up To The Promise Of Its Brand, Going All In With First Annual Contenders Showcase & Concert

Last night in Los Angeles, two thousand National Geographic fans descended upon The Greek Theatre for the network’s Emmy Contenders Showcase, a one-of-a-kind outdoor experience and concert event.

Upon entry, guests were treated to activations inspired by five Emmy-contending series and one stunning documentary, which just a few months ago picked up an Oscar, and is on the awards path once more.

First, there was a cryo spa, inspired by Life Below Zero. Attendees could step into the shoes of the series’ extreme crew and documentary subjects and get a taste of the subzero temperatures they endure on a daily basis in remote parts of Alaska, while living off the grid.

Following a cryotherapy facial, guests could engage with the producers of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, getting henna tattoos, and tapping into 5,000 years of cultural tradition.

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The composer behind Ebola outbreak thriller The Hot Zone, Sean Callery was on hand for a demo, with an ‘80s drug machine, keyboards and more, illustrating how music and sound are layered to create a scene. Subsequently, guests could get in on the action themselves, scoring select scenes from the Julianna Margulies-starring series with a variety of digitally produced sounds.

Just on the other side of this demo were a pair of 50 lb. hazmat suits crafted for the series by costume designer Mary Partridge-Raynor, which offered a firsthand perspective on the claustrophobia of life inside The Hot Zone.

At National Geographic’s Contenders Showcase, these activities and displays were just the beginning. Guests could also play Super Nintendo games of the ‘90s, inspired by experimental Silicon Valley comedy Valley of the Boom, or cuddle up with puppies from the Hands Paws & Hearts nonprofit animal rescue, in a Hostile Planet animal exhibit. Then, there was the Free Solo space, with supervising sound editor Deborah Wallach and re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman present for a sound editing demo.

While hundreds of fans lined up for a book signing with history-making free solo climber Alex Honnold and the film’s composer, Marco Beltrami, there was also an opportunity for face painting, a 360-degree VR experience with elephants on the African savanna, and much more.

After enjoying these festivities, as well as ample food and drink, attendees made their way inside the Greek Theatre for a special concert event, hosted by none other than Morgan Freeman, with a 40-piece orchestra playing along to select scenes from National Geographic titles.

Serving as emcee for the evening’s second act, Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith invited Freeman and The Story of God producer Lori McCreary to the stage for some introductory remarks. “We are so pleased to be here with you tonight,” the Story of God host said, saluting the “incredible talents” working behind the scenes of National Geographic’s shows. “The producers, writers, directors of photography, editors, composers, sound mixers and the many others that it takes to make a production work…I can tell you, they are the heart and soul of our show, and the others we are celebrating.”

“National Geographic has an inspiring commitment to finding our industry’s best storytellers to make programming that is enlightening, engaging, and, above all else, entertaining,” McCreary added, “and Morgan and I love being a part of that.”

After a teaser for The Story of God’s third season, which was Freeman’s “favorite yet,” it was time to hear from the talents behind Free Solo, with Honnold appearing alongside the doc’s directors, Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.

“Tomorrow is the two-year anniversary of when I free soloed El Capitan,” the climber said, to cheers and applause from the crowd. “What I’ve learned from working with National Geographic is that this documentary represents everything their yellow border stands for—their commitment to excellence, willingness to take risks and drive to go further.”

Giving a shout-out to the team that brought the doc together, Chin reflected on his incredible journey with Free Solo, which took him from the summit of El Capitan to the Telluride Film Festival, and finally, to the Dolby Theatre stage. “We were overwhelmed to hear that it was the most-watched National Geographic documentary the channel has ever premiered,” the director shared, “now seen by 27 million people all over the world.”

Subsequently, composer Beltrami appeared on stage alongside his collaborators, and the concert began, with the live orchestra playing along to the harrowing final moments of Honnold’s epic climb.

Following the night’s first performance, guests enjoyed a series of star-studded interludes. John Karna, Dakota Shapiro and Oliver Cooper appeared to offer a look at their series, Valley of the Boom; The Hot Zone producer Lynda Obst discussed her “long journey” with the title, and its success in the “golden age of television”, as the network’s most-watched scripted series ever; and from Life Below Zero, Sue Aikens and Ricko DeWilde stopped by, for a behind-the-scenes look at their intense docuseries, which recently hit its 100th episode benchmark.

Additionally, a few of National Geographic’s biggest stars chimed in via video message. Margulies discussed her pride in the The Hot Zone, and “the urgency of the message it delivers. The narrator behind nature doc The Flood, Angela Bassett spoke to “the magic of Africa’s Okavango Delta, a wild paradise that is like no other place on earth.” And then, there was Bear Grylls, narrator of Hostile Planet, who lauded the series’ team for their commitment to “cinematic craft,” over the course of 1,300 days of filming on all seven continents.

The evening then wound down with concert performances on behalf of The Flood and Hostile Planet, scored by Hannah Parrott and Benjamin Wallfisch, with vocal parts performed live for the latter series by Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Judith Hill.

In his final remarks, Smith offered a reminder to Emmy voters: “Don’t forget, voting opens a week from tomorrow.” For Chris Albert, National Geographic’s EVP of Communications, Talent and Awards, this has certainly been at top of mind.

Speaking with Deadline about the network’s big night, Albert explained the motivation for creating a Contenders Showcase like none other. “It’s safe to say that the Emmy competition just gets crazier and more challenging every year, and I think while we may not be able to compete in scale and scope over months and months like some of our competitors might be able to, we definitely share the passion to showcase our shows,” the exec explained. “We really wanted to come up with something that was unique and different, and had never been done before.”

Coming up with “an interactive way where people could actually experience the shows in a different fashion,” Albert reiterated the network’s respect for all the below-the-line artists who make their series what they are—“the ones who are on set first and leave last, and work so hard.”

As the event unfolded, the exec reflected on National Geographic’s past, and his hopes for its future, including the very real prospect of turning the Contenders Showcase into an annual event.

“I think three years ago, our president, Courteney Monroe, had this vision to elevate our content, to live up to the promise of the National Geographic brand, and to really attract the best talent in front of and behind the camera. The past two years, we were the second-highest ad-supported cable network, as far as Emmy nominations, [and] we have a documentary film banner that, two years in, just won an Oscar. So, in three years, I think we’ve really come a long way,” Albert said. “We have a long way to go; we still have a lot more we want to accomplish. But I think the fact that we’ve been able to get to this point in such a short amount of time is pretty great.”

Intent on continuing to “exceed expectations,” the EVP also had a message for artists above and below the line, looking to get into business with National Geographic. “I think if this event demonstrates anything, it’s that if you work with us, we’re all in, in every way,” he said. “If you’re working with us, we’re going to give you our full attention.”

For a behind-the-scenes look at last night’s star-studded event, click above.

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