AS PRODUCER OF the Academy Awards Governors Ball for the past 15 years, Culver City, Calif.-based Sequoia Productions is no stranger to high-stakes events in Los Angeles. After all, the ball draws not just an annual A-list of celebrity guests, but a fair share of the entertainment media spotlight.
Still, when it came to L.A.'s Australia Week festivities, a first-time event for which Sequoia executed four major components, high stakes took on a whole new meaning, says producer Gary Levitt.
Because Australia Week was a totally new idea, conceived by Australian L.A. consul general John Olsen as a way to promote Australian trade and travel, securing sponsorships was the first — and most difficult — order of business. As Levitt puts it, “With this event, there was no record of the successes or failures, and it's really hard going out and looking for money when there's no track record.”
He adds that “a client like the Academy Awards, when they say they want to do a cocktail reception, you know they're going to sign a check and you're going to put it together with the money they give you.” But with Australia Week, the event was a mere notion without budget or detailed plans when Sequoia was brought into the picture, about five months before the hoped-for event date.
Faced with pressure to get the event off the ground, Levitt explains, his company made a first-time-ever move of its own, creating a full-color booklet detailing the makeup of the event's steering committee and Sequoia's own background, plus Australian corporate entertainment success stories and facts on desirable corporate sponsors. “We pretty much put together a package on the event that they could then take out to go and raise money,” he says.
Despite the uncertainties, the booklet worked, Levitt says. After unflagging pursuit by Olsen's team of public and private sector support Down Under, Australia Week got the thumbs up for its January debut. At the beginning of November, while Sequoia was in the midst of Academy Awards planning, budgets were assigned and Levitt took the reins.
There were — of course — a few hitches, the producer points out. For one thing, the client organization — made up of groups including Australia's official tourist and trade commissions — realized it couldn't afford to hire Sequoia for the more than 10 events scheduled for the weeklong celebration. The four events it did assign to Sequoia, meanwhile, came with much tighter budgets than the production company had planned for.
In the case of the opening ceremony, meeting the new budget realities meant altering the original concept for a $100,000 event to meet an allotted $20,000 budget. But the event's 250 guests, which included sponsors, tourist industry members and press, didn't seem to mind, Levitt says, as they enjoyed imported Australian food and a performance by an Aboriginal dance troupe at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, Calif.
The highest stakes, Levitt notes, were reserved for Australia Week's black-tie gala, sponsored by Australian winery Penfolds and held Jan. 24 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. For the event, intended to honor Australian celebrities and VIPs in the United States, the steering committee “reached for the skies, but they really didn't think they were going to get anyone.” What they got was just about everyone, including Aussie luminaries Cate Blanchett, Baz Luhrmann and Naomi Watts.
For his part, Levitt coordinated everything from production of the event's star-filled awards ceremony to plated service of Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry's roast lamb dinner. Mostly, he says, the event's success was attributable to the client's commitment: “There was so much effort and love put into this job that it just came back to them.” Plus, he adds pragmatically, “The fact that the Golden Globes was the next day didn't hurt — a lot of people were here [in Los Angeles] for that.”
With so much riding on the success of the event — including not just future sponsorships, but the reputation of a nation — Australia Week had to get it right the first time.
Australian Trade Commission deputy consul general and senior trade commissioner for Los Angeles Kylie Hargreaves says it did just that. She cites as evidence high attendee turnout, diverse media coverage in the United States and Australia, and “hard indicators” including new commercial deals made by Australian and U.S. companies involved in Australia Week activities. And she credits much of the success to Sequoia, lauding the company's skill at “ensuring that all the details were taken care of [and that] budgets were managed extraordinarily well.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Sequoia has been tapped to produce Australia Week 2005, while Hargreaves says hopes are high for a repeat performance of the event “on an annual basis for three to five years.”
Sequoia Productions 5504 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, CA, 90230, 310/397-1477
Turn to page 57 for a list of resources for this event.
Warm Moreton Bay ‘Bug’ [Lobster] Salad with Braised Long Beans, Peas and Beets
Roast Lamb with Braised Vegetables, Aioli and Gratin
Mille-feuille of Blue Cheese with Muscatel Sauce
Panna Cotta with Raspberries