It’s been a wild few days for producer Brian Grazer, to put it extremely mildly. On Wednesday, Grazer stepped in to take the helm of the Oscars after Brett Ratner resigned amid controversy and, with the departure of Ratner’s handpicked host Eddie Murphy, Grazer’s first order of business was to quickly lock in a new host. “I’m a little overloaded,” he says. Still, Grazer — who is co-producing the show with veteran TV producer Don Mischer — took a few minutes to talk to EW about how this whole crazy week went down from his point-of-view, why he chose veteran Oscar host Billy Crystal, and what he has in mind for the 84th Academy Awards.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Had you ever considered producing the Oscars before? I’m sure you must have been asked.
BRIAN GRAZER: I had been asked, and I considered it, but, you know, as much as I love and respect the Academy, there just wasn’t a sense of urgency. Whereas this time I knew the players — I know Eddie and I know Brett [Grazer produced Ratner’s action-comedy Tower Heist] – and, of course, I’m involved in the Academy and the Producers Guild, and I felt a sense of urgency. When [Academy president] Tom Sherak called, I just said yes right away. I didn’t think about how hard it would be. It was almost like a civic duty — I just had to go ahead and do it.
I imagine one of your first calls must have been to Brett.
It was, actually. What happened was, I was in New York doing some press for J. Edgar [which Grazer produced], and I heard there was this possibility as I was taking off. And when I landed, Tom Sherak called. I told him immediately, “Yes, I’ll do it, but I’d like to just call a few people. I’ll call you back in five minutes.” I called Brett, I called [Imagine Entertainment partner] Ron Howard, and I called one friend and mentor of mine. And what Brett said was, “Look, I had to resign. I would love it if you did it. It would be the happiest thing for me. I’m thrilled that you’re doing it.” I said, “Are you positive?” He said, “Yeah, I’m positive.” I said, “Okay, then I’ll do it.”
You’ve had a long and successful history with Eddie Murphy, and there was speculation you’d try to persuade him to change his mind and still host. Did you try?
No, I didn’t. I’ve worked with Eddie on six movies and one television series, and I know him really well. [Grazer produced the Nutty Professor movies, among other Eddie Murphy comedies.] And I just don’t think this is the kind of thing you should try to persuade anybody to do. They should either be eager to do it and excited about doing it — and then go ahead and do it — or they shouldn’t. It’s hard, it’s a time crunch, there’s a lot of pressure, and I think the people that want to do it should do it, and the people that don’t shouldn’t be talked into doing it.
There were obviously a lot of opinions floating around about who should step in and host and people lobbying for who they think would be best. How did you navigate all of that and decide on Billy?
You’re right, everybody has an idea, and we had probably 20 different candidates. But I did tell Billy Crystal a year ago, when I was at Graydon Carter’s Oscar party, I said to him at the bar, “If I do ever [produce] the Oscars, I’d like you to do it.” So I didn’t have to think about it very much. I think he’s awesome. He does it really well. He has the same goal as the audience, which is to have a good time. I reflected about a half a day about it, and then I called Billy.
What was that conversation like? Billy had expressed openness to hosting a while back before Eddie was named. Did he have any wariness about jumping in now?
No. He might have been a little bit bruised by it. But my relationship with him was very clean. I just said, “Look, I’d be thrilled if you would do this. You’ll be great at it.” He said, “Let me think about it for a day.” So he did, and he called and said, “I’m doing it, and I’m going to tweet it out to the world.” I said, “Go ahead!”
The conventional wisdom is that, as great as Billy is at this, he was kind of a safe choice. There’s been a debate running for years over whether the Academy needs to really shake things up and take some bold risks to attract younger viewers to the telecast. Where do you come down on that?
Where I come down is that I think Billy is awesome and I want audiences to be entertained but still maintain the glamour of Hollywood. Billy is the host, which is centrally the most important component, but there are many components to the Oscars and there are ways to artistically counterpoint Billy that can create a fabric that’s seamless and is different tonally than what we’ve seen before but still guarantees the audience a good time. If I put great artists in the show and pay attention to other demographics — there’s an equation in all art forms that counterpoint is probably the best thing to do, so I think I’m going to try to adhere to that.
There’s an argument that the ratings for the telecast are ultimately driven by the movies and the stars that are nominated more than the host — people point to the huge viewership for the show the year Titanic won Best Picture. Do you subscribe to that theory?
I think the movies are important, but I don’t subscribe to that entirely. I think the host is pretty central. Titanic was the most successful movie in the history of film. If you look to aberrations, it’s going to be hard.
You’re going to be producing the Oscars at the same time as you have a movie, J. Edgar, in the Oscar race. How does that complicate things for you?
I’m just excited by it. I think Clint [Eastwood] did an amazing job directing the movie, and I think Leonardo [DiCaprio] and Armie [Hammer] are incredible in it. I don’t know about it being in the Oscar race. I’m just excited by the movie.
You obviously have great relationships with talent all over town. Does the process of persuading people to be a part of the show start now?
It does. It starts now: trying to lobby the support of agents and then later calling the talent themselves. People should show up and do it. It’s a great thing. Our lives are quickly escalating into a world of VOD and we owe it to ourselves to celebrate cinema and the experience you have in a movie theater. That’s sort of the reason I’m doing this.
People always say producing the Oscars is a thankless job: It’s a ton of work, and, no matter what you do, everyone loves to sit back and take shots at the show. Are you bracing yourself for that?
I guess I already have some experience of that [as a movie producer]. Maybe people will be easier on it this year. But I don’t know — why should they be? They never have before. [Laughs] I don’t know. Things like print and cinema — the artistic forms that really matter — we’re supposed to be respectful to them so they live on. I think people should give a s—.