Each Oscar producer comes into the show faced with conflicting priorities: Change the show to make it better, funnier, more entertaining, and – most importantly – shorter … but don’t change things too much.
It’s a clash between tradition and innovation.
This time, the Academy has hired two new faces to manage the telecast, set for Feb. 28, 2016: David Hill, an Emmy-winning veteran of Fox’s sports and live-broadcast television, and Reginald Hudlin, a jack-of-all-trades creative who has directed moves (House Party, Boomerang, The Ladies Man), served as a TV executive with BET, written for Marvel’s Black Panther comic books, and received an Oscar nomination for producing Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Like a mismatched buddy-cop movie, they’re two guys who didn’t know each other before being thrown together as partners. “He came into my life only a couple weeks ago,” Hill tells EW. “Unfortunately, he and I share exactly the same sense of humor, which could be incredibly dangerous.”
The show they’re inheriting is not considered to be in need of major surgery. “You don’t take a television show, something as iconic as the Oscars, and pull it apart and try to put it back together again. Good television shows are always evolutionary and not revolutionary,” Hill says. “An evolutionary show is where there are a couple of tweaks and changes.”
Although ratings were down last year, they’d been on a steep rise the previous two years that producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ran the telecast. The main question now is why the program nosedived with Neil Patrick Harris as host – although that post-mortem is fairly obvious, since viewers were vocal about his stultifying show-long magic trick and gags that seemed to shift from snarky to bitter as he struggled onstage.
This time, Hill says they plan to have two hosts – although they aren’t saying who. Otherwise, their mission is simple: “To produce an entertaining show that starts on time and ends on time, has no screw-ups, doesn’t offend, and everyone loves it,” Hill says. “The ratings are higher than last year and the demo gets younger, and it’s all good, right?”
That’s easy to say, both men know. Now begins the hard work of making that happen.
Here’s a breakdown of what they’re planning:
THE NON-CELEBRITY CATEGORIES
There’s no denying viewer interest flags when famous people aren’t collecting trophies. Hudlin says one of their missions will be: “How do we make the audience more engaged in the incredible craftsmen and women who are writing these screenplays and creating these costumes and mixing these films and designing special effects? How do we make the audience engaged in the entire Oscar experience?”
Hill says one plan is to present them in the order that work is done on a movie. “We need to make sure the awards are presented not as non-sequiturs, but that there’s an order to them that the audience can understand,” he says. “As a movie is made, so these awards go.”
If that’s the case, expect a show that starts with writing, moves on to costume and set design, then make-up and hairstyling and cinematography before shifting to post-production with editing, music, score, sound, and visual effects.
In the middle, you’d typically have acting and directing, but chances are they’ll still save those for last.
KEEP IT SHORT
The No. 1 thing most fans want to know when given the chance to ask the Oscar producers a question is: How are you going to keep it from going on endlessly?
In past years, Zadan and Meron tried a simple trick to cut down on procession time by positioning presenters onstage for a shorter walk to the microphone, which they estimated could shave a whole 20-minute segment from the ceremony.
Hudlin says he has a simple metric.
“I’m a big believer in all the shows I’ve done to have discipline and get the show done in a timely fashion,” says the producer, who has run the NAACP Image Awards since 2012. “But you have to look at each moment, each minute of the show. ‘Is this minute better than ending earlier?’ Because ending early is really good!”
SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY
More obscure films mean fewer viewers tune in to root for their favorites – a factor also blamed for last year’s rating slump.
There’s not much producers can do to influence that, but they can construct a show that recognizes crowdpleasers that don’t always rank on a ballot. “We want to have a show that just celebrates movies that people like,” says Hudlin.
“A priority for me is to celebrate the full range of movies. That means art films, that means big popcorn movies, that means animation, that means documentary,” he adds. “I’m not a snob. I have no problem going from talking about Buñuel to talking about the latest superhero movie.”
He says he borrows that inspiration from his children. “When my kids were very young, they put music into two categories: Slow music and PARTY MUSIC,” Hudlin says with a laugh. “There’s no jazz or soul or country, just PARTY MUSIC.”
Whatever the nominees turn out to be, expect healthy dose of PARTY MOVIES to be recognized during the rest of the show.
EVERYBODY FOR SOMETHING
Hudlin has been outspoken about the need for diversity in Hollywood, both in its film and television production as well as its awards recognition. “The most important part of the show — not just in terms of diversity, but period — is the thing we have no control over,” he says. “A decision is made 18 months ago about what movies get greenlit, and those are the pool of potential nominees.”
The performance categories were mostly white last year, leading to the mocking hashtag #OscarsSoWhite that dogged the ceremony throughout awards season. Last year’s producers couldn’t change the contenders, but they made sure the performers and presenters were more broadly representative. Expect that to stay the same no matter what ends up nominated.
While Hudlin and Hill have to work with what they’re given by the voters, Hudlin says he optimistic because of recent diversity efforts by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ first black president.
“What the Academy has done, which has been fantastic, is they’ve made a very aggressive effort to really broaden the ranks of the Academy members in all the [branches] so we have a more diverse voting pool than ever before,” Hudlin says. “I’m really excited that that will make a difference and make a list of nominees that reflects the wide range of excellence working in the movie business right now – and in society in general.”
Beyond that, he says he’s going to do his best to make sure the show does the same.
“In terms of the things I can put my hands on in front of and behind the camera, we want to have people of color, and women, and [different] sexual orientation,” Hudlin says. “We want to have everyone at the table and everyone involved.”
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