Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced David Hill and Reginald Hudlin as producers of the 88th Academy Awards — with neither having any prior experience directly in producing the granddaddy of awards shows (that is always the instant target of critics) — in what direction will they be taking the broadcast February 28 on ABC? I talked to Hill late yesterday and Hudlin this morning to find out and how this first-time teaming came about.
Hudlin, who did produce the Academy’s non-televised Governors Awards last November, was part of our speculation when we ran a story last month about the search for new producers after Craig Zadan and Neil Meron declined to do a fourth show in a row. But Hill, known primarily for his work at Fox, and particularly in the sports area, was more of a surprise choice that Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson kept close to the vest. Hill told me it all started with a casual suggestion in Deadline’s sister publication Variety (we are both owned by PMC): “There was an article by Tim Gray ages ago that suggested the Oscars could do with a bit of a shake-up and it mentioned my name as having done a bit with sports,” Hill told me. “The next thing I know I am talking with Jimmy Gianopulos, who as you know is the chairman of 20th Century Fox (Ed note: and also a past and current Academy governor), and then the next thing I know I get a phone call from Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Dawn Hudson who invited me for a chat to their office on a Friday at 4:30 in the afternoon. I have been around Hollywood enough to know that if you are called into a meeting at 4:30 on a Friday, it is usually with a guy you don’t want to see. I told my wife I would be home shortly, but we started talking and it went on for a while, and then had a series of conversations, and here we are.”
It was Boone Isaacs who suggested he meet with Hudlin after Hill expressed concern about his lack of knowledge of the movie business. “I have done six Super Bowls, but my knowledge of film you could probably write on the back of a stamp,” he said. “Cheryl suggested I get together with Reggie Hudlin. We soon discovered we had the exact same sense of humor. He’s far better educated than me. He went to Harvard and kind of grew up with the Harvard Lampoon guys. He knows film inside and out. I think we are going to make a pretty formidable team. With his knowledge of film and understanding of the art, and my knowledge of television, I think we have a pretty good shot of making this thing pretty good.”
For his part, Hudlin says they were immediately sympatico. “We met and it was like a house afire. We talked about the challenges of the show, and before we could talk ourselves out of doing it altogether, we discussed solutions,” Hudlin said. “He is like me. He likes challenging orthodoxy. We are the granddaddy of awards shows, yes, but you can’t let yourself be atrophied. You have to stay flexible. The Oscar show is a celebration of where our cinematic culture is, so you have to stay where the culture is now. I love movies, every kind of movie, and that is what we want to showcase in this year’s show.”
Every year there is criticism aimed at the show that no one cares about most of the below-the-line crafts categories, but the Academy insists that all 24 categories be presented on the telecast. That is not negotiable, although producers in the past have tried — and failed — to get around that rule. Both Hill and Hudlin have discussed how to handle this aspect of Oscarcast and agree it is important to get the audience watching at home invested. “The thing I have always found disconcerting, ” said Hill, “and I don’t know if there is a solution, is the order of the awards because they just seem to come out of nowhere, and there’s no context. It is just a series of non-sequitors. What Reggie and I are looking at is trying to mesh them together so that you understand, for example, the difference between sound mixing and sound editing…You try to explain how difficult and creative it is to do it so you care about the people doing it. Then when they get the award, it is someone you feel this connection with, this empathy, because you understand the creative process.”
Of course, any dedicated student of the Oscars (that would be me) can tell you that trying to explain the various craft categories isn’t really a new idea. When Bill Condon and Laurence Mark produced the revolutionary 81st Oscar show they tried to give context to the entire filmmaking process by presenting awards in a certain kind of order beginning with writers and going from there. Stars like Will Smith came on to explain technical aspects of various crafts before presenting the awards. It sounds like Hill and Hudlin may be on the same wavelength in tackling that part of the show. It is a smart move because much of the backlash from within the Academy that I have heard recently has been that the show is not enough about the movies. But will it just make an already long show longer? Hudlin looks at it philosophically.
“Length is measured in two ways. One is actual time elapsed. We certainly want to be incredibly disciplined about not being excessive or abusive about the audience’s time,” he said. “But the biggest way we measure time is your engagement. If you’re not having fun, if you’re not emotionally engaged, if you’re not being entertained, five minutes feels like an hour.” He added: “The bigger issue is making sure the audience feels excitement and they’re having fun for every category, not just the movie stars, but the incredible artists who work behind the scenes as well. We want people to care about all the categories.”
Hudlin says they are still in the “brainstorming” phase of figuring it all out, and Hill says they have to wait to see what the actual nominees will be before creating the “tenor” of the show. But both promise to try and shake things up. “I think the most important question is ‘Why is this done this way?’ You constantly have to ask ‘why?’, and I think that’s a real strength of David’s,” Hudlin said. “He is willing to challenge anything, which is my temperament as well. I think our process will lead to exciting and invigorating outcomes.”
As for the host — oh yes, they have definitely been chewing on that one. “We want the viewer to have a sense of excitement and a little hint of danger. I think those are good qualities to have in a host,” said Hudlin. “It is a high-wire act obviously and a lot of (potential hosts) are ‘I’m not ready for that kind of challenge.’ But we think there is an exciting list of possibilities that could kill it.”
I personally hope they will listen to my suggestion made in that article last month speculating on this Oscar process: Past host Steve Martin teamed with Martin Short would be killer. And they already have an act they have been taking around the country this summer. Just my two cents, guys. Hill says it is tricky because you have to keep
tradition as well as the future balanced, but have your feet “firmly in the present” as far as a host goes. “What we are sitting around talking about is does a TV guy work? Does it have to be a film guy? Do we need standup?” Hill asks while pointing out it is going to be hard for anyone to follow a couple of certain legends who hosted the show many times. “I think the problem lies in the two legendary hosts who kind of signify what the Oscars were — and are — Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. You had two super-huge iconic figures who made it look so easy, ” he said before going on to recite his favorite Bob Hope Oscar jokes. Hill has clearly been studying up on his Oscar history, although oddly there was no mention of eight-time host Billy Crystal, who should probably be placed in that same Oscar M.C. league. Hudlin’s line about “a little hint of danger” in a host could point to one of his own past colleagues, the return of Chris Rock.
As for his vast experience in doing live TV, and especially sports, I asked Hill if we can expect anything he might have done in that area that could make the Oscar show better. “Well I am certainly not going to put a first-down yard marker in the middle of the stage or put the score in the corner (the latter is actually not a bad idea). Nor will I have presenters wearing umpire outfits. I have no idea,” he said. “The way I produce sports is the way I produce American Idol (he did the past two seasons), which is the way I produce election coverage, which is the way I produced comedy. It’s all television. It’s the way you cut it, the way you show your hosts, the way you get your points over. The key thing I will be doing is the thing I always wanted to do with Fox Sports and that is to sugarcoat the education pill. This is one of the things I was so proud about with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson on the NFL pregame show. They were able to explain difficult concepts of the way football is played, but to make it simple and make it fun. I believe that has gone a long way to increasing American’s knowledge of what goes on in football, and if I can use the same philosophy with the Oscars I think we will go a long way in achieving that goal.”
It was fun to talk with both because the sense of excitement they feel at this early point gives me hope for the 88th Oscar show. Let’s hope they remain enthusiastic thoughout the grueling, sometimes thankless process of doing this kind of mammoth undertaking. Any trepidation about taking it on? “All my life I am a person who likes to jump into the deep end of the pool,” said Hudlin. “And that little bit of fear, that’s good for you. That gives you extra fuel, that extra kick to get where you need to be. To quote the late, great Bernie Mac, ‘I ain’t scared of you.’ I say let’s go.”