This year's Academy Awards telecast on ABC received generally positive reviews from critics for its brisk pace and host Chris Rock's biting commentary, and social-media mentions rose 22%. Even so, the Oscars had 3 million fewer viewers than they had last year. The day after their big night, first-time Oscar producers David Hill and Reginald Hudlin spoke with The Times about shaping their show amid cultural controversy and technological change, finding elusive young male viewers and learning from the inaugural "thank you" scroll.
How do you think the show went?
Hudlin: We had a set of goals: We wanted to deliver the glamour and elegance that people associate with the Oscars. We wanted a fast-paced show. We knew we wanted to deal with the racial politics around this year's Oscars in a very forthright but entertaining way. We wanted to present all the categories in a way that was fresh and engaging. And we wanted a show that was fun and was emotionally touching. We feel we achieved all those things.
How much of the show did you have mapped out before the nominees were announced?
Hill: We had the structure down. The key to any show is the way you structure it, its format. Those two animation pieces you saw, they took about six months to come together. We knew we wanted to have the Minions do [the] short animation [category], and we knew we wanted Woody and Buzz to do best animation. In a way, putting the format together and how the acts play out became key. We always knew the awards were going to go through the way a film is made, but where do you put best supporting actress and best supporting actor? Where do you put the music choices? Imagine it like making the pie crust. When we got the nominations, that was the filling. Then all we did was put meringue on the top.
Hudlin: We had also done a good chunk of booking before then as well. Certainly diversity was one of the criteria when we were looking at people. When you do the Oscars, you want the biggest, best and brightest names. You want the hottest folks, which means you want a Morgan Freeman, you want a Kevin Hart. Why wouldn't you want them? They're some of the biggest stars in this town.
You also had a very international group of presenters. Was that with an eye toward your global audience?
Hill: That had nothing to do with the decision-making process, where they were from.
Hudlin: We just wanted folks that were exciting.
Hill: I had no idea Superman was British.
Hudlin: I did. It struck us too. There's a long session on Saturday where we sit down with all the presenters. I turned to [Hill] from Australia and said, you know the Commonwealth is very well represented, between the [United Kingdom], India, Australia, New Zealand, there were a lot of folks represented.
Hill: I had no idea. Reggie knows the movie business back to front. I have no clue. Actors who I hear on screen talking in a Midwestern accent, when they suddenly start sounding like they're from Liverpool, I go, "What the hell?"
What was it like for the two of you when the nominations were announced and the conversation quickly shifted to #OscarsSoWhite?
Hill: The key thing was, way, way back in September — who was gonna host? We each said, "Who do you like? Well, I like Chris Rock." It was simple because I love his humor, I think he is smart as hell, he has this wonderful acerbic way of social commentary. The fact that we had Chris as a host, it was, in a horrible situation, it was fabulous because, who better to handle that topic?
Hudlin: No one, not the academy, not David or myself could have ever anticipated that the nominees would be so white. But we had talked about it with the academy and with ABC and we said, look, in a worst-possible-case scenario, the only thing we can do responsibly is to let Chris just go at it and really address it in the way that he is uniquely suited for. Because he's so smart, so insightful about human nature. We knew he would address it in a way that was comedic but inviting to everyone on all sides of the issue. All entities agreed that was the best thing to do, and that's what we did.
You introduced a thank-you scroll this year to try and get the length of the speeches down. Were you happy with how that worked?
Hill: No, not really. No one saw it in the room, and that was a problem. For the ceremony next year there's got to be more screens available so the people can see what the rest of the world can see. The aim of it was that the "thank you's" would scroll through so they could use their 45 seconds to make a valid statement, and what we had was people using the thank you scrolls and then repeating what they said in the thank you scrolls.
Hudlin: What it did do was make everyone think about their speech in a little more detailed way. A lot of times you don't want to jinx yourself, but by sitting down and making that list, I think, people were overall more succinct this year, and we always knew it would take a couple of years for it to reach the potential.
Hill: The way we saw it, it would take three years for the winners to see the power that they were being given, that they didn't have to do the obligatory thank yous, that they could speak from the heart.
Does that mean that the two of you expect to be doing this for two more years?
Hill: Not necessarily. But we think it's such a logical idea that whoever comes to produce the show is gonna say, "Well, that was a great idea, and I'm gonna continue to do it." Either that or the academy insists on it.
Hudlin: It's up to the next producers. What David's brilliance is, is that David questions everything. He asks, "Why do you do it that way?" And to say "We've always done it that way" is not a good enough answer. That has been a hallmark of his career and led us to a lot of great innovations.
Hill: It was both of us questioning everything. Something that worked 40 years ago or 20 years ago or 10 years ago isn't gonna work tomorrow. The television audience changes dramatically in a day-by-day basis. Unless you address that change, unless you produce a show which is relevant, the audience is gonna lose. The one thing we were really thrilled about in the ratings was that the 18-to-34 demo didn't drop; it went up 1%. That doesn't seem like much, but in an era where we're being told that younger adults aren't watching live television, for that not to decrease but to increase, plus the fact that men [ages 18 to 34] went up 20%.
What do you attribute the increase in men to?
Hill: There were a couple of manly movies — "The Revenant," for starters. The key thing is social media. Were they keyed into watch the show because of what's going on? The answer is yes. Once they were into the show, they liked what they saw. It was pacey. It was fun. There were surprises. It sounded different. There was information. They knew who was on screen because, for the first time, the name was on screen along with a little factoid about them. Guys like that, because that's what they watch when they're watching a sports broadcast. For men to go up 20% is huge.
Hudlin: Looking at my social-media feed, people said, "I'll watch for a minute," and then they were still there hours later. The show was sticky, and they tuned in. They saw something different. They were intrigued.
Were you looking at your phone as the show was going on to see what moments were popping?
Hudlin: Yes, when I could.
Hill: We had a social-media section doing that for us. We were actually working.
Hudlin: After the show, sorting through my Facebook timeline and Twitter timeline, it was really interesting to see how people were responding to things, debating about things, engaging. All that made me excited because if you're debating about it, you care. That's all I want you to do. People were going, "Oh, my God, that Gaga performance touched me. I was bawling." Or, "Oh, I cannot believe Louie CK did that introduction. That's for the ages." I always try to judge awards shows by, do you have five truly memorable moments? I would dare say we had at least five.
What did you see as your key moments on social media?
Hudlin: The montage of the year of film, we were very proud of that. We had some of the best editors come together and cut together an amazing sequence that really showed the entire range of movies, not just the nominees but everything that people were seeing this year. Launching into Chris Rock's monologue — the world had been waiting to hear what he was going to say and how he was going to say it. That knocked people out. The number of comments I got about the last two music cues over the end credits — "Hollywood Swinging" and "Fight the Power" — people loved having those two cues back to back.
How did you tackle the challenge of balancing pleasing the audience in the house versus the audience at home?
Hill: One of the first things was moving the band back from Capitol Records into the theater, 'cause what we realized was that if you've got an energized audience, you've got a great show [in recent years the orchestra was located a few blocks away, and the music was piped in].
Hudlin: Live music is such a special, wonderful thing. It energizes people. That audience is part of the show as much as the people on stage.
Was there anything Chris Rock wanted to do that you said no to?
Hill: No. I think the sequence about the black actors cut out of the films was comedy gold.
Hudlin: To see Tracy Morgan as the Danish Girl was a joy.