Oscars producer Will Packer defends plan amid controversy: ‘I take wild swings’
Eleven days out from the Academy Awards, the show’s first-time producer, Will Packer, is running on pure adrenaline. Asked if anything is keeping him up at night as the telecast looms, he laughed. “Everything is keeping me up at night — all of it,” he said. “But I’m feeling good, man. I’m excited.”
Producing the Oscars isn’t exactly a walk in the park under the best of circumstances, but this year has brought unprecedented challenges — and unprecedented controversy.
Hoping to reverse what has been an inexorable slide in the show’s ratings, which reached an all-time low with 2021’s COVID-19 pandemic-dampened ceremony, the motion picture academy announced last month that eight of the less starry awards will be handed out in the hour before the live telecast begins. Clips from the presentation of those awards — film editing, makeup and hairstyling, original score, production design, sound, documentary short subject, animated short and live-action short — will be later incorporated into the broadcast.
The move sparked fierce blowback from various guilds, industry groups and current nominees like Steven Spielberg and Jane Campion. Last week, more than 70 prominent film professionals — including Oscar winners James Cameron, Kathleen Kennedy, John Williams and Guillermo del Toro — issued a letter urging the academy to reverse the plan, arguing that it would do “irreparable damage” to the Oscars’ reputation by relegating some nominees to “the status of second-class citizens.”
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Charged with revitalizing the Oscars at a time of existential anxiety for the movie business, Packer — whose credits include box office hits “Girls Trip,” “Ride Along” and “Straight Outta Compton” — now finds himself on the front lines of what many see as a battle for their very soul.
Packer, who is sharing the load with his co-producer Shayla Cowan, knew when he took the job that it required a thick skin. “When I stepped into the ring, I knew I was going to get hit,” he said. “But it’s worth the risk for me. It’s worth the scrutiny.… Everybody’s got an idea of what should be done, as I have learned. But you know, this is my year.”
Over Zoom, the Atlanta-based Packer, 47, addressed the firestorm over this year’s deviation from Oscar tradition, the “fan favorite” Twitter competition and what viewers can expect from the 94th Academy Awards — hosted by Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes — on March 27.
When you first signed on to produce the Oscars in October, what was your vision of what you wanted to bring to the show — and was that vision in sync with the academy?
The academy was very open and receptive, because they felt like, “We’ve talked about embracing change but now we have no choice. We have to bring in somebody that’s got big ideas.” They could have had somebody just continue to steer the ship in the direction it was going. But I think there was a feeling that we need to go in a different direction.
For me, it was an opportunity to come in and shake it up. I’m proud of the fact that I don’t consider myself a true Hollywood insider. I’m not somebody who has lived in L.A. for decades. I live in Atlanta, man. I consider myself very much an outsider, and I wear that badge proudly. And it gives me a different perspective than some folks that are in the bubble, so to speak.
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You and I grew up in the era when the Academy Awards were a huge, unifying event, with people gathering for viewing parties and betting in office Oscar pools. How do you recapture that must-watch feeling when audiences now have so many other choices and movies are not at the center of the cultural conversation?
You hit some of the very main elements of why the show and the reception of the show has changed over the years. The content environment is oversaturated, and the nature of award shows and the connection that audiences have to stars is very different than when you and I were growing up.
I don’t know that you try to go back there, because this is a completely different time. I think you have to be really honest and aware of the time in which we’re living, and say: “How can we make the best version of a show in today’s environment?” And that’s what I’m trying to do.
This show is ultimately about honoring the most talented artists and craftspeople in their areas in the world. The awards are absolutely what anchor your show. But you have to figure out, what can you wrap around that that makes a broader swath of the public — whether or not they’re invested in a particular craft or even a particular movie — say that there’s still something entertaining? That’s how I’m looking at it: What can I add? What are the elements that would make broad swaths of the public tune in? What would they give a damn about?
The last few weeks have been dominated by the controversy over the academy’s decision to hand out eight awards off-air before the telecast begins. When you came on board in October, was there already talk of taking a new approach to how some of the awards were handed out?
When I came in, I very pointedly asked the question, “What is on the table from a change perspective? Are there going to be specific limitations on what I can do?” That was the only way I was interested in attacking this challenge, and certainly thinking about a different way to handle the awarding of the categories was one of [the considerations]. I asked, “Is that an option?” And I was told that it was. I was told, “Everything is on the table.”
It’s no secret: Everybody — primarily the academy and ABC — [was] very disappointed [with last year’s ratings]. It’s not a sustainable model, with the level of resources that are put toward this event, to have the level of viewership that we had last year. So they were saying, “Think big. Take swings.” I said, “That’s the only way I know how to think. I don’t take swings — I take wild swings.” And they said, “Well, bring it on.”
You have to understand, this is the 94th Oscars. No matter how wild the swing or how big the idea may be, there are things I’m just not going to be able to do within a year. But yes, that was one of the conversations: How do we put as much entertainment into the show as possible?
This is not a podcast. It’s not a YouTube show. This is an entertainment proposition that a network has said, “We’re willing to pay X number of dollars to have it on our air, and in return for that, this is a very high profile event that will attract a lot of eyeballs and we can sell ads.” As a producer, I understand the economic imperative of a show like this. It doesn’t mean that you don’t treat it with the reverence and the elegance that it has had. It just means you have to figure out a way to get as many people as possible to tune in and care about the show.
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Were you anticipating the level of pushback that this change has received? Or were you surprised by the reaction?
I was not surprised at all. I knew there would be pushback. And I think that’s OK because people are passionate. If you’ve got an opinion — I don’t care if it’s about the number of awards that are presented or the number of clips in the show or whatever — ultimately, you’re trying to keep this show viable and alive. We may disagree, and that’s OK.
I don’t have an issue with people having an opinion about it. But I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there because it’s much more clickable and it’s a better talking point to say, “These categories are being thrown off the air.” It makes good dinner conversation at the Soho House. But that’s just not the reality.
When I came into this job, I said, “If I don’t rock the boat, then what am I here for?” I wanted to come in with a very specific vision, and this is just part of it. But I think it’s a necessary change. Ultimately, it was the academy’s decision, but it was the right decision.
How will you make that hour feel special to the honorees? Will it have its own separate host?
That hour, which I’ve been calling the golden hour, will have its own host — or hosts. I can’t say who at this moment but hopefully very soon.
You know, this is not the first time it’s been discussed: There had been ideas before of a separate ceremony for certain awards categories or doing some awards during the commercial breaks. But for me it was important that the show be expanded to allow the proper due for these categories.
I want everybody to come in at 4 o’clock. We’ll have a staggered red carpet — you can do the carpet and still be inside to see every last award given out. I want these [nominees] to be able to give their speeches and have their moment on that stage in front of their peers.
As always happens, what is televised to the world will be done with an eye toward viewership and ratings and those economic imperatives. But in terms of the actual show, and treating those categories with the respect and putting them in the right position, all that’s going to happen. And I encourage every single person in the industry who’s coming to the show to make sure you see all 23 awards handed out.
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Many people have questioned whether this is the best way to trim the show. How much time do you think this move will actually save? And are you still planning to run the winners’ acceptance speeches in full?
I won’t get into the specifics of exactly how much time — you know, it’s just an estimation and that also puts a different bull’s-eye on it, like, “Well, is it worth this?” That’s an internal decision we’ll have to make. I also don’t want to get into the specifics of exactly how they will be put into the show. But what I will say is that they will have their moment, and for the consumer at home it should feel very much like a seamless presentation of 23 awards that hopefully has got some great entertainment value packed in.
The controversy is likely to be the elephant in the room, at least for that first hour. Do you plan to address it head-on? And if people criticize the decision from the stage, are you prepared for that?
It’s a live show, so who knows what’s going to happen? That’s some of the hopefully must-see value of it. We’ve got to be prepared for it all. I feel like the worst thing that could happen is not a particular ratings number or a particular performer or speech; the worst thing that can happen from my perspective is for the show to be boring. This show can be anything, but it can’t be boring. So we’ll be as prepared as you can be, but we’ve got to go with the flow and we’ll see what happens.
Everything has been about these eight categories for the last few weeks, and there has been a lot of talk of it. Make no mistake: That has very much been an industry-specific conversation. One of the things that I think our industry could use is just a less myopic view of our audience. I would love for us to think about our audience as a whole, inviting them into the tent and not being so insular and saying, “This is for us. We’re the cool kids. Come if you want, but this is who we are.” I don’t know that that works anymore.
If you asked the average viewer in, you know, Dallas, Texas, I don’t think that they’re consumed with this conversation. So to put some type of unnecessary spotlight on [the controversy] when they’re here just enjoying the show — again, that’s how I view things. I think of the audience outside of the 30-mile zone.
What was your thinking in creating the new fan-voted contest? You’ve said you want to make sure the popular movies that aren’t part of the Oscar conversation are reflected in the show, but some feel like a fan award is pandering and cheapens what the Oscars mean.
Again, there’s also a lot of misinformation out there about that, like, “Oh, my God, there’s an Oscar that they’re giving away on Twitter and the person with the 7,000th tweet will give it away onstage next to Meryl Streep.” That’s just not the scenario. It’s not what’s happening.
The theme of the show is “Movie Lovers Unite,” and by that, I mean movie lovers of all stripes. Some are movie lovers who have seen every single one of the nominated movies, and they’ve got very specific opinions about who wins. And then you have people who are just casual moviegoers, who perhaps have not seen the awards fare but who also love movies. I’m inviting them in as well. They’re just as important to me as a viewer. And I think we can have a show that does both. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
I’m excited about the opportunity to have that kind of a fan voice, which typically is not on a show like this. To have it on the show takes nothing away from people who have loved “CODA” and “Belfast” and all the other movies. That, to me, is a very kind of Hollywood perspective to say, “Well, we can’t celebrate ‘Spider-Man’ if we’re going to celebrate ‘The Power of the Dog.’ ” I just don’t agree with that. As long as you’re talking about cinema, the love of movies, and you keep your audience centered in that conversation – that to me, is how you should be making the show.
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In past years, different producers have taken different approaches to pre-taped comedy bits, live comedy and musical performances. How are you balancing those entertainment elements?
I look at it as an entertainment proposition, so the answer to how much pre-tape versus live comes down to what feels right. We’ve got three different hosts that don’t work together all the time. This isn’t a trio. But they are really gelling in a way that’s better than I could ever hope for. It’s really organic. And I love the fact that it’s three women: three fearless women, three comedians. We’re saying to audiences that we’re leading with comedy.
Eleven days out, there are a lot of things that are still coming together. But to me, it’s always about the audience. What does the audience want? How can we make this feel as fun and entertaining, given what it is, as possible? That’s what I want to do with the host, with the bits and the music and all of that. That has been my goal.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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