The film academy cannot control minority representation in the movies that Hollywood makes. Nor can it influence the way its 7,000-plus members vote come awards season. But in the hiring of industry veteran Reginald Hudlin to produce next year’s Oscars telecast with longtime Fox television executive David Hill, academy leaders are sending another signal that they are doing everything in their power to prevent the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite from trending on Twitter next year.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ announcement that Hudlin and Hill will produce the 88th Oscars follows last week’s news that Spike Lee would receive an honorary Oscar at this year’s Governors Awards. Earlier this year, the academy invited 322 new members to join, its largest class ever, and the makeup of the newcomers included more than 23% people of color and more than 28% women.
Hill and Hudlin succeed Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who produced the last three ceremonies under a contract signed in 2012. The telecasts during the duo’s tenure were consistently heavy on musical production numbers, some well-received (Common and John Legend performing “Glory” this year), others (“We Saw Your Boobs”) not so much.
The Ellen DeGeneres-hosted 2014 show, with its star-studded selfie that temporarily disabled Twitter and other interactive skits and bits (Meryl Streep likes pizza!), drew an average of nearly 44 million viewers. The telecast’s audience dropped nearly 15% this year, with host Neil Patrick Harris struggling through a sluggishly paced show. Privately, several academy members point to Harris stripping to his underwear, making like Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” as the moment when they knew the telecast needed a new direction.
Hill, who worked as an executive at Fox for more than 25 years, including a stint as chief executive at Fox Sports, says that when academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and academy CEO Dawn Hudson approached him about producing, he told them that his “knowledge of film could fit on the back of a stamp.” Isaacs suggested a pairing with Hudlin, a veteran television and movie director (“House Party,” “Boomerang”) and producer (“Django Unchained”).
“Within 10 minutes of meeting him, I knew we had the same sense of humor,” Hill says. Asked to describe that sensibility, Hill offers one word: “Dangerous.” (Hudlin, on set directing an episode of the upcoming NBC medical drama “Heartbreaker,” was not available immediately after Tuesday’s announcement.)
Hudlin made something of an audition for the job last year, producing the academy’s Governors Awards, a not-televised dinner that honors the winners of the group’s testimonial awards. That event included a memorable speech from Harry Belafonte, who appealed to the film community to “use their gifts” to “see the better side of who and what we are as a species.”
Those kinds of emotional moments, Hill says, are crucial to holding viewers’ interest when producing a tightly formatted show like the Oscars, which must hand out 24 awards over the course of a three-hour-plus ceremony. Hill cites Roone Arledge, who ran ABC Sports and also its news division, as his biggest influence, noting the way he made viewers care about athletes they hardly knew.
“Up close and personal is how he did it,” Hill says. “You’d get to know and love [Olympic gymnast] Nadia Comaneci, so when she won, you cared.
“My question is: Is it possible — and it might not be — to create awareness and empathy for the guy who wins the Oscar for sound editing?” Hill continues. “Is there a way to hand out the awards so the show builds act by act? Because, having watched the past 20 years, it always seems like — with the exception of the Laura Ziskin  year — the awards are rushed and happen in an almost non-sequitur way.”
Hill says he and Hudlin have a long list of candidates for Oscars host — a job, he acknowledges, that’s “not for the faint of heart.”
“We’ll figure out a way to give them a safety net,” Hill says.
Two early possibilities: Chris Rock, who hosted in 2005, and Eddie Murphy, who was going to host in 2011 before producer Brett Ratner stepped down. Hudlin has connections to both: He directed the pilot episode of Rock’s TV show, “Everybody Hates Chris,” and made “Boomerang” with Murphy.
“There’s a lot of people who could do it,” Hill says, adding that he considers past host Steve Martin a “god” and loves Martin Short. “Our job is to make them want to do it.”