Viacom's Van Toffler Addresses Miley Cyrus VMA Backlash, Talks 'N Sync Reunion (Q&A)
"Miley definitely brought a different bit of energy to the live show," Toffler tells THR of Cyrus' controversial performance.
From racy performances to an anticipated boy band reunion, this year's MTV Video Music Awards had everything.
Featuring live performances from Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, among others, VMA viewership jumped more than 60 percent from 2012's mediocre outing, averaging 10.1 million viewers in its return to Sunday night.
"It was a wonderfully chaotic mess of unforgettable performances — everything you could hope for as a producer of a live music show," Van Van Van VaVaToffler, president of Viacom Media Networks Music & Logo Group, tells The Hollywood Reporter a day after the awards show, later deeming the VMAs "a huge success for us."
Known for its surprises and frenetic energy, the VMAs stayed true to character, with moments such as Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's risque team-up, Daft Punk's "unexpected" appearance and 'N Sync's historic reunion lighting up social media.
THR jumped on the phone with Toffler to talk about the Cyrus-Thicke backlash, when the 'N Sync reunion became a reality, the repercussions of Stephen Colbert's Daft Punk spoiler, a major stage mishap and the biggest disappointment of the night.
The Hollywood Reporter: A lot of people have been talking about Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's racy performance. How did that come about? Was that something that came from their camps or was it something that you guys wanted to do?
Van Toffler: Well, really, both Robin and Miley have ginormous hits right now, so they were both natural for the show. We all saw that Miley actually covered "Blurred Lines" in her concerts and did a version of it, so we felt like why not have them play together as a transition from one to the other — as opposed to one performance, an award and then go to another [performance]. Just have them play off each other a little bit, and [then] Robin would go into his new song ["Give It 2 U"]. It seemed to work and create some buzz around each of them.
THR: How did the rehearsals differ from what we saw on the live show?
Toffler: Performers turn it up like athletes on game day. Did Miley do every move in rehearsal that she did the night of the show? No. We knew her performance was going to be provocative the way her video is. But on live TV, the performers turn it up a couple of notches. We didn't see Robin's costume or his suit before he got on[stage], but Miley definitely brought a different bit of energy to the live show. But clearly she's been making some provocative videos lately.
THR: Did you have any concerns heading into the performance? (The Parents Television Council criticized the Cyrus-Thicke performance, saying it "simply substituted talent with sex.")
Toffler: You have concerns always going into live television. I mean, this was our 30th one. We've had people climb onstage, we've had people interrupt winners and we've had people stage-dive when we've had pyro planned, so I think you've got to expect the unexpected. Not everything goes as planned. In fact, the stage actually broke a couple of hours before the performances so we weren't sure we could get the big bear on Miley's stage for the live show because of the step change. But we did. It was in a different position. We had to change a bunch of things leading up to it, but we knew it would be a memorable performance, just like Gaga's open and Justin Timberlake's medley.
THR: Another big highlight was Justin Timberlake's 15-minute performance. Is that the longest performance ever at the VMAs?
Toffler: I would say it's safe to say yes. He's had such an illustrious, wonderful career. He's arguably one of the best live performers in music now so more Justin, we need to do it.
THR: Was that always the plan to have him perform that long? Did it expand as discussions went on?
Toffler: No. I can say it wasn't always planned. We had a back and forth … I think this was his sixth or seventh time Justin's been on the show with [and] without 'N Sync, and we have such shorthand with him and respect, when he says "I wanna go from this stage to that stage. Can you help design something for me and potentially bring some surprise guests?" you really can't adhere to any strict rules about a performance or what you've done in the past. That's always our mantra, to continue to reinvent ourselves and our show, so that it's always full of surprises.
THR: When did talks about an 'N Sync reunion first begin?
Toffler: When we talked to Justin about the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, and how we could effectively capture his career and what the performance would be like. Clearly those 'N Sync songs are a big part of his musical history.
THR: Several months ago?
Toffler: Weeks, not months.
THR: When was that portion of Justin Timberlake's performance finalized?
Toffler: At showtime. (Laughs.) Just about when the show started at 9 o'clock, when they arrived to the building. We did something similar with Michael Jackson. He was performing at the Garden and we talked to him about doing a guest thing [with 'N Sync at the 2001 VMAs] and we didn't know [if it was going to happen] until Michael's car had arrived at the Lincoln Center [where the VMAs were held] that he was going to come on. Justin and I were talking about that. (Laughs.) He wished he had a little more rehearsal time with that. But yeah, we probably knew it was going to happen day of show.
THR: Daft Punk's "surprise" appearance at the VMAs was also a big headline leading up to the show. Did Stephen Colbert's VMA spoiler on The Colbert Report affect what the group ended up doing? Were they originally slated to perform?
Toffler: No, they were going to appear. We did an exclusive clip shot in 65 mm film to "Lose Yourself to Dance," which is their next song. They were always going to appear on our show and not perform.
THR: So his VMA spoiler didn't affect the plan?
Toffler: No, though he did have his way with me and my name. All for the sake of comedy.
THR: What are your thoughts on that particular Colbert Report segment?
Toffler: You know, it's all in good sport. Stephen's a funny man. I wish he used a better picture of me, but I'm all good with it.
THR: How did Lady Gaga's open, which had five costume changes, come together?
Toffler: We knew there would be numerous costume changes, but she had rehearsed for quite some time off-site — and she's always a memorable performance, either as her alter ego Joe Calderone or with five or six costume changes. We were shocked that she was going to try to pull that off but were amazed at the way she was able to do it almost off-camera, so you didn't really see it happen in the course of three or four minutes. We said, "Please open our show and you take the rest from there."
THR: If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
Toffler: Well, I wish the stage didn't break so we didn't have to change things around in the format. We had some minor audio issues and I personally would love to do a four- or five-hour show — I'm not sure if that's the best viewer experience — and let everybody go long. But I think you always want to leave them wanting more, and I think if you can leave enough room for those combustible moments that happens when Kanye walks up onstage [during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech] or Billie Joe [Armstrong] jumps into the audience, that's all we hope. We clearly had some memorable performances last night.
THR: What was the biggest disappointment on the night?
Toffler: That it ended. I always want more disruptions and chaos than everyone else does in the trucks, so I could use more chaos. That's about it. Otherwise I thought it was probably one of our best VMAs with some of the best performances we've had in our 30-year history, to tell you the truth.
THR: What was the most surprising outcome given the reactions and results of the show?
Toffler: (Laughs.) I didn't know that Gaga and Taylor and Selena [Gomez] were such big 'N Sync fans. You talk about how critics attacked them when they were in their heyday, and then everyone gets up on their feet, everyone talks about 'N Sync. By the way, Justin's sales have gone up like a thousand percent, 'N Sync sales have gone up hundreds of percent in 12 to 24 hours. To see Gaga standing up singing the words to their song, I was overwhelmed by the response to them.
THR: While Kevin Hart made a few jokes that he wasn't hosting the VMAs during the evening, why go hostless this year? Will you go hostless again?
Toffler: We've done it in the past. I think when you have so many set changes and wonderful performances and collabos like Miley and Robin, and Gaga on the front end and Katy [Perry] on the Brooklyn Bridge at the end, you don't need a host. It would just have taken time away from those killer performances.
THR: Was it a logistical nightmare planning Katy Perry's Brooklyn Bridge closer?
Toffler: It's not our first exterior performance. We've worked with Brooklyn for a while and we just couldn't really promote it as much as we wanted to because it would have been more mayhem. It actually turned out well. They had closed the Brooklyn Bridge — not for us, but for construction — so we just had to light it and it looked great in the background.
THR: Were there things we didn't see or segments that were cut out at the last minute for time or other reasons?
Toffler: The odd thing is we actually had to add time. We were thankful that Jimmy Fallon gave a sermon up there [prior to presenting the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award] where he broke into a sweat introducing Justin, because the set didn't turn and the loading time took a little bit longer. We were worried about getting Bruno [Mars'] pyro on the stage, we had to change Drake's [set] changing a bit. There was definitely chaos and mayhem behind the scenes, but I don't think the viewers noticed a lot of that.
THR: Are you looking to return to Brooklyn or are you looking at other locations for next year?
Toffler: Definitely, if they'd have us. I don't know if we'll go back next year but we loved it. We had a great experience.
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