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Will Packer on Restoring the Gold to the Oscars: “I’m All About the Entertainment Value”

The prolific and populist producer opens up about the show’s multiple hosts (his idea) and why he ultimately supports the choice to pre-tape eight categories for the televised show (the Academy’s idea) in the battle to improve ratings.

Super producer Will Packer packs a 100-watt smile and an unstoppable laugh that lights up any set or studio meeting. Now comes an impossible task that could make even one of Hollywood’s most prolific and commercially successful showmen insecure: getting the average viewer to give two cents about the Oscar telecast after years of declining ratings. He’s the maestro of populist box office titles (blockbusters like 2017’s Girls Trip) with a knack for spotting talent before they go supernova (Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Idris Elba). He’s also well respected across Hollywood for knowing his audience. But making the Academy Awards relevant again may be his biggest challenge yet.

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Packer is producing this year’s March 27 Oscar telecast in the Dolby Theatre with Shayla Cowan, chief of staff at Will Packer Productions. It’s the first time in history that an all-Black team has been tasked with the job. It’s also Packer’s first live event.

If he pulls it off, the Atlanta- and L.A.-based producer will add another win to a career that spans feature films, streaming and television. His films have earned north of $1 billion at the box office. That list includes Little, What Men Want and the Think Like a Man and Ride Along franchises. Packer has a first-look film deal at Universal, where he’s close to studio head Donna Langley, or “Queen D,” as he calls her. And if he doesn’t succeed, he can say that he tried, as living proof of what he always tells his kids to do: face what they are most afraid of.

While he’s coy about specifics, Packer’s plan is to up the telecast’s entertainment value and, alongside nominated films, showcase movies that aren’t nominated but are popular with the public (think Spider-Man: No Way Home). As part of that campaign, he came up with #OscarsFanFavorite, a controversial plan in which people on Twitter can vote for their favorite movie; the winner will be recognized during the telecast. “The idea is at the core of Will’s vision for the show — to unite all kinds of movie lovers,” says Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences outgoing CEO Dawn Hudson.

The Twitter Oscar has jarred and struck some as incongruous — after all, smaller, art house movies have come to dominate the awards — but the biggest firestorm this year has come out of the Academy’s decision to strike eight categories from the live three-hour show airing on ABC. Instead they’ll be awarded during the hour preceding the telecast, and taped highlights of these presentations will be interspersed during the official telecast. While Packer understands why many are upset, he insists everyone will be celebrated — and that this may be the best course if the Oscars are to draw more viewers.

“Will is not afraid of taking big swings; he’s not afraid of anything,” says Hudson. “He and his co-producer Shayla Cowan have turned over every part of the show.” In a recent interview with THR, Packer discusses why he took the job, why he chose not one but three hosts — Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes — and what surprises may be in store, including a possible performance by Beyoncé and/or Billie Eilish.

What are your earliest Oscar memories? Were you a big fan as a kid?

I don’t know that I have a specific memory. Growing up, I just remember there was this revered night when — whether or not you knew the person who was getting the award or knew what the movie was — it was the one time when all the biggest stars and biggest celebrities came out and you just had to be a part of it. It was an event. This was pre-social media. You had no idea back then what a big star might be wearing on a Sunday night, whereas now you know what they’re having for breakfast on a Tuesday morning.

You raise a pertinent point. So how do you make the telecast relevant again?

You need something other than just a chance to see stars. We have to make a show that is entertaining and appeals to a broad swath of the viewing public. My approach is to bring everybody together around the idea of a love for cinema. And so one of the things you’ll see is that not everyone involved with the show may be a movie person.

Does that mean we might see people like the Obamas or Prince Harry and Meghan Markle participate, although all four are now involved in the entertainment industry to some extent?

It absolutely means that we are not limited to just folks within the [traditional] movie industry. I want to make sure this felt like something that was as wide-ranging and far-reaching as the movies themselves.

Some have criticized the idea of selecting a “Twitter” winner and honoring that film on the show.

It’s not a “Twitter Oscar.” I get why it’s clickbait to say that, but it’s just so inaccurate. But, yeah, I had the idea. I make no bones about wanting to make a popular show. I have always said that I wanted to have elements of some of the most popular movies of the year, whether or not they’re being included in official categories.

Some might consider this a thankless job. How did this gig come about?

The Academy approached me. We’d actually had conversations about potentially doing it previously. And one of the things that I say to my kids all the time, and when I give speeches, is, “Listen, you have to do the thing that scares you the most. Whatever that thing is, go find it, kick down the door, look it right in the eye.” It’s not something I’ve ever sought out. Why would I do this? And I thought, “You know what, Packer? You’re making excuses for why you don’t go and take this thing head-on.”

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Packer and his production company’s chief of staff, Shayla Cowan, are producing the 94th Academy Awards. Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Can you share with me one crazy idea you have for the show?

I absolutely can. The problem with doing that now is that I’m still trying to make half of them happen. How about this? I’ll tell you everything I wanted to do that I couldn’t do. On March 28. Or maybe March 29. And that’ll be either a perfect map for someone else to follow in the future, or everything you know they should run away from. I was one of the people who thought, “Oh, I know what I would do. I would do this, I would do that.” But there are some things that you can’t just do in one year. I wanted to go in and just flip the whole thing and turn all the tables upside down. Well, you can’t really do that. You need tables.

How does your background qualify you to produce a live event for the first time, much less the Oscars?

I think that you can make a show that is appealing and relevant for somebody who only saw Spider-Man as well as somebody who saw Power of the Dog 10 times.

Everybody’s got an opinion on this show. There doesn’t seem to be a single person who doesn’t know exactly what to do with the Oscars; how to fix it, what’s wrong with it, what you should never do and what you have to always do. That’s great, because ultimately it means that you give a damn. Now, for sure, there’s some people that just want to watch it burn. It’s the world we live in. There are deadly people on the internet, 24 hours a day, and all they want is just to spew negativity and see this thing crash and burn.

How many past awards shows have you watched? Any favorite moments?

I’ve always been a fan of awards shows. The idea of seeing people reach the apex of achievement in their fields after years, decades or sometimes a lifetime of work is amazingly inspirational. Seeing my former intern Matthew Cherry win an Oscar [for 2019’s Hair Love] was definitely one of my favorite moments.

In 2019, Kevin Hart was hired to be the host but stepped away over previous controversial tweets. Why a return to a host, or hosts — in his case, after a three-year hiatus?

It came together organically, but I definitely wanted a host. And not just somebody to direct traffic, but also somebody who can help to push and streamline the narrative. In today’s age, it is a lot for one person. So I always had this vision of having multiple hosts and segmenting the show in a way that it flows.

How would you characterize the comedic styles of your hosts Regina Hall — who starred in Girls Trip — Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes?

I would say Schumer is fearless. Wanda is truthful and in your face, and Regina is a total wild card. They will not be boring. Make no mistake, people watching will say, “They’re leading [the show] with comedy this year” — which is a fact.

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Girls Trip stars (from left) Regina Hall, one of this year’s Oscars hosts; Jada Pinkett Smith; Queen Latifah; and Packer discovery Tiffany Haddish. COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

There’s been speculation that Jon Hamm was going to be part of the show but that you two had creative differences.

I can tell you that’s not true. I think Jon’s great. And he and I are good. These are definitely the three ladies who were meant to be the hosts.

You mentioned your decision to divide the televised show into three parts.

That’s accurate. We are positioning each hour differently, thematically.

But just to be clear, the hosts will come in and out throughout the night. So it’s not like each host has their own hour.

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From left: The Oscars were most recently hosted in 2018 by Jimmy Kimmel; two-time host Chris Rock
offered some unrepeatable advice to Packer; and Wanda Sykes, who will co-host this year’s awards
alongside Amy Schumer and Hall.
Craig Sjodin via Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Steve Granitz/WireImage

How do you keep control of the show when you have so many bosses at the Academy and at ABC, where there is tremendous concern over ratings?

Well, again, that’s why you need somebody with a producer skill set. Because that’s what I do. Whether it’s Donna Langley and Universal Pictures or a different financier and actors. I’m always serving multiple masters, so to speak. But for me, I always keep an eye on the audience. That’s it, period. It always starts and ends with “Who am I making it for?” And as long as we can get on the same page — myself, the Academy, ABC, the host, whoever — then everything else will fall into place.

Chris Rock has hosted the Oscars twice. Did you seek his advice? Other past hosts and producers?

I talked to everybody. I talked to Rock. He gave me some stuff that I absolutely took to heart, and other stuff that I said, “OK. I could never do that. Not only can I not do that, I can never repeat that you told me that.” I talked to Kevin Hart. I talked to people who had produced the show before. The good thing is, I have no shortage of people who have attempted this path before and who all have some really good opinions and advice. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but this year, it’ll be my opinion and the opinion of Shayla Cowan. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention her because she’s working just as hard, if not more so, than I am.

There’s obviously been quite a backlash over the eight categories that won’t be awarded in the telecast portion of the show.

It’s ultimately an Academy decision. What I will say is that I completely understand why folks are upset. But I think that they are looking at it through a lens that’s different from the way it will actually be executed. I think there are misperceptions about that. The first hour of the show, beginning at 4 p.m. PT, is in the Dolby Theatre too, with hosts, presenters and nominees for these particular categories receiving their Oscars on the stage in front of their peers. That was very, very important. And then the televised portion will begin an hour after that, at 5 p.m. PT, and we will incorporate those winners into the televised portion of the show. So it’s a true celebration in every sense of the word for everybody and allows us to put more entertainment elements into the televised show. And you do have a network that is footing the majority of the bill for this saying, “Well, we want the ratings.”

Everybody’s going to be on the show. These are the most talented people in the entire world, period. Everybody. I don’t care if you’re a big director, a big actor or a talented craftsperson, you are the most talented person in your field in the world and you should be treated as such, respected as such, and honored that way.

Will there be a different host or hosts for the 4 p.m. PT hour?

Yes, but that’s all I can say at this point.

In terms of COVID-19 protocols, nominees and invited guests will be required to show proof of vaccination along with a negative test. Presenters and performers, however, will not be required to show proof of vaccination but will be tested.

Well, again, it’s an Academy decision. But I’m on board. I think that what we’ve been doing in real time is respond to all the data and information. And of course all the rules and regulations in L.A. County have changed. While I personally happen to be a vaccine advocate — I’m double-vaccinated, boosted, everything, and I haven’t gotten COVID — my opinion doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to making the right decision for the health of all our global members who will come in from all over the world and who have different relationships and opinions when it comes to that. Vaccinations are being encouraged.

How are you going to handle the original song nominees, including Beyoncé and Billie Eilish? Last year the performances aired during a pretaped show.

We’re in the midst of all that planning right now. As you’ve heard me say, I’m all about entertainment value. Oh my God, what an amazing list of nominees this year. So that should tell you all you need to know about what I want. You can infer what you will from there.

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The Ride Along franchise has grossed nearly $280 million at the global box office. QUANTRELL D. COLBERT/UNIVERSAL PICTURES.

Many of the movies competing in this year’s Oscar race were made by streamers. How has the pandemic fundamentally changed the entertainment landscape, including theatrical?

Honestly, the pandemic exacerbated what was already a rapidly evolving phenomenon. It’s all about [the fact that] people are consuming more content than ever. So I see it as an opportunity for me as a producer. I have Beast coming out theatrically in August, and I’m very soon going into production on a movie for streaming. And of course we’re doing a lot of TV and unscripted, nonscripted, and all that. So I’m doing it all. I’m all over the place.

How important do you think it is to have the first all-Black team producing the Oscars?

Representation matters. And especially in this industry, which does not have an amazing record when it comes to diversity, something like this means a lot. It goes a long way.

Do you see yourself becoming a perennial producer of the Oscar show?

I don’t. I cannot see that at all. But let’s get through this year. Maybe you’ll quote this back to me when I’m on year five, but I don’t see it. I will say that it takes an inordinate amount of time. I’m a very busy, active producer. I’m wearing a lot of hats right now.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.