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This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When MTV veterans Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager left New York in 2007 to start the production company Den of Thieves, they went full-on Hollywood — producing such glitzy events as the VH1 Divas special and the CMT Music Awards as well as reality shows like The T.O. Show, in addition to seven years of the Video Music Awards. While they are heading back to their roots — and to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the first time — for the VMAs on Aug. 25, they’ll then dive into their biggest gig yet: American Idol. The duo will fill the shoes of longtime exec producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, who departed in June after season 12 saw ratings free-fall by more than 30 percent.
Are big changes in store for Idol? “If anything, it’s trying to make the right changes … to freshen things up,” says Prager. “The challenge is finding what can be tweaked a little but leaving the things that work well in place.”
The pair won’t elaborate, but the judge’s panel likely will have at least two familiar faces, with Keith Urban confirmed to return and Jennifer Lopez negotiating to rejoin after a year off. Prager adds that they’re sticking to what made Idol a hit: “Chemistry and the desire to find and make that next great superstar.”
The two are qualified to deal with stars and big production numbers, having shepherded elaborate performances for the VMAs — be it Lady Gaga‘s Jo Calderone drag piece or anything by Kanye West. But as the once-dominant Idol begins auditions in August for its 13th season — its first without departed Fox reality chief Mike Darnell — there’s a sense of urgency to right the ship.
To that end, many new faces will be seen around Stage 36 at CBS Television City, where Idol has taped since its 2002 debut. Swedish TV exec Per Blankens, who worked on his country’s Idol, has been brought in to exec produce, while David Hill, a veteran of Fox Sports, will oversee Idol and The X Factor. (Blankens and Hill were spotted having lunch with hitmaker Dr. Luke on Aug. 7; his name has come up as a judge candidate, though sources say he’ll likely be a mentor.) There are more cooks in the Idol kitchen: production partner FremantleMedia, format owner CORE Media Group, creator Simon Fuller, and so on.
Idol has been averse to change, but many associated with the show say now is the time to experiment, putting pressure on the Den of Thieves duo to make it happen. Are they doing yoga or meditation to prepare for the challenge? Laughs Ignjatovic: “Do you know any good people?”
Read more of THR’s interview with Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager in the Q&A below:
The Hollywood Reporter: American Idol made the initial approach, what do you think drew them to Den of Thieves?
Jesse Ignjatovic: I think it was our work in the live space and specifically the live music performance space. With the VMAs, each year we’re trying to change it up. That’s been our mark — that we constantly try to think outside of the box and present things in a different way. So perhaps they were interested in us because we could bring something: good ideas, bad ideas, but still ideas that are maybe a bit different than the past few years.
THR: You certainly have experience in this field, having worked with dozens of megastars on their VMAs performances. What happens when you get an artist that has a very grand, but perhaps unrealistic, creative vision?
Ignjatovic: It’s about being open to what they envision but also communicative about what we can do in the room. There are definitely times when an idea might not correlate, but you work through it. That’s what I love about this show [the VMAs] — that there’s a healthy sense of competition. Like, “I want to have my performance be the one everyone talks about that night.” So I encourage those big ideas. … What’s great about an artist like Kayne is he knows what he wants. He knows more about technology and screen surfaces and projection than a lot of people in the industry. He’s very specific. And I honestly think from the years of working with him that his performances really connect because he has such clarity.
THR: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about what’s wrong with Idol, but what does the show do right?
Evan Prager: The format they created in trying to find and make superstars — the way the judges are used and then leaving it to America [to decide the winner] — and the track record for having actually successful recording artists. That speaks for itself.
Ignjatovic: Also I think the show has heart on a very real, organic level. It doesn’t feel like it’s for the sake of the cameras. It still seems that it’s about the contestants and that journey of being plucked out of a small town and becoming a superstar by the end. That still resonates.
THR: What’s the biggest challenge in trying to revive a 12-year-old show?
Prager: Everyone [who works on Idol] loves and believes in this show. A lot of people have been here since day one. There’s no question that it’s about making sure the best product is getting out there and that [means having] the best contestants. They are the stars of the show and that’s very much a unified effort here.
THR: Both of you have watched Idol in past seasons, do you have a favorite contestant?
Ignjatovic: It’s probably Adam Lambert for me. I just love how he would re-imagine or recreate the songs and take the music to a different place. It goes without saying that he’s a very talented performer and vocalist and such a likable guy. His work with the Idol team to stage different looking performances, that connected with me. I remember I couldn’t stop talking about him that season.
Prager: I was excited when Carrie Underwood won. I just knew they found a star at that point. And when David Cook came out and recreated [“Billie Jean”] by Michael Jackson — that was sick. That excites me. Adam Lambert is obviously an amazing example of that, too — where they find their identity and show it and take cover songs that show what they’re going to be as an artist. When you get those moments, it’s fantastic.
THR: Since coming in second on season eight, Adam Lambert has been back on Idol every year, either as a performer or a mentor. It’s one reason why there’s been a push to have him at the judges’ table. Would you consider him?
Prager: We all know having watched the show that he is really beloved. As far as him being considered as a judge, you’ve heard just as many names thrown out there as we have, but I think that he is obviously a big part of the show and getting him on there is always great.
Pictured below: Jesse Ignjatovic (left) and MTV president Van Toffler at the 2008 VMAs.
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