Oscars Producers Could Create a Hipper, Multi-Platform Show (Analysis)

Reginald Hudlin David Hill Split - H 2015
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Reginald Hudlin David Hill Split - H 2015

On Tuesday afternoon, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put an end to weeks of speculation by announcing that the producers of the 88th Oscars — the people who will pick the host and shape the show — will be Reginald Hudlin and David Hill. Who are they, why were they chosen and what sort of a show might we expect from them? Read on...

Both men are vets of showbiz whose names may not be known to the general public, but who are revered by their peers.

Hudlin is best known as an Oscar-nominated producer — he became only the fourth black person ever to receive that distinction when Django Unchained was nominated in 2013 — but he's also a member of the DGA, WGA and SAG, a rare hat-trick. He has directed major films (1992's Boomerang grossed $131 million worldwide) and hit TV shows (The Office and Modern Family). He's also thrived as a top-level exec (he was the first President of Entertainment for BET Networks, overseeing programming and development). As far as award show experience, he has served as executive producer of the NAACP Image Awards since 2012, and last November he produced the Academy's non-televised Governors Awards, an opportunity that arose after he produced The Academy Celebrates The Black Movie Soundtrack, a star-studded, one-night-only musical tribute at the Hollywood Bowl.

Hill, an Aussie described by many as a larger-than-life character, comes to the movies' biggest night from the world of television. He spent nearly three decades working for Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation before resigning in June — right around the time that Murdoch's sons assumed power and many senior employees were being shuffled into new roles. He then formed a production company called "Hilly," his nickname. He made his name by launching Britain's Sky Television and then its offshoot subscription channel Sky Sports, which led the self-professed non-sports fan to the job of chairman and CEO of the Fox Sports Media Group. There, he ushered in technological innovations like the NFL first down graphic line, which markedly enhanced the viewing experience. "Loud graphics, and sizzle and pop were hallmarks of Hill," the Los Angeles Times wrote. He won an Emmy for Outstanding Live Sports Special as exec producer of 2011 World Series. Most recently, he served as senior exec vp of 21st Century Fox (overseeing, among other things, digital initiatives) and also as an exec producer on the last two seasons of American Idol.

Hudlin and Hill are stepping into a job that was held for the last three Oscar seasons by another pair of men who, unlike them, worked together many times prior to the Oscars. Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, professional partners since 1976 who first crossed paths in the New York theater community and were among the producers of Chicago and Hairspray for the big screen, Annie (1999) for TV and, most recently, several live musicals for the small screen. For the 2013 ceremony, Meron and Zadan hired Seth MacFarlane as host and, while some of his antics provoked controversy, they attracted 40.37 million viewers, up from 37.91 million the year before, when Billy Crystal hosted. The next year, they brought in Ellen DeGeneres, whose pizza and selfie installment drove viewership up to 43.74 million. But then they hired Neil Patrick Harris and his turn earlier this year — best remembered for him briefly sporting tighty-whities and constantly returning to a gag that never paid off about a secret box — bombed, with viewers plummeting to 37.26 million, the lowest figure since 2009.

Were the new producers hired as a reaction to the outgoing producers? It's hard to say. Meron and Zadan, perhaps because of their roots in the theater, seemed focused on putting on Broadway-style spectacles packed with musical numbers — some of which came across as superfluous (i.e. a self-celebrating tribute to the music of Chicago), others of which were among the most memorable parts of their nights (i.e. Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" and Lady Gaga's "The Sound of Music"). But the bottom line is that they were preaching to the choir — people who get excited about that sort of thing would have tuned in to the Oscars anyway.

The selection of Hudlin and Hill suggests, to me, a desire on the part of the Academy to open up the tent to more people who might care to tune in to the Oscars — specifically by making it hipper and more interactive.

What does Hudlin bring to the table?

For one thing, an understanding of mass entertainment. His fanboy credentials can stack up against anyone's: a comic strip that he drew while in college became such a phenomenon that it wound up as an animated series; he wrote a hit graphic novel; for five years, he penned The Black Panther for Marvel, and also has written Spiderman for the company; he recently brokered a collaboration between Tarantino and Dynamite Comics for Django/Zorro, a crossover comic book; and he's currently a partner at Milestone Media, a comic book company. In other words, in this year of the return of Star Wars, expect movie superheroes — the few people Joe Public still buys tickets to see — to factor in heavily at the show even if they and their films aren't nominated.

Moreover, Hudlin long has been a vocal champion of diversity, a cause that the Academy (which currently is led by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a black woman) only recently, but enthusiastically, has embraced in the form of its membership invitations, programming, Governors Awards selections and the like. According to The Washington Post, Hudlin has "consistently been a force and a voice for increasing the diversity in comics... overseeing historic moments involving heroes of color." He has been a great asset to the NAACP Awards. And Django sparked a national discussion — which he happily participated in and which included a memorable Q&A that I moderated — about racial tensions just as they were boiling over in the real world.

Earlier this year, in the wake of Selma's director and star being denied Oscar noms, Hudlin wrote for THR: "The NAACP created the Image Awards almost 50 years ago in response to the lack of recognition of black talent in front of and behind the camera in mainstream (white) awards shows. You'd think this show wouldn't be needed by now, but that's clearly not the case... Why is our business so behind the rest of the country? It's easier for a black person to become president of the United States than it is to be president of a movie studio... I know the Academy has already been working very hard to diversify its membership. My agency is bringing more people of color through its internship program. I hope other institutions do the same... Like Martin Luther King Jr., we can all make a difference if we believe the time for action is now."

I think it's not unreasonable to expect Hudlin to try to take action on one of the biggest stages in the world by bringing in a diverse group of presenters — he personally has directed Chris Rock, Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy — and quite possibly a black host. So far, Rock is the only non-white male to host the Oscars on his own (in 2005). Hudlin has tapped Emmy nominee Anthony Anderson to host the last two NAACP Image Award ceremonies, and he could be an outside-the-box choice for the Oscars. But I have a strong suspicion that Hudlin and Hill will tap Kevin Hart for the job — the comedian has said it is his dream to host, promising to "turn that event into a youthful night," and I think he would be a brilliant choice who would explode the show's ratings.

What can we expect Hill to contribute?

I think Hill can be counted on to employ visual techniques to make the Oscars, a show that inherently has dull patches (how many viewers at home have seen any of the nominees for the three shorts categories or know — or care to know — the difference between sound editing and sound mixing?), a little more engaging, just as he long has done in the world of live entertainment. Nobody knows anything about most of the players in a professional football or hockey game or the competitors on American Idol when they first tune in, but they quickly are familiarized with and made to care about them through prepackaged videos that synopsize their personal journey and stats and figures that place their professional accomplishments in context. I wouldn't at all be surprised to see below-the-line categories preceded by just that sort of thing, rather than the time-honored tradition of zoned-out celebs unconvincingly reading from a cue-card about the importance of those arts and crafts.

One other bold move that I could see Hill championing would be to try to promote interest in the show earlier than usual by turning the Oscar nomination announcement into a primetime special that wouldn't involve just a reading of names by Isaacs and some celeb, but rather revealing the nominees through dramatic, American Idol-esque prepackaged promos. The Academy tried a primetime, televised nominations announcement in 1954 and 1955 but then pulled the plug, largely because talent didn't want to show up and look presumptuous and/or humiliated in front of millions of viewers. But Oscar hopefuls need not attend such an announcement for it to attract viewers (though other stars associated with upcoming movies might be amenable to participating in some way). And while PricewaterhouseCoopers won't want to reveal the names of nominees any earlier than they already do for fear of a leak, it certainly could be arranged by — and advantageous to — ABC to have short clips at the ready for each plausible nominee, which then could be fired off during a half-hour or hour-long special.

Finally, I expect that a Hill-produced show will incorporate an unprecedented degree of social media engagement — maybe giving each of the nominees and presenters a smartphone and encouraging them to take photos that would post directly to the Academy's Twitter feed throughout the ceremony (Ellen's selfie on steroids!) and/or inviting the public to weigh in, via Facebook or Twitter, with their preference for each category's outcome and then projecting their first-place choice on the screen before the Academy's choice is announced. (Who would be hurt by that? If anything, it would be a nice consolation prize for someone who then loses the actual award — or, if write-in voting is allowed, for someone who wasn't even nominated at all!)

The bottom line is that I have high hopes for the "arranged marriage" of Hudlin and Hill, two eminently capable individuals who seem poised to provide the Oscars, on Feb. 28, with just what the Academy wants and Hollywood loves: a facelift.