Super Bowl: What It's Like to Produce the Halftime Show for a 12th Time

Justin Timberlake - Charlottesville Concert - Getty - H 2017
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Ricky Kirshner can't rattle off statistics about his résumé. That's just not how his brain works.

Like, if you were to ask how many Emmy Awards he has on his shelf? Who knows. What about DGA trophies? Not sure. Seriously, though, how many times has he seen his name paired with Super Bowl Halftime Show as an executive producer? The number is not important. "There are some things that don't matter," Kirshner casually explains to The Hollywood Reporter over the phone from a Manhattan sidewalk. "Those are just numbers. What matters is the experience. The experience is the experience." 

It's easy to say when you've got so much of it.

Kirshner is a veteran TV producer (and son of legendary rock producer Don Kirshner) who, come Feb. 4, will have one more credit on his CV as executive producer of the Super Bowl LII Halftime Show starring Justin Timberlake at U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis. Ever since the 2007 show with Prince, Kirshner has handled every massive production and worked closely with superstars including Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and The Who.

THR asked him to name his favorite, what to expect from this year's blowout and why he never stays until the end of the game. Yes, seriously. 

You've done so many shows at this point. How is this year going to be different?

We have Justin Timberlake. That's good. Every Super Bowl is unique in its own way because of many factors. Who is the act? What's the venue? Where is it? This year, the venue drives a lot. Lucky for us, we have Justin and I say that because the venue is located downtown [in Minneapolis]. In Houston, we had a lot of space out in the open where we could line up our cards. Here, with weather and being located downtown, the question becomes how can we build a show that doesn't take as much staging as we would normally have? If all else goes wrong, we can always put the camera on Justin. He can sing and dance and he can be the center of attention. It's like Springsteen — that same sort of thinking applies. Not to say anything about the others who have done this. It's just how each show is different — you have to tailor it to the artist and you have to tailor it to the venue.

One of the reasons Lady Gaga was such a success is because she put on a show and performed her biggest hits, which is what the public wants. What about Justin — will he go back and pull from his hits or perform new songs?

It's funny because you don't get asked to do Super Bowl unless you have a lot of hits. When you start working with acts, 12 minutes doesn't give you a lot of time. Prince did some covers, maybe six or seven songs. Bruce did three or four. Petty did four. Then you get to Katy or Madonna and Gaga who did seven. Every time you work with an act, you are starting with a list of 15. Justin is the same, but he has 20 hits, maybe more. People want to hear the hits, and in 12 minutes you're going to get hits. There are a lot of songs here. You're going to get the hits.

You've been doing this for a long time, but what are the biggest challenges you continue to face year in and year out?

The toughest part of our job is figuring out how to build a stage in eight minutes and put on a show in front of hundreds of millions of people. That's the key to what we do. A lot of people stay in the stadium during the setup just to see us build the stage, and we take that as a big compliment. Bruce Rodgers knows how to design a stage, working with the best lighting team and the best staging team, some of whom have been there longer than I have. The next biggest challenge is how to make compelling television. How do we top ourselves? I'm very proud of the fact that we've come very far since Prince. We're as highly rated as the game and as important. People talk about halftime as much as they talk about the game. We're really proud of it, and proud that it's a part of the day that's so important.

I read that you often don't stay until the end of the game and you don't know who wins? Do you have a horse in this race between the Patriots and the Eagles?

Look, that is true, mainly because I want to beat the traffic and get out of there. My friends always call me an idiot. I'm from New Jersey, and when the Giants beat the Pats in Arizona, my daughter was there with me eating sushi in a restaurant when Steve Smith caught a pass in the fourth quarter. (Laughs.) I don't really have a horse in this race. I went to college at Lehigh [University] and there's a lot of kids from Philly there. I can't figure out if there's a positive or negative. By the time the game ends, I'll be gone, and that's not a slight on game. I have a huge adrenaline rush, and by the time the game is over, there's no energy left.

So no afterparty for you?

All of the acts always invite me to their party, and if it's convenient, I will go and say thank you. But most of the time, I go back to the staff hotel and be with our team. I really feel like — it's really nice of you to interview me and to do this — but you would have no interest if it weren't for these hundreds of people who make me look good. So, I like to go spend time with them, tell them what a great job they did and thank them. We have a couple hundred members of staff, and then we pick up a few hundred locally and then cast 800 or 900 castmembers. So that means we're dealing with 2,000 people by the end when it's all said and done.

And then you can sometimes add in the stadium numbers when there is an element of the show that requires crowd participation. Will there be participatory elements to this year's halftime show?

That's true, and yes there is a participation aspect [this year]. We have a whole team who works on that, and they create a video that explains to them what they need to do throughout the show. The woman who handles the cast on the field is K.P. Terry. She works for us and the Olympics, and she's great. Her team not only corrals the cast on the field but helps create audience leaders in the stands, working with enormous groups and teaching them how to act.

I'm sure it's hard to pick a favorite, but do you have one that you've worked with at the Super Bowl?

Well, that's tough, but there a couple things to know. Prince was the first I had ever done. That holds a special place in my heart, and I've worked with so many acts who say he was their favorite one, too. It rained that day and everybody told me that it never rained at the Super Bowl. It was an incredible night. Being from Jersey, Bruce Springsteen was my life. I grew up in the business and I'm not really intimidated or enamored with big acts, but Bruce is different. My staff was making fun of me saying, "What if Bruce is a bad guy? That will ruin it for you." It turns out, of course, he's a great guy, so that is very special to me, too. They are all unbelievably talented or we wouldn't ask them to perform at the Super Bowl. To work with talented people like that is always a great honor.

It's such a big money-making event — from ticket sales to commercials, especially during halftime. How much has your budget increased since Prince?

(Laughs.) I wish it did. I don't know what they charge for TV spots related to what we get. The network gets that money. NFL is our client, and our budget comes down to venue, city and a number of factors that go into any budget like labor and hotel rooms. You get a number and work down from there.

I don't expect you to answer this, but I have to ask: Will 'N Sync be in the building?

I don't know if they bought tickets or not, so I can't really answer that question.

How many tickets do you get to the game?

Not a lot. A couple — maybe two. They are expensive. (Laughs.)

How much sleep will you get between now and game day?

It's pretty funny, and kind of weird in a way. On other shows — I do the Tonys and the Emmys, and on those shows you're in rehearsals and in the same building that you have control over. You can stay late and come back early in the morning. For this, we're in a stadium that we don't control. They have maintenance and other crews and a lot of people who have access to it, so they can take care of this and that. It's not like, you work until midnight every night. But once it really gets rolling, I don't say that I sleep anyway, but that's only because I'm up thinking about what could go wrong.

This is Justin's return after the Janet Jackson performance. Will there be some nod to that — or what can audiences expect?

I think Justin said this already, when he agreed to do the show, he agreed we are all moving forward. Our only focus is on this show this year. I hope people just watch the show. It's 12 minutes to enjoy yourself. Have a beer or a Pepsi and enjoy yourself. It's going to enjoyable — no matter how old or how young you are. I promise you that.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.