The 92nd Academy Awards are 48 hours away, and with mere weeks between the nominations announcement and show date, this year’s Oscars creative team has been scrambling behind the scenes to deliver a show that not only tops audience expectations, but continues the Oscars’ rating uptrend as well. (Last year’s host-less ceremony brought in more than three million viewers than 2018, when the show was emceed by Jimmy Kimmel.)
IndieWire recently spoke with rookie show producers Stephanie Allain and Lynette Taylor Howell and production designer Jason Sherwood about what to expect from the upcoming ceremony, broadcasting Sunday, February 9 on ABC. “We can do all the planning that we want, and we can come up with all the great ideas,” Taylor Howell said. “And then the nominations come out and you have to throw it off into the air and start over. But we built a great foundation.”
Here are five things that will help make this year’s Oscars show pop with viewers, and hopefully ring a nearly-century-old pageant into the new decade with rejuvenated relevancy at the end of a shorter-than-ever, but already exhausting, awards season.
1. No host. Again.
Let’s face it: Hosting the Academy Awards is often a thankless gig that, at a time when everything a public figure has ever said or done is cached on the internet, most entertainers don’t want to touch anymore. Especially after last year’s unraveling, when Kevin Hart withdrew from emcee chores after insensitive tweets from his past were unearthed. While you’d think not having a bankable performer to lead the proceedings could pose a challenge, according to Allain and Howell, it actually made the task easier.
Not having a host last year under producer Donna Gigliotti “created for a fast-paced show, with a spotlight more on the presenters and the awards,” said Taylor Howell at a recent Los Angeles press conference. “So we wanted to take that idea and build on it.” Going host-less again in 2020 “puts the focus on the films and filmmakers,” Allain said.
2. Music stars with cross-generational appeal performing all five of this year’s Original Song nominees.
This year’s show promises to be music-centric. Not only will all five Original Song nominees be performed live onstage — unlike last year, which didn’t feature Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” from “Black Panther” — but viewers should expect many more surprise song-and-dance numbers.
Performers already announced to participate in the live event include Cynthia Erivo, Elton John, Idina Menzel, Randy Newman, and Janelle Monáe. Billie Eilish, the five-Grammy-winning, vocal-fried pop queen of doom du jour, will also perform. She’s rumored to be performing the In Memoriam tribute, but Academy reps have yet to confirm the hearsay. (The Academy did confirm that both Kobe Bryant and Kirk Douglas will feature in the section, which offers a retrospective of talent lost since the last Oscars show.)
3. A gifted newbie production designer with a pop music background.
To embed the show’s musical themes into the stage design itself, the Oscars creative team tapped ace production designer Jason Sherwood, 30, to head the show’s stage elements. Sherwood previously designed world tours for Sam Smith, the Spice Girls, and Sara Bareilles, among other headlining music acts. Last year, Sherwood won an Emmy for production design on “Rent: Live.”
“They were looking to come to the show and refresh or reinvigorate it visually and give it a real new sense of identity,” Sherwood told IndieWire. He said this year’s show is about embracing the time-told glory of the Oscars, but with a contemporary edge that’s already inherent in the show’s slate of performers. “With the Oscars, you have to hold onto the DNA of what the show is, which is about celebrating filmmakers at the highest level of achievement. And it’s Hollywood’s most glamorous night, but … the producers were looking to bring a contemporary reinvention of the visuals.”
4. A deconstructed set.
Sherwood wanted “to celebrate the impact of storytelling [yet] move away from the typical visual conceit of the Oscars, which was to celebrate the proscenium arch, the frame around the stage,” referring to the classic design that typically haloes the Oscars show. He said he wanted to “obliterate that object and create something that felt sculptural, that broke the plane between the audience and the stage itself, and created a more 360 environment, a shell for the show that would feel more like a surround than a presentation.”
Sherwood said the show will pay tribute to not only this year’s contenders, but all of last year’s cinema, nominated or not. Which means stepping up to address the lack of diversity reflected in nominees determined by the Academy, a diagnosis that has again (again) plagued this year’s awards season, from the Golden Globes through the BAFTAs.
“We wanted to make something that took the 16×9 frame of a movie, where you’re able to divorce yourself from what happens onscreen because those are actors, and embrace the way it has permeated conversation and the cultural landscape this year,” Sherwood said.
“The set wraps its arms around the audience, which is indicative of what’s coming out of us, and that it feels exactly like we’re trying to be inclusive with the statement. With the set, it envelops and comes out and is less of a proscenium look that the show has had traditionally, where the audience is ‘here’ and the show is over ‘here.’ We are breaking that barrier this year with our design,” Taylor Howell said.
5. Bling for days.
The new design replacing the traditional proscenium consists of a bedazzled vortex encrusted with more than 40,000 Swarovski crystals. At center stage, a movable spiral will be cranked up and down to reveal presenters and performers, and it weighs a whopping 1,100 pounds. How exactly that Swarovski-encrusted set apparatus will be incorporated into the show, Sherwood, embargoed by a ream of NDAs, cannot say. This is some seriously expensive bling for a seriously expensive show that already, according to Forbes, will cost The Academy a cool $44 million.
The Academy Awards take place on Sunday, February 9 and will be televised live 5:00 p.m. PT/8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.