Oscars 2022 will be a huge pendulum swing away from last year’s pandemic, anemic Academy Awards. Its producer, Will Packer, is a proudly mainstream producer of commercial movies (“Girls Trip” and its upcoming sequel) and television (the Emmy-nominated “Roots” remake). This isn’t the first time the Academy talked to him about producing the Oscars, but it’s the first time he talked himself into it.
“The timing is never gonna be right,” he said. “This is a mammoth job. It is something that you either have to be all the way in and be fearless about or not do it. You got to go hard. We’re going 110 percent to try to make this the absolute best show possible.”
Packer sold Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and president David Rubin on his vision of an entertaining show that would lure a bigger audience while honoring Oscar winners at the same time. “We have long been fans of Will, both the movies he makes and his reputation for being the ultimate showman,” said Rubin in a statement. “We believe he’s an ideal producer for this year, bringing together movie lovers from all corners to celebrate and elevate the joy that movies bring. We’re excited to see his vision come to life.”
Change is not easy. For better or worse, he will be remembered as the guy who ushered in a different Academy Awards show. Here’s how Packer, backed by the first all-Black Oscar producing team, went about producing the new-new 2022 Oscars.
First, Packer contacted his pal Chris Rock (who’s presenting this year), and asked him if long-time Oscars head writer John Macks would be good.
Rock texted Packer: “No.”
“Oh, my gosh. Well, thanks, Chris. Any other ideas or suggestions?”
“He wouldn’t be good. He’d be great. He’s the only choice.”
With Macks leading the Oscar writers room, Packer assembled writers old and new. “We wanted to make sure we had a room with a diversity of perspectives and skill sets, because we knew we were going to be bringing in hosts with exactly that.”
Packer debunks the notion that the trio of “Only Murders in the Building” stars Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short were at the top of his host wish list and gave him the idea of hiring three hosts. “None of that is true,” he said. “This is a big job, and it requires a multiplicity of skill sets in order to control the narrative for the whole night. It’s a long night. Three hours is a long time for the show. And oftentimes it’s been longer than three hours.”
Packer always wanted multiple hosts, he said: “This year, I didn’t want to put it on a single person’s shoulders. In the history of the show, we’ve had some amazing singular hosts who have come in and carried the show masterfully. It’s a different time now. The way the audience watches the show is different, the weight of the job is different. It’s always been a huge task and undertaking. But as of late, it is something that requires somebody to be fearless to take on this job. And it’s built for multiple people to share the load, of helping to crack the story that night.”
When casting hosts and presenters, said Packer, “the worst thing this show could be is boring. I needed interesting people who have a connection with viewers and the ability to hold their own on this stage, in this environment. This is a different award show. Hosting and shepherding and threading and leading the narrative of a three-hour awards show is really tough. I needed people who could handle it. The number-one thing was three hosts who were fearless, who would have good chemistry, and feel organic and not forced.”
Packer is excited to see what this trio will do on Oscar night, he said: “We got exactly who we were supposed to have [Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall]. These three women are each fiercely funny in their own right. And they each bring something different to the show. I want people to go, ‘Whoa, those three? I didn’t picture that. What are they gonna do?'”
The three will weave in and out of the Oscarcast. “The show will flow, not unlike a movie, in that there will be different themes and a different feel and different energy throughout the night,” he said. “It will not feel or look or sound like one show for three hours. It’s taking you through the course of this cinematic journey. There’ll be times where they’re all three on stage and there’ll be times where it’s just one.”
At the Critics Choice Awards, former Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel introduced awardee Billy Crystal by saying that he told him to play to the Oscar room for laughs, not the outside audience. Packer does not share that philosophy.
“This is not a show that is for Hollywood, by Hollywood, just Hollywood tonight,” he said. “There was a time when that was the case. These were the cool kids. These were the people that you didn’t see every day on social media, you had no idea what they were wearing last weekend. Now you know what they have for breakfast, right? There’s a different level of access, it’s a different time, and there’s a different way that audiences relate to the people in that room.”
Packer figures people who love movies can participate in a show that isn’t just about Hollywood players. Even though his starry list of Oscar presenters includes Lady Gaga, Zoe Kravitz, Tyler Perry, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Costner, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, and more, “The people involved with the show is not all movie people,” he said, “because the theme this year is ‘movie lovers unite.’ Wherever you are, whoever you are, you don’t have to be a big Hollywood A-lister in order to enjoy this night. So you’re going to see a very different Academy Awards tableau of celebrities and people in general than we’ve seen in the past.”
Packer is inviting the world to join the party. “We want to get as many people under the tent as possible,” he said. “I thought of it more like a Super Bowl, where the NFL can’t control who the teams are going to be. They know who they’d like, right? They want Tom Brady every year. They can control the halftime show, the pregame entertainment, who sings the national anthem. They want everybody to come in to see the best athletes in the world. That’s what I want. I want as many people to come in as possible to see and celebrate these talented people. To do that, you have to keep an eye on that audience at home, you have to put them front and center. That is the only way that you can hopefully reverse what has happened in recent years from a viewership standpoint.”
At the same time, Packer knows that the Oscars don’t share some of the Super Bowl’s advantages. “Award shows are different than a sporting event where you’re watching it happen in real time and the outcome is undetermined,” he said. “An awards show has been voted on, the work has been done, and now you’re here to see the winner be announced. That does not play as well in an environment where people have so many choices. So we have to make sure that our choice is just as entertaining as some of the other choices out there.”
Packer’s trying to finalize musical performances by Beyonce, Sebastián Yatra, Van Morrison, Billie Eilish, and Reba McEntire. “Look at this slate of nominees,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s all in process right now.”
While the Academy leadership made the decision that on-stage performers and presenters not be required to show proof of vaccination but just a PCR test (the seated attendees do have to be vaccinated), Packer supports the move. “I am a vaccine advocate,” he said. “And I understand that people view that differently in different parts of the world, and in our own country. We’re still encouraging people to be vaccinated to be a part of the show and we are putting our attendees’ health and safety first. But the decision was made by the Academy not to mandate it, not to dictate if you participate, then this must be your choice. I think that was the right decision.”
Packer is ready to accommodate the eight categories that the Academy shunted to the first hour by editing them seamlessly into the live show. “You want to hear from that person,” said Packer. “The point is, if you’re being celebrated that night, let’s make sure that you are put in a position to be seen and viewed by your peers and the rest of the world in the right way. This is the apex of our industry, our industry’s biggest night. These are the people that are at the top of their game. Some of these people have worked an entire lifetime. I want to make sure that all of them, no matter what, have their moment on that stage to speak to the world when they win. And it’s going to be handled in a classy, elegant way that is worthy of the accomplishments of these fine folks.”
Packer didn’t make the call on how many categories would move out of the live show. “It was the right call and the right move and a necessary decision,” he said. “This show is at an inflection point and has to decide what it’s going to be. There’s a version of this show — and I’m not saying that anybody’s advocating for this — that is bereft of entertainment value and is all about the awards themselves solely. That’s one version. There’s another version of the show that’s the other extreme: ‘Oh, we don’t care about the awards. It’s just performances or just entertainment.’ That’s all it is. Neither of those are the right answer. We have to be somewhere in the middle.”
Packer has heard it all at this point. “If I’m doing a show, I want to be fun,” he said. “I want to not be boring. I’m going to lead with entertainment. It’s my instinct. I’m not going to get away from that. I respect everybody’s opinions. Everybody’s got an opinion about this damn show. I talked to several of producers before I took the job. And then after I took it and got into the weeds of it, I called them all back and said, ‘I thought we were friends. How the heck could you not tell me to run when I called you about this thing? How could you not tell me what a mammoth undertaking this was?'”
Finally, Packer figured out that “nobody can tell you what it’s like,” he said, “until you’re in it, and you’re trying to wrap your arms around this thing, and you realize that’s impossible. You’ll never truly wrap your arms all the way around it, because it’s such a big show. But the level of scrutiny that it has! I welcome the people who want the show to win, and have opinions because they love this industry. Now you have some people, they just want to see it burn, absolutely. They don’t want the Oscars to succeed. But I do.”
At this stage of the proceedings, Packer seems remarkably relaxed. “You have to take it all in stride,” he said. “That’s a producer skill set. I’m used to dealing with macro issues and problems and things falling apart, right before you start shooting and coming back in and coming back together. And I feel strongly about the vision for the show. I’m optimistic. I’m not swayed or deterred by the amount of work. I knew that was coming. Or by people who don’t agree with what we’re doing. I knew that was coming, too.”