With less than a month to go before the Primetime Emmys, the telecast’s producers are still building the show and figuring out how to make it as live — and safe — as possible. And at the same time, they promise that they’re not aiming to do “Emmys Light.”
“We shouldn’t lose sight that Emmys are prestigious awards, and we’re not giving them out for fun, we’re giving them out to reflect excellence,” said Done+Dusted president Ian Stewart, whose company is involved in the production of the show for a third year in a row. “However, apart from that, it’s all available to be blown up, quite frankly. Because awards have been the same way for many, many years.”
Variety recently spoke with 72nd Emmy Awards executive producers Reginald Hudlin and Stewart, who revealed for the first time how this year’s ceremony will look. Host Jimmy Kimmel will anchor the Emmys from a stage in the Staples Center, but there will be no audience and no red carpet.
“Jimmy loves to work live, and we love to work live,” Hudlin said. “This is a show that will still very much be, whenever and however possible, a live show. There’s a lot of challenges that come with doing a live show in a COVID environment. But we’re not running from those problems, we’re embracing them.”
The Emmys normally take place across the street at the Microsoft Theatre, but Staples (like the Microsoft, owned by AEG) was chosen because of the facility’s tremendous size.
“One is that it’s so large that the crew can work safely under COVID-safe protocols and be at the appropriate distance from each other,” Hudlin said. “Because obviously the most important thing is safety first. The second part is, this show will need an unbelievable number of wiring connections in and out, because the nominees are not going to be there. So we’re going to take cameras to where they are. And the number of feeds that that requires is so massive that we need a facility like the Staples Center, which is used to having that much signal from reporters covering sports to handle the kind of in and outputs that it requires.”
The producers require that capacity because of an ambitious plan they’ve crafted to have professional cameras and, if possible, camera operators stationed where every nominee is located. (For programs, one of the nominated producers will be chosen to serve as the show’s on-camera representative.) That’s as many as 140 live feeds coming into the control room at Staples.
“This will all depend on the comfort level of the people at the other end, but we’ve got to go and find them,” Stewart said. “They might be at home, they might be in the garden, might be in a hotel, they might be standing on the side of the street. It doesn’t really matter, wherever they feel comfortable. But we want to bring every nominee that we can logistically, live into the show.”
In comparison, the five-night Creative Arts Emmys (Sept. 14-17 and 19) producers are asking all nominees to send over a pre-taped acceptance speech, but only the winner’s thanks will air. In this case, Hudlin, Stewart and team want to be live as much as possible, adding an extra layer of technical difficulty. The producers said they’re prepared to address nominees’ different concerns, particularly when it comes to sending over crew. In some cases, they may agree to have a family member in a nominee’s COVID bubble to operate the broadcast camera. The goal is to avoid using platforms like Skype, Facetime or Zoom on their laptop or phones.
“We’re not trying to make the Zoomies, we’re trying to make the Emmys,” Stewart said. “So one of the things we are trying to do is get the highest-end kit to wherever that person is on whatever level of comfort they have. The best thing for us is to have very high-end cameras, with a person operating them in somebody’s house or wherever they are. That’s our starting point.”
But the producers are aware that some nominees may be in a strict quarantine as they prepare to head into production.
“There will be people who logistically or whatever, we can’t do this,” Stewart said. “We’ll come up with other solutions. But our start point is nothing technology-wise that people have seen before.”
Then there are other challenges that they’re still working through, such as whether winners will get a chance to hold an Emmy while giving their live acceptance speech. (One idea, of having cars race to winners’ homes to slide them an Emmy statue, was ultimately nixed.)
“There are people who are nominated who live in Los Angeles, who live in London, who live in Berlin and Tel Aviv, so we’re looking through all those all those questions and all those challenges and trying to figure it out,” Hudlin said. “But again, that gets into what people’s comfort level is. Do you want someone ringing your doorbell? We’re coming up with a lot of interesting possible solutions. And one of the things that we’re working through in terms of the show is that everything doesn’t have to be the same. We want to have a lot of variation and experimentation within the show. Once you say the world is your studio, then you can do some inventive things.”
Stewart said that variation also extends to the nominees who will be seen on camera: Some may be dressed in their designer best, while others may sport pajamas. “If you want to be in your sweats on your sofa that’s also fine,” he said. “It will be much more casual, much more fun, as we’re more in it together. It will go where it goes. We hope really well, but I can’t sit here and say that it’s going to go 100% perfectly because no one’s ever done it before.”
Added Hudlin: “So often when people win they award, they dedicate it to their kids. Well, your kids can be right there with you. Maybe you’re accepting the award from their bedroom. This is a chance to reinvent every aspect of it. We really want people to think about that.”
Among other elements for the show, the producers are looking at having some presenters at the Staples Center, while others will be remote. They’re also looking at potential musical numbers by major artists, and how to replace the usual orchestra that plays people on and off stage. And they plan to give viewers a glimpse behind the scenes at how they’re pulling off a live event in such an unusual way.
“As you watch the show, you’ll see what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Hudlin said. “We think that will actually be part of the excitement of watching what we’re doing. We’re going to be very transparent about what’s happening and why.”
Stewart said this year’s ceremony would focus on the fact that television has been a bit of a lifeline and diversion for people stuck at home during these quarantine times.
“Every person has sat down and sought comfort with their TV,” Stewart said. “So we want to try to reflect that, celebrate that, and the fact that we’re all in this together now.
Of course, Hudlin and Stewart said they’re also leaning on host and fellow executive producer Kimmel, a live TV veteran who has spent a good chunk of this year figuring out how to do a virtual show in these times. “I’ve done live all my life but I don’t have a tenth of his instinct for it,” Stewart said.
An element that the producers nixed early on was the idea of having any sort of actual audience in the Staples Center. “It’s still too dangerous, especially in Los Angeles at the moment, to put people in close proximity,” Stewart said. Added Hudlin: “Award shows are typically designed for theatrical setting, a bunch of seats and people watching and you’re performing to that audience. Once you remove the audience, that frees up how you think about how you’re showing everything.”
The decision to cancel the red carpet, and the traditional arrivals pre-show, came after they nixed bringing nominees to the Staples Center. After early conversations about how to reinvent the red carpet as a virtual experience, the producers decided they should just focus on the main ceremony instead. “Ultimately it felt like we should stick to what’s on our plate and get that done,” Hudlin said.
And that includes figuring out the complicated logistics to having a camera on 140 different nominees across the world. “Normally, you’re concentrating on what’s going out of your venue. Here, before we even can make something go out, we’ve got to deal with 120-140 things coming in,” Stewart said. “And also there’s human beings at the end of those feeds. We don’t want people on edge, we want them feeling comfortable to come in and have fun.”
The producers have already sent one letter to nominees hinting at how the Emmys might go live from their house, and Hudlin said much more detailed information would be sent out shortly.
Hudlin and Stewart said the producers have received full support from the Television Academy and ABC as they set out to create this new version of an Emmy broadcast. But Stewart does have one gripe: He was hoping the awards show’s accountants might bend the rules and give the producers an early peek at the winners to plan accordingly.
“That was shut down,” he said. “We thought maybe this year was an extraordinary situation, but unfortunately there’s no leeway on that. We will find out when everyone else finds out. Which is the right way to do it, it’s just annoying.”
Kimmel, Hudlin and Stewart will be joined by Done+Dusted’s Guy Carrington and David Jammy as executive producers, while the company’s Hamish Hamilton is directing. The TV Academy made history this year by tapping Hudlin, whose credits include the 2016 Oscars, as the first-ever Black executive producer of the Emmys.
“It was a no brainer,” Stewart said. “We need every voice in this room in this time. I’m a pale male stale guy, I’m not speaking for everybody in America and we want to make sure that we are. You always want to build a team that has everything in it, and Reggie brings us so many bloody skills that we don’t have. And also, we get to steal his ideas, which was really cool for the future.”
Hudlin made headlines just this weekend by revealing at DC FanDome that he was helping revive the Milestone Comics imprint and that a “Static Shock” movie is in the works. Hudlin, who earned an Emmy nomination for producing the Oscars, and whose awards show credits also include executive producing the NAACP Image Awards for nearly a decade, said he relished the challenge of figuring out this year’s Emmy telecast.
“We start every day by reinventing the show,” Hudlin says. “And then by the end of the day we rip it all down and then we start again the next day. I sound like I’m joking, but I’m kind of not. You may be wondering, ‘Reggie, aren’t you’re very close to show time to not be certain?’ Yes, we know!”
It was the ultimate “jammy jam” to start the academic year. Acclaimed writer, producer, director, and entertainment executive Reginald Hudlin—whose first movie, 1992’s House Party, not only introduced the term jammy jam (when college kids gather for a party, sometimes in pajamas) into the popular lexicon but also propelled him to a distinguished and varied career in the entertainment industry—joined students from the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema for a Zoom session in which he imparted advice, dropped some big names, and dished on the process of getting projects made.
Quentin Tarantino? Hudlin met him while standing in line at the famous West Coast restaurant Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, a relationship that eventually led him to produce the hit movie Django Unchained.
Halle Berry, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence? Executives didn’t even know who they were when Hudlin first suggested them for roles in the movie Boomerang.
The pros and cons of working on big-studio films as opposed to independent productions? “There’s no such thing as independent. It’s who you’re dependent on,” he told the students.
“A big part of my role is bringing the industry to the students and the students to the industry,” said Gladstein, a two-time Academy Award nominee and Bronx native who started at Feirstein in July. “Reggie Hudlin’s experience in such a wide variety of roles made him a great choice to speak to the students. They were able to ask a host of questions on many different topics. He has so much to say on every subject. And he is a master storyteller.”
Hudlin produced 2016’s Academy Awards; served as president of Black Entertainment Television (BET); wrote much of the Marvel Comic series Black Panther from 2005 to 2008; produced the first black animated film, Bébé’s Kids; directed and produced the movie Marshall; and directed and executive produced the Netflix show Black Godfather. He is also slated to produce the next Emmy Awards ceremony, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, an effort from which he took time out to speak to the students.
He was congenial and no-nonsense with the aspiring filmmakers, at once encouraging them while also not mincing words about the road to success.
“You should only do this thing if you can’t not do it,” he said. “If you want security, you should sell insurance.”
As for their time at Feirstein, Hudlin advised them to soak it all in, and to make sure they have fun in the process.
“The most important thing you are going to learn here is how to tell a story, and to tell it coherently,” he said, before assuring them that their voices and experiences matter. “Just tell your truth, whatever it is.”
Reggie Hudlin gives Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema students advice on how to find their voice as filmmakers.
The first time Pharrell Williams heard the name Clarence Avant, the Neptunes hitmaker was still a rising artist from Virginia Beach, playing in a band (with future N.E.R.D. members Chad Hugo and Shay Haley) and being mentored by Teddy Riley. “Teddy would always talk about Clarence,” Pharrell tells EW. “You’d hear things like, ‘Oh, you don’t mess with him.’ But it was because he stood for what was right. He wasn’t movable, and his energy was immutable.”
A long line of musicians, athletes, politicians, and studio bigwigs would agree with that assessment. For decades, Avant has been the entertainment world’s quintessential fixer — a larger-than-life, behind-the-scenes player you probably haven’t heard of, who had a hand in everything you have, from launching Bill Withers’ career to getting Hank Aaron his first endorsement deal. For generations of artists, especially Black ones, Avant was seen as a protector. Or, as Diddy put it in The Black Godfather, the 2019 Netflix documentary on Avant’s life, “Clarence makes sure that you don’t get f—ed.”
Little did Pharrell know that, decades after Riley first mentioned Avant, he would be writing a song that soundtracked his documentary. Now The Black Godfather is in the running for an Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics Emmy thanks to “Letter to My Godfather,” a choir-based track produced and written by the Neptunes, with Pharrell on lead vocals.
When Avant’s daughter Nicole first approached Pharrell about the project, he was intimidated, unsure of how to sum up her father’s titanic career in one song. “I always had respect [for him] and never, ever thought that I would have a chance to contribute to his story,” he says. But making it was easier than expected, with Pharrell and Hugo finishing “Letter to My Godfather” in an early morning session the day after they saw the film. Since Avant’s career spans decades, the duo wanted to blend different eras of music, like the 1970s guitar work of Rodriguez (one of Avant’s signees) and hip-hop’s 808 drumbeats. Tying it all together was the choir, a representation of Avant’s connections. “If you notice at the top of the film, all these people [are shown] and then they would shrink to dots,” says Pharrell. “And then you’d see all these dots would align and connect back to Clarence. When I was watching them, I immediately heard those notes.”
Pharrell had met Avant years earlier, in search of that sage wisdom Riley used to tell him about. The experience left him humbled. “I like to help people versus burden people with the help that I might need,” he says, “but, man, I was just a sponge [around Avant]. Those kinds of people, you just want to sit there and listen to them orate.”
Pharrell must have soaked up a lot. Avant, a Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, had to navigate an almost exclusively white business world, succeeding in spite of the roadblocks America had erected to keep minorities out. His work early on helped pave the way for artists like Pharrell to stand up for themselves. In 2015, the “Happy” songwriter would channel the now-89-year-old Avant while restructuring his deal with Columbia, which gave him ownership of his own recordings.
“[Avant] was doing these things in the ’50s, when, in my own beloved state of Virginia, we had racial inequity laws being passed to prevent our white brothers and sisters’ children from having to go to integrated schools,” he says. “The history of the music business, it was always purposely not beneficial to people of color. And this man was doing that steady, hard work. He was a game changer.”
Pharrell has been looking to change the game too, particularly in the midst of a nationwide plea for equality. Two months ago, he launched a campaign to help make Juneteenth a national holiday. That fight, he says, is part of a greater push for Black men and women across the country.
“Hey, you trade on our likeness, you use our ideas, you pay some of us handsomely, but not enough of us,” Pharrell says, about predominantly white institutions and companies. “You keep calling us citizens, but you don’t treat us like that… Look at us, we ain’t bitter. We love you. And if you love us, then the same way that we fought to get your independence, you should fight for us to give us our independence and let that be an Independence Day for everybody. We ain’t trying to take your day from you.”
Pharrell has been impressed by the response to his campaign, as well as activists who have been in the streets day in and day out, proactively fighting for a better world. He’s also been heartened by the use of Kendrick Lamar‘s “Alright” — a song Pharrell produced and sings the hook on — as a continued rallying cry for the oppressed.
“What an honor and what a privilege,” he says, before attempting to explain in mystic terms what he and Kendrick were doing on that record. “Listen man, God has the juice. The problem is everybody wants to be the ice, and they ain’t got the juice. They don’t realize you just a straw. You lucky if the juice comes through you. Kendrick and I, we just straws, man. And we know that, we’re aware of it. That’s the thing, we lucky to be in the cup.”
Pharrell points to Beyoncé, a frequent collaborator (most recently, Pharrell briefly starred in Black Is King) as an example of someone doing just that. “It’s certainly beautiful to watch her understand that she has power and be generous with it,” he says. “Some people do it, some people end up realizing I’m here to inspire because they’re so good at it. The light gets shined on them and they get used to the warmth of the spotlight.”
To have the gravity, the intelligence, the physicality to portray any of his signature roles — Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa, the Black Panther — is a breathtaking feat, but to give four entirely different performances is a striking achievement. Screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker compared Chadwick to the late great John Cazale, another actor who created an impressive body of work in a very short time before cancer robbed us of him.
We met at the Art and Film Ball at LACMA. Laura Wasserman, a longtime friend, sat us next to each other because she figured we would have a “lot to talk about.” She couldn’t have been more right! Chadwick had just been announced as the star of “Black Panther,” based on a comic book I wrote for four years. I was a literal expert on the role that he was about to take on; and he was about to become for the African diaspora what Captain America is for the United States — the symbol of the best of us as a culture.
We spotted each other across the crowded room. He stepped up to me and said, “I know you want to talk about it” and we both broke into laughter! We spent a good chunk of the night talking about the Black Panther and Wakanda, the country he governs. If you want to have a conversation about the differences between Asian fighting styles, Afro Brazilian martial arts and the African arts that preceded capoeira, Chadwick is the guy to have that talk with. If you want to talk about the monarchy system and how to compensate for its flaws, Chadwick is that guy.
A few months later, I asked Chadwick to star in my film as Thurgood Marshall. He was reluctant. He loved the script and we wanted to work together, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play another historical character. Given he was the only person with the gravitas to play the role and the star power to get the movie made, I needed him to say yes.
So, I asked him, “Do you think a Thurgood Marshall should be made?” “Yes, of course” he said. “Well if you say yes, there will be a movie,” I replied. Chadwick was taken aback by the high-pressure tactic, but he understood the historical implications of Marshall’s career. For the greater good, he agreed to do the movie.
The experience was glorious. One of the blessings of the show was shooting in Buffalo. Being a small but lovely town, we spent a lot of time having fun together. By the time Chadwick, Josh Gad and Sterling K. Brown were singing Boyz II Men songs together in perfect harmony while on set, you knew the cast had chemistry.
When we were on the road promoting the film, two moments really stick out for me. One was after an interview when we were given a book on the Black people who did the construction of the White House. We were both so excited to get the book. What a pair of nerds! The second was when he was giving the keynote speech at the national NAACP convention. The meeting was in Baltimore, Thurgood’s hometown. He wrote his own speech, polishing it for days. It was powerful, and perfect. What a writer and orator!
“Did you know? You must have known.” I didn’t know. As everyone was calling each other, comforting and remembering Chadwick, the question comes up very quickly in every conversation. From what I can tell, no one knew. Chadwick was beloved by everyone, but he was a quiet, introspective man, who was a dedicated artist and didn’t have use for the trappings of stardom. He kept a small, tight circle of very close friends, who are all talented in their own right, and his wife Simone, who he adored. His team was so loyal that anyone who knew of his illness kept it private.
He would never let disease define him. But more than that, he was a warrior that made every minute count and didn’t let a cancer diagnosis stop him from being his best self.
Chadwick’s dedication to his art was absolute. His love for his culture endless. His thirst for knowledge unquenchable. We lost a great man.