The year is 2020. The lack of pandemic response continues to terrorize a First World nation. Unemployment is rampant. The skies are filled with toxic fumes. Fires rage in the countrysides. People can’t attend baseball games.
And at this point, while the Primetime Emmy Awards don’t appear to be immune from the new status quo, executive producers Reggie Hudlin and Ian Stewart aren’t particularly fussed about it.
In a Q&A with entertainment journalists Wednesday morning, the two men spoke at length about the vast and varied information streams they’ll be juggling throughout the process, each with the ability to go sideways at any moment.
“We’re going to have 130 cameras all over the world, New York, Los Angeles, Fayetteville, Connecticut, London, Toronto, Tel Aviv, Berlin,” Hudlin said before asking Stewart exactly how many production units were being dispensed globally.
“I think it’s about 20 cities, and 125 different locations. And I think it’s about 10 countries. If you think about those logistics,” Stewart said, “If there’s 130 live feeds coming in, it’s like trying to watch 130 Sports matches at the same time. You have so many things coming in and also so many things that can stop coming in.”
Stewart’s reference to sports was pointed, it turns out, as Hudlin said the sheer amount of feeds contributed to choosing the Staples Center as the center of operations: It was the only place that could withstand the sheer volume of information being exchanged.
In order to capture the vibrancy of live television, as well as maintain involvement with nominees, the Emmys are distributing production units around the world, designed to be as plug-and-play as possible.
“There’s a ring light, there’s a laptop, there’s a boom mic, there’s a camera,” Hudlin said, adding that the camera was the same type he utilized when directing his latest film, a testament to its quality.
“Trying to get to the middle of nowhere to get one of those installed in somebody’s house, to get it up and running, and, of course, under all of the [safety] precautions that we obviously have taken, it is sort of a logistic nightmare,” Stewart said, laughing. “It’s gonna be great. How could it possibly go wrong?”
Both men emphasized time and again the volatility of what they were attempting and seemed quite at ease with the near certainty that something — likely many things — would go wrong.
Still, they had plenty of things planned, some of which they were willing to expound on and others they sought to keep under wraps. Hudlin mentioned that, as previously announced, singer and songwriter H.E.R. would be performing during the ceremony’s In Memoriam segment. Stewart shared that Kimmel wouldn’t be the only individual appearing live and in-person at the Staples Center during the ceremony, a huge blow to those of us delighted at the thought of Kimmel standing alone, in the center of an auditorium designed to hold 20,000 or some odd people, hosting an awards show. The echoes alone would have been priceless.
If nothing else, the EPs were excited at the prospect of throwing out the rulebook of what traditional awards ceremonies are supposed to look like and anticipated how they would go about reinventing the wheel.
“Let’s use this opportunity as a way to experiment with different ways of presenting awards, so from category to category, it’s going to change throughout the entire three-hour broadcast,” Hudlin said. “Some of them may not work. But we said, let’s just experiment. And let’s have the audience a little more on the edge of their seat just to see how many tricks we can pull out of our sleeve.”
While executive producers are projecting a sense of calm throughout the process, it remains unclear if that laid-back point-of-view extends to the nominees themselves. According to some in competition on Sunday night, there are plenty of questions left unanswered about how operations will proceed. Early reports are that kits have yet to be delivered and it remains unclear when the units are meant to arrive at their intended destination.
That said, even wary nominees appear to have every faith that Hudlin, Stewart, and host/executive producer Jimmy Kimmel are more than up to the challenges at hand.
Reginald Hudlin, one of the executive producers of this year’s unique (to say the least) virtual 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards show, has actually produced the Oscars in 2016. But even that did not prepare him for what he is experiencing at the helm of this year’s Emmys.
“We’ve all seen the Emmys, this is the 72nd one. This is not that. This is going to be something else. And what that is none of us 100% know. This has never been done before,” he told me in a conversation this morning from his car as he was driving to rehearsals and a virtual press conference among other things as the big show nears its Sunday airdate. “As experienced as this entire production team is — we have all done the biggest awards shows — no one has done anything like this. And given how the show is live we won’t have seen it until it is all done. There are segments that are pre-taped but 90% is a live show. We are relying on talking to people all over the world. We have 130 cameras in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, London, Berlin, Tel Aviv. I presume that is all gonna work just great.”
Hudlin says he is thankful to be working with the production team of Done + Dusted, which also produced (with Don Mischer) last year’s Emmys in a very different environment. His fellow producers include show host Jimmy Kimmel, who I interviewed about all this last week, Guy Harrington, David Jammy and Ian Stewart. Hamish Hamilton is the director, and they will all be working from ground zero at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where Kimmel and a very few select presenters will be. It is an enormous operation in uncharted waters, technologically speaking. In regard to the latter, that is where the Great Emmy Experiment of 2020 really comes into play as the production team has sent elaborate camera kits to all the nominees, equipment they will have to set up themselves, but Hudlin promises it will be easy. “Elaborate is the term. And that was the trick. We want the best quality sound, the best quality picture. And at the same time we are sending people a simple unit. They only have to plug in a few things, so it is very user friendly,” he said.
Of course, as I have discovered doing a boatload of virtual interviews this Emmy season with many of the same stars that figure into Sunday’s Emmy show, things can go wrong, and the WiFi isn’t always reliable. In fact, the connection between Hudlin and I went out four times today before I finally was able to complete the interview. Fortunately he kept calling back.
“It could happen again on Sunday,” he laughed. If things go haywire, he says, they are ready. “We have got some plans for that, but the number one plan we have is called Jimmy Kimmel. He is very brilliant and also used to these types of production situations.” That is an understatement: Kimmel reminded me recently of the Oscar show debacle when the wrong Best Picture winner was announced on the first of the two Oscar shows he hosted, so he is road-tested for disaster in a way few awards-show hosts are.
Hudlin says the producers have been watching other TV shows forced into the virtual universe and have learned some lessons. Do they plan to steal any of those ideas? “1000%! That is how art works,” he said. “We have all been watching the evolution of these kinds of virtual shows from March until now. What was really novel and entertaining a couple of months ago is kind of old hat now. We have seen what some of the drawbacks are. We’ve seen some really imaginative solutions to those problems and we are gonna try to add to that. Certainly the football draft was really interesting. The Republican and Democratic conventions were interesting. What’s going on with sports, with basketball and baseball. We are looking at everything and taking inspiration from all those things.”
One of the innovations he hopes works is in the way the awards will be handed out. He did confirm tradition will be honored in seeing all nominees on screen at the same time before the winner is announced. “We will do that, but how we present them will change from category to category. Once you start reinventing the show you say, ‘Why do we always do it this way?’ Since we can’t do it the usual way, maybe we should try to different things. As we move through the different categories we are going to be trying different styles of presentation to keep it interesting. And we will see if it works,” he said. He added that one hurdle they haven’t been able to completely overcome will be in the presentation of the actual Emmy itself, but he did dangle an intriguing clue that we may actually see some sort of physical presentation of TV’s top award.
“There is no way we can get the statues in the hands of all 23 winners (the number of categories being presented on air). But we are gonna try some experiments with a few and we will see how that turns out,” he said. “We will just see. Honestly we are still working it all through. I know it sounds like it is very late to still be working it through but that is what we are doing. We are working it all through,”he added, laughing.
They may not have to worry about that with some potential winners, because Hudlin revealed to me not everyone nominated is on board. Fear of COVID-19 may just be one of the reasons. “There are people who say ‘Look , we can’t accept anything in our house. We are in a hermetically sealed bubble,’ ” Hudlin says of some responses they have gotten. “We make sure everything we send people is disinfected. And there are also nominees where it is going to be 4 in the morning, and they say ‘I’m not going to stay awake until 4,’ and we say, ‘Are you sure? It’s the Emmy Awards!’ We have a few folks who have bowed out, but I have to say that is typical for any awards show.”
For those who are all in, and especially the lucky ones who win, are there any restrictions along the lines of a normal awards show where those who go on past the time limit are actually played off? Will there be a virtual orchestra so to speak to carry that out? “Absolutely. The need to keep it moving never ends. Yes, we have a plan A and a plan B. The main thing is we really just try to talk with the nominees and say, ‘Guys we really want you to express yourself fully, and you will get to do that in ways you never got to do before.’ For example, you don’t have to thank your kids because hopefully you are with your kids. You could all be together, have all your friends over to your house for a big Emmy party. All those things will be part of it,” the producer said hopefully.
The realities of life in the pandemic, as well as very serious events both racially and socially, will also be a part of the 72nd Emmys. For the first time in many years, the Governors Award will be on the network’s Primetime Emmy broadcast, and not relegated to the Creative Arts Emmys (those are unspooling all this week on Emmys.com and Saturday night on FXX, with all acceptance speeches canned and pre-recorded before voting began). Tyler Perry will be receiving the Governors honor, and his acceptance is sure to be memorable and reflect the times in which we live. But there will be more.
“We think one of the things about television as a medium is that television is so immediate and is able to meet the moment,” Hudlin said. “We think keeping in the spirit of what we are celebrating, that we feel as a show we need to meet the moment. The trick is to do it so we are not preaching at all, but to make sure there are a lot of different voices that need to be heard in a way that is entertaining, that is enlightening. So we definitely will be addressing the world we are currently living in.
“We are at an incredible inflection point in this country and it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge that, and acknowledge TV’s role in all of that,” added Hudlin, who himself is making history as the first African American ever to produce the Emmys, a fact he downplayed and wasn’t even aware of until he started reading headlines pointing it out. He said his goal is not to make history, but to just get the job done as best as he possibly can.
Although the show promises to be innovative in so many ways from past Emmy shows, or any past awards shows, there still will be some tradition. That includes the In Memoriam segment honoring those TV professionals we have lost in the past year. It will also be the centerpoint musical performance in the show featuring Grammy winner H.E.R. Hudlin said he was blown away when he saw what she was doing, and says it will be a definite highlight of the broadcast.
As for any big musical opening number, don’t count on it. Hudlin says not to expect a big virtual dance segment or other type performance to kick things off. “That is just not possible in what we can do here,” he laughed. The Television Academy did announce Wednesday some additional talent that will be involved in different parts of the show. Jason Bateman, Sterling K. Brown, Laverne Cox, Count Von Count, Morgan Freeman, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, D-Nice, Randall Park, RuPaul, Patrick Stewart and Jason Sudeikis are lined up for “special appearances.” They join a list including Anthony Anderson, America Ferrera, Issa Rae, Gabrielle Union, J.J Watt, Lena Waithe and Oprah Winfrey.
As for the usual big draw for awards shows, the red carpet, there obviously won’t be one — though Hudlin said they actually considered doing a one-hour pre-show focused on fashion and the usual tropes associated with arrivals. But the logistics of such a thing were imposing, and with all the technical hurdles involved in the show itself, the idea was abandoned. However he thinks the fashion angle can be interesting and they are encouraging stars to dress exactly how they want. He suggests a tuxedo, a designer gown, or whatever people feel like wearing including an “Adidas track suit” or “pajamas.” No dress code here. He hopes that will satisfy those who tune in to these shows for fashion.
ABC’s most current promo ad actually advertises Sunday night as full of “Half the Glamour!” If features a naked Anthony Anderson emerging from a hot tub, and nominees like Tracee Ellis Ross, Brian Cox, Issa Rae and Rachel Brosnahan in the “comfort” of their homes, bringing to mind what Kimmel told me when he described the show as a combo of the “Emmys and Big Brother.”Watch the spot here:
Hudlin loves the marketing approach the network is taking, believing it is good to prepare the audience for the unexpected and an awards show like no other they have ever experienced: “Our thing is let’s just really be honest with the audience,” he said. “There’s something of value in that.”
The 72nd Annual Emmy Awards airs live on ABC on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/5p.m. PT. Fasten your seatbelts.
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.