David Hill talks Oscars production: Acceptance speech innovation, diversity, Chris Rock and more

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David Hill had a storied, decades-long career with 21CF in which he led and helped launch and establish many of its television businesses, including co-founding Sky Television, the Fox Network, FOX Sports and the FOX regional sports networks. Last year, David launched a 21CF-backed production venture called HILLY, which is co-producing the 88th Academy Awards. We spoke with David to see what he has up his sleeve for the big awards show, hear his thoughts on the conversations about diversity and ask what his future holds.

You’re known for such on-air sports innovations as the constant score and time graphics, the superimposed first-down line, and the glowing hockey puck – should we expect a countdown clock during acceptance speeches on the screen or some other on-screen innovation during the Oscars?

All those things were designed to make life simpler for the viewer. My whole philosophy is that television should make life easier for the viewer, rather than harder. If you look at what I’ve done, all has been aimed to enhance the consumer’s viewing experience and to add to their enjoyment of the experience.

Researching the Oscars, it became obvious that what could improve the viewing experience of the show was to turn the acceptance speeches into features. After all, it is an award show, and there are 24 awards, so there are 24 speeches, and in terms of show time, they are the main element. So, how do we make the speeches compelling – or far more importantly, what could we do to give the winners an opportunity to make themselves compelling?

Because in many, many cases, by the time the winner had thanked a whole list of people, when they started to say something powerful, something insightful, something emotional – the dreaded music started to play, signifying their time was up, and they were cut off, and the viewers are denied hearing the thoughts of a person who had, that night, shown they were the very best at what it was they’d done in the world of movies!

So the thought was: Why not get the nominees to give us a list of the people they wish to thank?

We run it as a bottom-of-screen scroll as they walk up to the stage, which frees them to speak from the heart about the work, about their passion, about the person who inspired their career.

The benefits are obvious. There’s no awkward fumbling for lists, there are no embarrassing moments of temporary amnesia – and believe me, there have been many, many stars who have forgotten to thank their husbands, wives, directors, whatever. And far more importantly, the recipient of the thanks has a permanent record of gratitude, which they can keep as a screen grab forever!

Whether or not it will work, we don’t know. But it’s something that we believe will make things better for the viewer and for the award recipient, because it gives them a chance to be sincere and emotional and, as I said before, to speak from the heart.

You and Reginald Hudlin talked about creating a broader narrative across awards. What will this look like?

One of the things that we found confusing in the past is that the awards were given out in an ad hoc manner. So all of a sudden you go from one award to the other and it would appear to be a non sequitur. What we’re doing giving awards in the order of how a film is made. So everything starts with the script – “In the beginning was the Word” – and as you get a script, then what you need is a production designer, then a costume designer, then makeup and hairstyling, then a cameraman, then you need to edit it, then you need to put the audio in, then you need the visual effects.

So the awards will go out in order so that there is a buildup, and the continuing narrative thread of the show is that you are driving the viewer toward the climax, which in the case of the Oscars is the best actor, the best actress and the best picture.

As the producer of a live show, how do you approach or prepare for something like the controversy about diversity?

Before this even hit, our plan was to be the most diverse Oscars ever. So we’re staying the course, and it was something we were very aware of going into this, particularly because of what happened last year. You never think that lightning’s going to strike twice, but it did.

How much freedom does Chris Rock have? Do you know what will be in his monologue?

I have no idea what he’s going to say. All I know is that the reason we chose Chris was because he’s whip-smart, and his humor is broadly based on social consciousness. We’re saying, “This is your stage, this is your moment – it’s up to you.” So I have no idea what Chris is going to say about what. I’m more than comfortable giving him that latitude because of his work, and the key thing with Chris is that he’s a hard worker – he prepares for absolutely everything he does, so I have no worries. I look forward to being startled, amazed and laughing hysterically when he goes on stage on the 28th.

You’ve produced Super Bowl telecasts and won an Emmy for the World Series. How does the Oscars compare to those productions?

All television productions are effectively the same. Any television show – any successful television show – is a myriad of seemingly meaningless moments strung together. Unless each of those moments is polished and honed and comes together at the right place, the show isn’t as fulfilling and, therefore, isn’t as great as you would have hoped.

It’s just a hell of a lot of working on things that might seem meaningless in isolation – like the wording of a script, or the selection of music, or the look of a graphic, or the way a piece is edited. You spend an inordinate amount of time visualizing the finished product, and editing and working. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a drama, a comedy, a Super Bowl or the Oscars – the work is pretty much the same. You dream up a format and you juxtapose the acts together the best way possible, so the viewer has a fulfilling emotional experience.

The similarities are quite remarkable; the difference being, of course, that for a sports event, the cast is there, the costumes are there, the stage is there, the lighting’s there, and all you do is react to what’s happening on that stage. At the Oscars, or any other show, you start with a dark room and then you need to visualize the stage and you need to visualize the lighting – so you work from the back out. Everything that the viewer sees has to be created by the producer, unlike a sports event where the main act is put together by someone else – Major League Baseball or the National Football League, for example.

You recently started Hilly Productions, and with the Oscars you’re clearly starting small. Where do you go from here? What’s next?

My great dream was sparked when I was working with National Geographic. I’ve been bitten by this bug that I want to start a weekly prime time program on network television based on science. The aim would be to inspire a kid in every school in America to have a passion about science and then to pursue that through university and into their career, because if there’s one thing this country needs, it’s more scientists, more engineers. And I think the simplest way to do that is to make science sexy.

I hope Hilly can bring this show about science that is funny, relevant and entertaining, and which – like all good TV shows – has a gasp, a sigh and a tear, and a sense of satisfaction at the end of it. This has become an obsession, and I will not rest until I get that done.