Oscar Producers Talk Early Start Time, 20 Previous Winners Presenting Acting Prizes & That Massive ‘I’m Just Ken’ Number With 65 Male Dancers Backing Ryan Gosling: “We’re Going Big!”

It is crunch time for Raj Kapoor, Katy Mullan, and Molly McNearney, the three Executive Producers of the 96th Annual Academy Awards. As they are putting final touches in place for what they hope will be a show that honors not just this year’s crop of movies but also Hollywood’s and Oscar’s rich history, the trio are planning a ceremony that excites viewers to the point of keeping the recent post-pandemic ratings rise rising.

All indications are good that this could be a banner year, ratings wise, for the Oscars, particularly with the potency and popularity of this year’s Best Picture contenders, most notably the dual phenomenon of summer blockbusters Barbie and front-runner Oppenheimer (aka Barbenheimer) which have 21 nominations between them. As host Jimmy Kimmel told me earlier this week, viewers will have actually seen this year’s movies and have a rooting interest in the outcome.

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Ratings for other awards shows (save for those of the dreary the strike-delayed Emmys) have been upbeat including the revitalized Golden Globes on CBS, Critics Choice Awards on The CW, and the Grammys, which also had a Barbie factor with its Song Of The Year winner from Billie Eilish, “What Was I Made For.”

To that end, and to boost the numbers watching at home, the Academy for the first time is starting an hour earlier, cutting their red carpet pre-show down to just a half hour and beginning the actual Oscar show at 4pm PT/7pm ET with plans for a 3 1/2 hour broadcast. The hope is this will have the effect of ending the show, particularly on the East Coast, much sooner and still in prime time when the big awards are being announced.

In the past, bloated running times have sometimes had the effect of putting the big awards near midnight in the East. Kimmel told me he was concerned that viewers might not be getting the message and could miss the first hour in a worst-case scenario. ABC this week has really ramped up their promos fronted by the host that remind viewers of the earlier start time, with Kimmel seen holding an Oscar and pointing out this 96 year old guy “wants to get to bed” at a decent hour.

Oscars 2024
Oscars 2024

“Well, he just wants to make sure that it sounds like ABC is doing a really great job of making people aware, which I think, by the time we get to Sunday, we’re going to drill it in that it’s an hour early,” said McNearney, now on her second year as a show EP (and also a producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live and, of course, Kimmel’s wife). “But yes, that would be devastating to him if people were tuning in after the monologue.”

She joined me this week on a zoom call with Kapoor and Mullan to talk Oscar planning and their hopes for the show.

Kapoor has worked on the Oscar show in various capacities for seven years, including as a producer last year and upped to EP this year. He is confident the earlier time is the right move. “I mean, I think it’s just the constant evolution of the show. We have a lot of discussions of how the show can continue to evolve. This, I think, came across because we wanted people on the East Coast to be able to see the end of the show. We know that they are watching it much later,” he said, noting many people are now going back to the office.

“So, for them to be able to go back to work Monday morning, we want everybody to see who wins best picture. So, for us, we want to keep the show tight, we want to keep the show moving, and I think the earlier time slot helps us. It doesn’t help us with rehearsals or how fast we need to get everybody to the red carpet, but I think how we consume media and stuff, I think this earlier start time just feels better. We’ll see how it all works this year, but I think we are all excited with the earlier start time, not logistically, from our end, because we actually miss two hours this year because of the earlier start time and daylight savings time. But I think for an audience experience…it’s like we’re welcoming people back to watch the Oscars together, and hopefully enjoy the entire show.”

96th Oscars Arrivals Carpet Roll Out & Governors Ball Preview
Atmosphere at the 96th Oscars Arrivals Carpet Roll Out & Wolfgang Puck at the Governors Ball Preview

At the Oscar nominees lunch last month, AMPAS President Janet Yang made a point of telling a crowd very much affected by this new timing about the change. There was a noticeable rumble in the room like it was the first time they were hearing this, and then she mentioned the double punch of daylight savings beginning. “I think they were doing the math on, ‘oh, that means I’m in hair and makeup at 8 AM!’,” laughed McNearney.

Mullan, who has worked on lots of live TV from the Olympics to The Little Mermaid Live and through her partnership in the global live event production company Done + Dusted, is a first-timer at the reins of the industry’s biggest night, a show that reportedly reaches over one billion viewers worldwide. She’s thrilled to be here. “I feel incredibly lucky because I’m walking into a show that’s been going for 96 years. So, there’s a lot of things that are already in place that work really, really well, and then I’ve got these two incredible producing partners, and I’ve worked with Raj a lot. This is the first time I’ve ever worked with Molly, and it’s just a real delight to be with people who are collaborative, smart, funny. Molly has us in stitches all day, every day, about everything, and you know, there’s a really great vibe where it just feels like everybody is bringing their A-game. Everybody wants it to be the biggest success possible. Between us we are all pop culture vultures, and we’ve all done a ton of different types of TV,” she said while adding points about their goals.

Katy Mullan, Molly McNearney, Raj Kapoor
Katy Mullan, Molly McNearney, Raj Kapoor

“So, I think and hope that we understand what the audiences need and want in this moment in time, and we just want to keep pushing things forward so that the Oscars celebrates its history but also feels of the moment, and feels relevant, and brings in that younger audience because, you know, I think all of us watched the Oscars from when we were 8 years old, 9 years old, and it was such a tentpole of pop culture, and it’s one of the last remaining ones that everybody talks about. Everybody is curious about what’s going to be on that stage and who those winners are. So, yeah, there’s a huge amount of pressure to do it justice, and to continue its legacy, and also bring something that feels fresh and relevant this year.”

Jimmy Kimmel Oscars Q&A
Jimmy Kimmel and friends

Kapoor also mentions the value of having widely-seen movies in the mix. “We’re really celebrating all the nominations. Like, I think in every category, all the nominations, it’s just we’re very grateful because there are a lot of big movies this year and a lot of movies that people saw. So, you know, no matter whether it’s in the animated category, or whether it’s in acting categories, there’s been so many movies that have all played to different audiences.”

McNearney says they are aware they have to keep it on a pace that doesn’t slow down. “I think the biggest challenge is just to make sure it keeps moving. We have 23 awards, and we have 5 songs. That’s a long show. I think we’re doing a really good job, collectively, of figuring out the pacing of the show, to keep it moving. We have incredible presenters, which people will be excited to see up on that stage. There’s some surprises, there’s a reunion (Scarface, anyone?), and I think our job is just to keep it interesting…I think it feels really happy and joyful. Like, we kind of got through some of the worst stuff, and now, we’re all here to celebrate, and it feels good,” she said. And no doubt there will be surprises. There always are.

“BARBIE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
“BARBIE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Regarding the performances of the five nominated songs, all are going to be done by the original artists, but there is also great anticipation about the nominated male anthem, “I’m Just Ken,one of two songs in contention from Barbie (the other is Billie Eilish’s, which she will perform). After toying with the press about ‘will he or won’t he’, it was finally announced Ryan Gosling will be singing it. I have heard from a very good source that he will be backed by 65 male dancers, which will make it one of the biggest Best Song numbers ever performed on the Oscars. The producers didn’t directly confirm that information, but they certainly didn’t deny it.

“It’s going to be a very big performance. You’ll see that. It is in rehearsal. I was down there yesterday, and there’s a lot of fun to be had when you watch this number, but yeah, I think we’re going big. I’ll say that. We’re going big,” said Kapoor, who also answered my question about the history-making performance of the nominated “Wahzhazhe (A Song For My People)” from Killers Of The Flower Moon which will be performed by its Oscar-nominated composer Scott George and his Osage Nation singers. Kapoor promises it will be a show highlight.

Osage Nation Drum Circle & Singers attends the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian celebrates “Killers of the Flower Moon”
Osage Nation Drum Circle & Singers attends the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian celebrates “Killers of the Flower Moon”

“All the performances are important, but that particular one has been treated with a lot of care. Apple has been so lovely with their collaboration on their side and our creative team. We know that it’s special because it has not been seen. This is not normally a public-facing type of performance,” he said. “It comes from almost a ceremonial point of view. So, for us to be able to experience that on the broadcast and the people in the room, there is this beautiful story to be told of how important that music is and the people that are actually taking the stage to be a part of that, that live event experience.”

Word has leaked out about another major component of this year’s show, and it is actually one that harkens back to a brilliant innovation from producers Bill Condon and Larry Mark when they ran the 2010 Oscar broadcast and invited not just the previous year’s acting winners to present, as is tradition, but also four past winners in each of the four acting categories. It was a thrilling way to do it, and props to this producing team for reviving it.

“When we set off to make the show, a big kind of theme that we talked about was celebration and connection and the history of the Oscars, and you know, when we looked at how we create the environment and set the stage for these incredible talents to go out there and seize their moment, there’s nothing more inspiring and personal than having someone you look up to, or someone that’s inspired your career, or someone who’s a former Oscar winner, talking to you from the heart, and telling you how great your performance is,” explained Mullan about the plan to have last year’s winners – Brendan Fraser, Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ke Huy Quan – each joined by four other past winners in their categories to extoll the virtues of the five nominees.

“So, really, for us, it was about how do we celebrate history, and also, how do we give these actresses and actors a moment that they’re not going to forget for the rest of their lives? Having somebody who they look up to and admire speaking from the heart about their performance just felt so special. So, that’s why we pursued it.”

I recently ran into one of last year’s winners who said they were hoping to keep it a secret, but is thrilled to be joined on stage with those who won in the past. “It means so much to me,” the Oscar winner told me.

Well yes it is all out there now, but if you want to know just who the past winners participating are just take a look at the combined press releases the Academy has been putting out listing this year’s presenters (something Condon and Mark never did in order to keep it top secret). They are all there listed among others joining the show. You just have to use your knowledge of Oscar winners to piece it together and figure out each category’s participants. Sound like a fun game to do before Oscar night? You’re welcome.

One thing to look for when I did just that is the Best Supporting Actress group the producers have appeared to line up, which, with an organization dedicated in recent years to showing their increased efforts on diversity, will be a remarkable moment on stage for people of color who also have an Oscar at home. It will be especially moving, I will predict, when they open the envelope and announce Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the almost certain winner.

Oh, and I also asked the producers to confirm Kimmel’s promise that there will be food served in the audience at some point in the very long evening.

“Oh, yes. There will be snacks,” McNerney assured. “You can always count on being fed by an Italian man.”

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