ABC Takes a Back Seat as Academy Calls the Shots for Oscar Show Again

Daniel Holloway

When ABC extended its deal to broadcast the Academy Awards through 2028, it emerged from the August negotiations touting greater creative input in the telecast. Most years, the Oscars are ABC’s highest-rated programming event, but the Motion Picture Academy has long seen fit to give its broadcast partner as little say in the show’s production as possible. So when Disney/ABC Television Group chief Ben Sherwood said at a Paley Center Q&A in September that the network now has greater sway over the show — and that he was hopeful its late-night star, Jimmy Kimmel, would be named host of the 89th Academy Awards in February — he sounded like a man holding a full house.

Turns out it was a losing hand. As Variety first reported, the Academy named Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd — two respected film veterans with no experience in live television — to produce the upcoming Oscars. Variety also learned that Kimmel was considered out of the running for the hosting gig. Now, at the end of a tortuous producer search that irritated ABC executives, and with the network’s standard-bearer likely to be passed over for the hosting gig, ABC’s creative input in the Oscars appears to be what it always has been — minimal.

Kimmel drew sterling reviews in September as host of the Primetime Emmy Awards. The comic’s team had figured that accepting the Emmys job would preclude him from being considered to host the Oscars five months later. But at the Governors Ball after the Emmys, ABC executives buzzed that the Academy would have to consider Kimmel after his strong performance. Sherwood codified that take four days later at the Paley Center, saying, “We thought Jimmy elevated the Emmys. We thought Jimmy has earned it, and we’re very hopeful that Jimmy will get [the Oscar job].”

But as the weeks passed post-Emmys, there was no word on not only an Oscars host, but a producer. Academy chiefs Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Dawn Hudson were said to be torn over the creative direction of the show in the wake of this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Although ABC was elated with the job Don Mischer did producing the Emmys, the awards-show vet was not believed to be a favorite of Boone Isaacs, and was never seriously considered for the Oscars.

By late October, the Academy was assuring ABC that there was a producers’ short list, but it was not sharing said list with the network. This, after ABC extended its contract to broadcast the show far beyond the point at which anyone could predict what television — or film — would look like.

ABC executives grew agitated. The Oscars had enjoyed stability from 2012 to 2015, with live-event specialists Craig Zadan and Neil Meron under a three-year deal to produce. Last year, David Hill and Reginald Hudlin were named as Zadan and Meron’s successors on Sept. 1 — more than two months earlier in the calendar than when De Luca and Todd were announced.

Now, at a time when other Oscar producers would already be building sets, De Luca and Todd are just beginning to look for a host. Asked by Variety on Nov. 4 when he and Todd hoped to have a host in place, De Luca joked, “Tomorrow.”

Todd claimed that Kimmel has not been ruled out. “Everybody’s on the table right now,” she said, adding later, “Jimmy included.”

A more likely path may be a host or hosts with connections to the production team. Todd has worked with Matt Damon (“Jason Bourne”), Andy Samberg (“Celeste and Jesse Forever”), and Mike Myers (“Austin Powers”). De Luca’s résumé includes collaborations with Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”), Jonah Hill (“The Sitter”), and Justin Timberlake (“The Social Network”). A star with singing, comedy, and dancing chops, Timberlake has long been on the Academy’s wish list but has rebuffed previous overtures.

“Jen and I both — our careers as producers are pretty eclectic,” De Luca said. “There are a few people I think would be great in both our filmographies.”

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