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Encore: Oscar Producers Mike De Luca & Jennifer Todd Ponder Trump, Hopes & Anxieties Going Into Hollywood’s Big Night

Deadline logo Deadline 2/24/2017 Mike Fleming Jr
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Editors Note: This story originally ran on February 15, 2017.

EXCLUSIVE: The long relationship between Academy Awards producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd goes back to his storied tenure as New Line’s wunderkind bad-boy production president, when she produced the first of three Austin Powers films. De Luca is now the Oscar-nominated producer of the Fifty Shades Of Grey trilogy, Moneyball and The Social Network. He’s forever shortlisted for every big studio executive post, even though he now commutes from Texas, where he and his wife moved their small children for a quieter life. Todd, who started as an assistant to producer Joel Silver before partnering with sister Suzanne Todd, now runs the Warner Bros-based Pearl Street Films banner for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and produced Affleck’s Live By Night and exec produced Damon’s Jason Bourne. After teaming to produce the 2016 PGA Awards, De Luca and Todd are 12 days away from producing the 89th Oscars. If earlier awards shows are a barometer, the focus will go from last year’s diversity drought to President Donald Trump’s extreme immigration vetting policies. Here, De Luca and Todd tell Deadline how they’re managing the pressure.

DEADLINE: Given the week we’re in, an obvious first question: Mike, you’ve produced the second of three kinkily romantic Fifty Shades of Grey movies that have stretched the Valentine’s Day holiday. What advice from your exhaustive research can you convey that will guarantee Mrs. Fleming a whirlwind week of romance?

DE LUCA: Mr. Fleming must do whatever she wants and asks for, that’s my one and only instruction. Surrender, that’s the key to a successful marriage. Surrender. Surrender. Surrender.

DEADLINE: So, reading between the lines, it feels like you’re advising me to stick to the usual playbook, a combination of groveling and guilt?

DE LUCA: Those are your words, not mine. I brought you the surrender advice. If she wants you to be a dominant, you become a dominant. If she wants you to be an infant, you put on a diaper. Happy wife, happy life, is all I’m saying.

DEADLINE: I’m a tired 56-year old at the end of a long Oscar season. All this dressing up and role play sounds like a lot more work.

DE LUCA: The diaper helps, there. I’m wearing one right now. It’s really convenient.

DEADLINE: Enough with the romance banter. You are closing in on Oscar night…

DE LUCA: We’re talking to you from the nerve center at the Academy Awards. We’re now set up in the Dolby Theater, and our offices are the dressing rooms. It’s pretty fun.

TODD: We just got here today.

DEADLINE: How does it feel knowing that despite all the glittering movie stars and glamorous designer dresses, the hovering presence is going to be an orange-hued president whose incoming immigration policies have already created defining awards show moments for the likes of Meryl Streep?

DE LUCA: Right now, the overwhelming presence haunting us is the God of running time. Jen and I are so obsessed with trying to color within the lines and have a show that’s really entertaining but moves along, that we’re just really watching the clock on the different segments. As far as that hovering Orange Cloud, our job is to supply a show with a structure and a scene that tells a story. Our story is the celebration of movies.

DEADLINE: You cede control when winners take the stage for acceptance speeches. How will you handle that?

DE LUCA: What the winners do with their 45 seconds is up to them. But it’s 45 seconds, from the minute they get up out of their seats. So the 45 seconds includes the walk, plus what they say. Within that, it’s their real estate to say what they want to say. At the nominee’s luncheon, we suggested what we think people watching the show here and abroad want to hear. But that 45 seconds is their moment to shine, and it’s the one part of the show that isn’t under our control. So we’re just focused on the stuff that we’ve brought to the show. The spontaneity will come from the winners’ speeches.

TODD: At the Academy lunch, we had the rules presented by Kate McKinnon, playing a character in a really funny short film. We thought that was much better than us getting up there and speaking dryly.

DEADLINE: Speaking of pre-taped segments, the Golden Globes reached its high point with an inspired opening recreation of the opening musical number of La La Land. You’ve said the only musical moments will be performances of the nominated songs by the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sting. Does that mean no show-stopper to kick things off?

DE LUCA: We wanted to be different. We had seen the filmed openings that reference the nominated movies before; Jimmy Kimmel did one for the Emmys. So Jimmy, ourselves, ABC and the Academy, we all wanted to do something different. That’s what we’ll do. You’ll have to tune in and find out how we did that, but it’s different than the Globes and different from the Emmys.

DEADLINE: There will be no shortage of critics evaluating everything you do. People call producing the Oscars a thankless task. Why did the two of you so badly want that thankless job?

TODD: Mike and I are old friends and big cinephiles. We’ve watched a bunch of Oscars together, and we just always wanted to try this. We talked about what we would do with the show if we ever got to do it, and we’re like the nerdy guys who don’t care what people say. We just thought it would be fun. And it has been fun; Mike and I both have a deep love of movies and we come to it from a wholesome place.

DE LUCA: We’re film geeks who just wanted to wrap ourselves in this thing that is just such a labor of love for us.

DEADLINE: The love of movies is often lacking from Oscars. Last year it was all about the lack of diversity and other recent years placed the priorities on choreographed musical numbers or group selfie stunts. Whether it’s showing the forerunners who inspired this crop of Oscar nominees, or clips of great films, how will you infuse this love of movies theme into your three hour show?

DE LUCA: Our theme is celebrating movies that have inspired us. The story we want to tell is a really joyous one about how movies, and moments within them, stay with you through the generations. How you shared them with loved ones; your parents, your first love, your spouse, your kids. We wanted to remind people how these moments have been passed down through the generations. I think we get there through some of our clip packages which mix young and old, and also our presenters. We have a good mix of previous generations that inspired the new generation, and indeed that new generation. The clip packages, our presenters, and this overriding loving reverence for the movie moments that have come before, and the movie moments that are here today, that’s how we’re hoping to get that theme across. It’s all in how you use the real estate. We decided going in that we weren’t going to have extraneous musical numbers, except those pegged to the nominated songs. So we picked up some room to really celebrate the films themselves.

DEADLINE: Your nominees feature a good mix of newcomers and veterans with stories to tell. 

TODD: Some of our presenters will talk about what inspired them, and the original clip packages hopefully will drive that home, with movies that have inspired around the world, and show what keeps people going to see movies as a communal experience. We liked that theme of being inspired at the movies, through the movies we remember, and the movies that were released this year. We wanted to keep that spirit alive, through all the acts of the show.

DEADLINE: To that end, what was the first Oscar you can recall where you rooted hard for a movie that won, or left you crushed when it lost?

DE LUCA: Even though I’d seen Oscars before this, the one I remember clearest is the year Star Wars was up for Best Picture. As a 12-year-old, I had seen the movie ten times. When it lost to Annie Hall, I was enraged…enraged because I was 12. I came to appreciate Annie Hall after I grew up and had a few breakups, but when I was 12, it was all about Star Wars. And actually, before that, it was Rocky, when Stallone lost Best Actor. I was upset. For an Italian kid growing up in Brooklyn, Rocky was a religious experience, and everybody in my neighborhood thought Stallone was robbed because he was Italian.

DEADLINE: Looking back, should Star Wars have won Best Picture over Annie Hall?

DE LUCA: I can’t honestly answer that. I have two sides of my brain ripping themselves apart right now. I loved them both. But part of me will always be 12 years old, probably too much of me will be 12 years old forever, and while that part of me understands how revolutionary Annie Hall was…they both were so innovative. I literally can’t answer that question; I’m split down the middle.

DEADLINE: How about you, Jen?

TODD: The first movie that I really remember was when my mother took me to see Terms of Endearment, at a drive-in. I remember that we watched the Oscars and it won a bunch of awards, and I remember thinking, wow. I loved Out of Africa, which won when I was senior in high school. Those were the Oscar movies that stand out. Annie Hall I learned to love later in life, but I hadn’t seen it when it won in 1978. I have always loved the show; Mike and I have that in common. I have two sisters and my sister Suzanne and I watched the Oscars at our house every year. It was the only awards show I ever watched. It was always the biggest deal, seeing those movie stars. And Mike and I, being the controlling people we are, watched together and we’d be like, “If we ever get our hands on that show, this is what we do with it.” So, here’s our shot.

DEADLINE: What makes Kimmel the right host for this Oscars? Mike, you’ve said here was your Johnny Carson, who hosted five times.

DE LUCA: I watched him, but Jen’s a lot younger than me.

TODD: I came up in the Billy Crystal years, but I have gone back and looked at Carson. These are the types of hosts we love.

DE LUCA: The old style, true Master of Ceremonies like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal. That’s what we thought we saw with Kimmel.

DEADLINE: Throw in the political volatility of the moment, and you could do worse than a host who every night does a show that requires being changeable and able to react in the moment.

TODD: Mike and I feel that Jimmy’s comedy is also universal enough that he’s appealing across a lot of demos. He’s very broad, edgy without giving off that roast-y vibe, and he’s never mean spirited. He has great relationships within Hollywood, and he understands this is a big night for these people and he’s respectful of that. But he still wants to make a very funny show. I think he made the most sense of all the guys out there, to fill this role.

DEADLINE: Was there something he said when you met with him you found particularly inspiring?

DE LUCA: Well, it was more that to us he had the perfect modulation of comedy for the show. He isn’t fawning. His comedy has edge, it’s subversive and can be irreverent, but he’s got true affection for the people in that audience. He loves pop culture. You know his theater is right across the street from the Dolby in Hollywood, and I think that affection and respect he has for artists, and that he’s friends with so many people that are going to be in that audience, that really meant a lot to us. He’s as much a fan of film as we are. It all provided a unique blend that went well with the joyous theme we’re trying to execute.

DEADLINE: Even though he’s not a movie guy?

DE LUCA: Yeah, he isn’t, but he’s a movie fan, and fandom goes a long way as part of the tool kit to have it trickle into the show. This is basically like a big pageant, a big party for people who love movies. He grew up on the movies the same way we did, and then his career took him into his line of work and our careers took us into ours. But where we all meet, and hopefully where the audience meets with us, is this pure love of cinema.

DEADLINE: The format is regimented by the Academy, so there’s only so much innovation possible. Was there a bold idea you came in with, and had to surrender?

DE LUCA: Like everyone else, we go in thinking, I wonder if the show could be shorter by not having certain awards on the telecast; maybe they can be given in a separate ceremony. And then it was patiently explained to us that everybody asks that. And the amount of awards they give out on the telecast are the amount of awards that they’re going to give out. It’s not changing. You become locked into that, and the realization that even if you did nothing but give out those awards, with no original content, you pretty much have a three-hour show. So the amount of original programming we can bring into the remaining minutes? It’s definitely real estate that needs to be used judiciously, because every minute counts.

DEADLINE: It felt that during the Golden Globes, early winners went long in acceptance speeches, and by the time they got to categories the audience actually cared about, they rushed to finish. It seemed they began playing off Best Actor winner Casey Affleck the moment he got handed the trophy and opened his mouth. Will you be strict about playing off the big winners?

TODD: We will. We’ll play people off. We don’t want to have to do it, but we will and it just depends on the moment. Look, if we feel like a speech is meaningful and is connecting, we’re going to try our best not to. I hate watching shows where people get played off. It makes me cringe; it’s the last thing you want to do. But unfortunately, there’s too many categories in this for us to not have that option. I hope people practice their speeches, and we will try to do it in the best way possible if we have to.

DE LUCA: I hope the winners or the nominees keep in mind that if the winners in the first third of the show go long, they’re really robbing the people in the last third of the show from saying their piece. Hopefully, everyone will be conscious of the responsibility they all have to each other. We don’t want to be bad guys. We will, but we want them to help us help them, by not making us do it.

DEADLINE: So you’re counting on movie stars to be magnanimous and selfless? What could go wrong? 

DE LUCA: It’s a hope. And hope springs eternal.

DEADLINE: So a couple personal questions. Mike, you’ve got the storied resume going back to New Line and Se7en, Boogie Nights, Austin Powers and so many others. You’ve been Oscar nominated several times as producer and were short listed for each top studio exec job even before this job. But you moved your family to Texas. How the hell are you accomplishing all this from the Lone Star state?

DE LUCA: Texas I can do remotely, because we have phones and computers. So it’s all about time management and I’m scheduled within an inch of my life. But right now because of this show, I have been spending 70% of all my time in LA.

DEADLINE: What kind of adjustment has that been?

DE LUCA: It’s weird. No one really cares if I’m sitting in my office or not because everything is 24-hour communication anyway. But it has sucked with the Oscars, because this demands 100% of your time. I thought, Jen and I have been working together a long time, and it will be fine. It actually didn’t work out that way. The Oscars just commands your attention, and I have pretty much been living in our Oscar production offices since we opened them.

DEADLINE: Jen, when you’re not moonlighting, you run Pearl Street for Ben Affleck and Kimmel’s arch nemesis, Matt Damon. What workplace ramifications await you if Kimmel uses one of your bosses for a punching bag?

TODD: I’m lucky that the guy in truth loves Jimmy so much. Both [Affleck and Damon] are also movie geeks in the best way, and they were excited about what I’m doing with the show and had great ideas. The minute I told them about this, they both said, “You have to get Kimmel,” so all bets were off at that point. The great news is, Matt is a nominee [for producing Manchester By The Sea] and will be at the show. So who knows what will happen between Jimmy and Matt?

DEADLINE: How grating is it to Matt that Ben has one more Oscar than him, the Best Picture statue for Argo?

TODD: Well, it will be worse if Casey Affleck wins, for the role that Matt was going to play. Jimmy has a lot of good material here, for the Oscars. Matt does have more nominations, but Ben has more trophies.

DEADLINE: One serious question: 2016 was just a terrible year for the passing of beloved icons, ending with the double tragedy of Carrie Fisher and her mom Debbie Reynolds. How will you make the annual In Memoriam segment memorably reflect its impact on the film community?

TODD: We have a beautiful song and an artist picked out to do a live performance of it, and we’re just trying to pick sort of beautiful clips to showcase their work. But yeah, it was a tough year for sure. In Memoriam is a very popular segment and everyone wants to do right by it. Mike and I have put a lot of time and energy into trying to make it as special as we can.

DEADLINE: What was the biggest value of producing the Producers Guild Awards as a warm up?

DE LUCA: Jen can speak for herself, but, they’re nothing alike. We had fantasized, ‘Oh, this will be a dry run.’ It’s nothing like the Oscars. This is a live event that over 80 million people watch that is looked after by ABC and the Academy. I still get a little nervous when I’m in Ben Sherwood’s company. One of the first questions he asked us was, “So have either of you ever produced a live event for network television before?” We go, “Um, no?”

TODD: We realized then that it was a crazy thing to do. Do you really want to hand us over the keys to this? I wish I could say that it helped us more, but the PGAs are not televised and so they’re very different, other than teaching us to be conscientious about our running time. This it is a bit like going from kindergarten to college.

DE LUCA: We should add that we love the PGA.

TODD: We did the PGAs while we were filming movies, but this is more labor intensive. Everyone I run into says, ‘Can’t wait to see your show.’ Every time I hear that, it’s added pressure.

DE LUCA: Right now, before I go to sleep all I think is, ‘our last commercial has to be before midnight; our last commercial has to be before midnight.’

DEADLINE: What other anxieties comes to mind right before you fall asleep?

DE LUCA: Waking up the next morning and reading the reviews. I want people to say, “That Oscars made me feel warm and tingly about the movies, or, that put a smile on my face, or, that made me feel proud to be part of this community.” You know, all the things that Jen and I feel about the movies that make us grateful about our careers. We want that feeling of reverence and respect and joy, and the magic of movies to come through in the show. We’ve tried to seed the ground with organic moments that will evoke that feeling, but that’s what I’ll be nervous about. We really won’t know if it came through, until the next day.

DEADLINE: How about you, Jen?

TODD: What keeps me up?

DE LUCA: The thought of walking around three hours in heels?

TODD: Yes, that’s it, the thought of my feet hurting. You know? I sweat all of it. I’m curious to see, when we put it all out there, how it’s going to run together. All the individual pieces we’ve been working on, seeing the presenters. Mostly I’m excited so I guess that’s the opposite [of anxiety]. I’m not sure I’m going to read any reviews the next day. Because, at the end of the day I know it’s an impossible job, even though Mike and I signed on with gusto and we’ve loved doing it. I know we can’t please everybody. But this version of the show will be what we wanted it to be, and I hope that we pleased the most amount of people we can.

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