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.