Inside the 2020 MTV VMAs, and Why 'Mystery Is Kind of Exciting' For Award Shows

Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga
Kevin Winter/MTV VMAs 2020/Getty Images for MTV

Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga perform during the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards, broadcast on Aug. 30, 2020.

The 2020 MTV VMAs managed to take place everywhere and nowhere all at once — with performances filmed across New York and Los Angeles and even in South Korea.

It was a first for the show, which aired its annual ceremony on Sunday (Aug. 30), but faced unprecedented obstacles for the broadcast with the parameters in place from the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, it was a challenge that longtime executive producer Jesse Ignjatovic met excitedly. “We wanted the audience to have a bit of escapism,” he says.

Ignjatovic, who co-founded the production company Den of Thieves in 2007 and has produced the VMAs for the past 13 years, says that planning for this new kind of awards show started in July, following initial conversations regarding set design and thematics in April and May. He says while normally they would have started those conversations in the earlier parts of the year, the show was otherwise “produced in much the same way we do every year. We always say, ‘We can do A or B or C,’ and the artist will come back with what they’re thinking and want to do. This year, it was just a different assortment of options.”

While the 2020 VMAs were initially headed for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, artists were ultimately given the choice between exterior performances (such as The Weeknd’s sky-high opening of “Blinding Lights” from Hudson Yards’ The Edge) and XR, a mix of reality and virtual reality (such as Lady Gaga with Ariana Grande or Doja Cat’s performances). “There was that element of, ‘What are they gonna do?’ or ‘Who’s performing where?’” says Ignjatovic. “Mystery and being able to hold things in until show night is kind of exciting, it added a layer to the show.”

The executive producer says that though there may have been a few “non-starters” from the beginning in terms of a vision being too ambitious, artists, management, labels and MTV “really recognized the parameters and limitations and everyone worked within them. No one tried to push, like, ‘I have to have 50 dancers.’” And even while working within those limitations, the show still managed to produce mind-boggling performances, like Lady Gaga’s near-10-minute set that included “911,” “Rain On Me” and “Stupid Love” — all of which she sang masked up. As Ignjatovic says, “[it was] like she was playing to a stadium.”

Most of the XR clips were filmed in Los Angeles, with the one outlier being BTS’ across-the-world live debut of “Dynamite.” which the K-pop act performed from Seoul. (Ignjatovic says that in a world without COVID, he would have encouraged the group to perform near, if not at, the venue itself). And even though their set took place over 6,000 miles away, Ignjatovic never worried about not sending a crew to South Korea to help execute, citing how “top-notch” BTS performances always are production-wise.

Despite the distance, Ignjatovic recalls that BTS shot their performance on the earlier side, while majority of the others were filmed the week of the show with artists rotating in to rehearse and shoot. “We just banged them out with our eye set on the 30th,” says Ignjatovic. “That was the endgame to get everything in there.”

Now, with another VMAs in Ignjatovic’s rearview mirror, he says a highlight was simply “getting it on the air… it was such a journey,” but that he’s most proud of how well the performances stack up to those of the VMAs’ past.

“I think I’ve watched Abel’s performance maybe 60 times, and it just never gets old,” he says. “These performances stand up to any VMAs, and that’s what really brings me joy. It’s not like, ‘Oh, that was a COVID show.’ No, that was the VMAs.”

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.