Jesse Collins is reimagining the modern awards show. In 2020, the Emmy-nominated producer’s work on the BET Awards set the standard for what large-scale virtual events could accomplish during a pandemic. This year, the 50-year-old CEO of Jesse Collins Entertainment worked on his 17th Grammy Awards (his first as co-executive producer) and became the first Black executive producer of the Super Bowl halftime show.
Now, thanks to a personal recommendation from Oprah Winfrey, Collins is gearing up for his first Oscars stint as co-producer of the 93rd Academy Awards. Alongside filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Stacey Sher, Collins is creating a show that centers on personal, human stories — with no Zoom allowed. “There will be twists and turns, just like a film,” he says. “Things that you’re not expecting.”
How has working on the Oscars differed from your usual music-specific programming?
It has been very different from what I’m used to, but it’s still an awards show. There will be some people that win, there’ll be some people that lose, and we’ve got to create some memorable moments in between. Those things remain true.
What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in this process, so far — beyond the pandemic?
Coming up with fresh ideas, finding a way to make this work. We’ve had to cut down on the numbers of crews and support staff and all those things. When you’re working in this situation, you have to have the least amount of people possible to make something happen and so that makes [it so] everybody has to do two-three jobs. That’s been the hardest part.
How have you found the collaborative process with the other producers?
The collaboration between Steven and Stacey has been amazing. I mean, you’re talking about two of the most brilliant minds in film. They understand what cinema is better than anyone that I’ve been around, and they have incredible visions. The three of us are coming together with the rest of the team to create a show that I really feel is going to stand up against all the other shows.
Why do virtual ceremonies work better for some award shows than others?
Award shows overall really are cultural moments, whether they’re music or whether they’re film they pull everybody in to watch. And so whether they’ve been virtual or live or something in between has really just been about where we are in relation to this pandemic and the producers and the message that they want to convey. We are over a year out now and the vaccines are out there. Things are moving forward. And I think people want to get back to a sense of community and togetherness as soon as possible.
How do you hope centering the Oscars around human stories this year will help draw in or retain viewers at a time when award shows are suffering historic lows in viewership?
I think we just focus on following each minute after that first minute with an even more entertaining minute of television. And then hopefully, by the end of three hours, everyone will have watched, everyone will have loved it and that will be that. I do think leaning into the human stories of it will be different. Hopefully that will make everybody pay attention to what’s going on.
What have you learned while working on these shows that you’ll apply to future events?
This pandemic has proved that if you’ve got a good idea, a strong song, whatever that is, people will respond to it. People expect a high level of entertainment. These types of situations force you to push your creativity to create a better product. So even going forward, when we’re in a space where these awards shows are the new normal, whatever that is, and people are back together, we still will push forward that level of creativity that we established in 2020.
What piece of advice has stuck with you throughout these opportunities in your career?
The mantra we’ve been working under is, “There’s no excuses.” You can’t put something on television and say, “This would have been great, but COVID-19 made it hard.” I think people are forgiving with certain things, and for a while they were accepting things on Zoom. But even when you did something on Zoom, it still had to have something that made it worth watching.
What would you tell your younger self with the perspective you have now?
Oh, man. I wish I had got the inside of my nose a little tougher. I’ve been taking COVID tests about three or four times a week and the tears still come down my face. They say, “Oh, after the first two, you’re fine.” Well, I’m on COVID test No. 293, and it’s not full-blown tears anymore, but definitely a trickle — kind of like that Denzel Washington Glory tear.