This year, what’s happening behind the scenes at the Oscars is making as many headlines as what’s happening up front, thanks to the show’s new producer Will Packer.
He has made several changes to the broadcast in an attempt to bolster its popular appeal and flagging ratings, including dropping craft fields like makeup and hairstyling from the live telecast and replacing them with fan-voted categories such as #OscarsFanFavorite and #OscarsCheerMoment.
He’s also bringing more diversity to the event, hiring the first all-Black producing team, tapping Ghetto Gastro to partner with Wolfgang Puck on catering, and HBCU students as presenters during the show, which is being hosted for the first time by three women: Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer and Regina Hall.
Packer knows a bit about popular appeal; his films, including “Girls Trip,” “Think Like a Man,” “Ride Along” and “Stomp the Yard” among them, have grossed $1 billion worldwide. He’s consistently focused his narratives on Black people and their experiences, something the Oscars and Hollywood at large have often overlooked.
As a continuation of that work, Packer and his wife, Heather, decided to wear Black designers to the ceremony and after parties.
“It’s something Heather and I talked about early in the process of planning for the show. It’s just as important as what we’re doing on the stage,” said Packer.
He’s chosen an Oscar gold tuxedo by Dedrick Thomas of Hideoki Bespoke, a tailor based in his hometown of Atlanta, who has dressed Steve Harvey, Gucci Mane, Rick Ross, Denzel Washington and Neyo, as well as Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens. For the after parties, he’s wearing a powder blue double-breasted tuxedo by Los Angeles-based designer Rich Fresh.
“I realize in my position of power, I have the ability to give a spotlight to folks who might not otherwise have it,” he said. “I am where I am because people gave me a shot and supported me…So every chance I get, number one is quality…but when I can have an opportunity to lift up folks from communities who have not had the same opportunities of access or resources but who have amazingly brilliant ideas, whether we’re talking about designers, directors or writers, I do it. If I can be a part of helping to stem the systemic ways that this country has disenfranchised folks, and create a cycle of positivity, I’m going to do that.”
Heather is wearing a custom, dark emerald green bustier dress by Haitian-American designer Jovana Louis, who is based in Beverly Hills and recently had a runway show at New York Fashion Week. “She’s really good at designing for women with curves, which is what I have,” said Heather. “For us to showcase Black designers, who don’t get some of the exposure other designers get, we felt it was important to give them an opportunity to show what they can do….It was really important to us to have that diversity.”
“It felt special to have Jovana Louis considering the lack of visibility and opportunity for Black women in fashion, especially on the business side,” said stylist Christine Nicholson. “I love how she infuses her Caribbean heritage and Paris education into her work.”
Louis is also dressing costume designer Ruth E. Carter and actress Celeste Seda.
“It’s an honor for me as someone new in the business, as a Black woman and a Black designer,” said Louis. “It’s great when we can support each other.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been working hard at diversifying the award show after decades of criticism that culminated in the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite campaign.
Packer, a Hollywood outsider who didn’t go to film school, has been tasked with that, as well as bringing the Oscars out of its pandemic doldrums.
He started in the film business while still in college at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, collaborating with a fraternity brother to make “Chocolate City,” a 1994 coming-of-age tale about a HBCU student, which they marketed and distributed themselves. After that, he set up his production company Rainforest Films, in Atlanta, turning out indie films and eventually blockbuster hits.
“I want people to be talking about the Oscars in a Walmart in Dallas versus just the happening restaurant in Beverly Hills,” he’s said of his philosophy.
The red carpet could help, perhaps, by also being more accessible, Packer suggested.
“One of the things Michelle Obama famously did was to wear very intentionally designers and styles that weren’t just the ultra-luxury premium brands, which of course she could wear any of them. She chose very often to wear styles and brands that were priced so that the average hardworking American could also have access to them, and she knew whatever she wore would then be trending,” said Packer.
“I subscribe to that kind of ideal. Nothing against the premium, high-dollar luxury brands, stars are always going to wear that. But I’m also someone who feels any time you can mix it up and have diversity in terms of styles and designs and people represented and worn by these stars seen around the world, that’s a good thing. You get to see some voices and perspectives you may not normally see. And that’s all kind of designers, not just Black designers, designers from all ethnicities and backgrounds and orientations. Give light to additional voices,” he said. “There are plenty of the premium brands on the carpet, let’s mix it up and have some others.”