Will Packer and Shayla Cowan have made history with the 94th Academy Awards, regardless of who takes home statuettes during the broadcast.
The 94th Academy Awards will air from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday. For the first time, the Oscars will have a pair of Black producers in Will Packer and Shayla Cowan.
Packer is no stranger to large-scale productions. The HBCU graduate by way of Florida A&M University is responsible for films such as Stomp the Yard, This Christmas, Think Like a Man, About Last Night, Girls Trip, and most recently, The Photograph. Cowan is the chief of staff of Will Packer Productions and Will Packer Media, two of Packer’s four companies. For many years, Cowan has been Packer’s right-hand woman, but Packer says her role is much larger than any title could ever grant her.
“She is the secret sauce,” Packer told Boardroom. “With any company or any team, there’s usually somebody that gets the lion’s share of the credit. But there’s always somebody that is the heart and soul. The reality is that if I don’t have Shayla, I am not where I am in my career because she has been that day-one support and ride or die. But it’s not just because she’s loyal. She is amazingly talented.”
Being the first Black duo to produce the Oscars comes with challenges. Last year’s Academy Awards saw ratings nose-dive to a new all-time low of 9.85 million viewers — a 58% drop from 2020’s 23.6 million, which was an all-time low for the broadcast at that time. Last year’s falloff may have been dramatic, but it’s been part of a larger trend. In 2014, the Oscars hit 43.7 million viewers, the second-highest mark since 2000. But since then, every year with the exception of 2019 has seen viewers walk away from their screens.
Packer’s goal is to end the downward spiral. To do so, he has implemented changes that haven’t been welcomed by many. One of which is to hand out eight awards in the hour before the live telecast begins. While they won’t be announced on air, the clips will eventually be recognized on the broadcast later in the evening.
Those categories are:
- Film editing
- Makeup and hairstyling
- Original score
- Production Design
- Documentary Short Subject
- Animated short and live action short
Despite criticism, the pressure of reviving the Oscars doesn’t scare Packer.
“Fear is a good thing, and I use it to drive me,” he said. “I’m not somebody that looks at a challenge of any kind and say, ‘That can defeat me. What if I fail? What could defeat me?’ I’m always somebody that looks at the positives and says, ‘What if I succeed? What if I’m able to go and take this mammoth of a show and succeed at what I’m trying to accomplish on the biggest stage and the biggest night of the year for Hollywood?’ It doesn’t mean I’m naive to the challenge, but I knew [the pressure] was coming, and it is what I signed up for.”
The Oscars is not without its faults, either. As relayed by Insider in February 2021, 89% of nominees have been white over the last decade. In 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite movement was born after no people of color were nominated in the top four acting categories. It has been over 15 years since a Black man has won in the best actor category and 20 years since Halle Berry won best actress. In the show’s 94 years, no Black filmmaker has ever won best director.
“I don’t have any control over the winners as the show’s producer,” Packer said. “But I definitely want to see more diversity and more viewpoints and perspectives showcased within that group of people we lift on the highest level. On the show stage, which I do have control over this year, I want to make sure that it looks and feels like the world. I don’t think you have to be overtly political in the way you position a show like this. The show just needs to be true to the world at large. It just needs the true diversity of our global society.”
Packer’s journey to the Academy Awards stage began at a place where an excess of Black talent is produced: an HBCU. Notable HBCU alum that have done well in Hollywood include Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Ruth E. Carter, Taraji P. Henson, Chadwick Boseman, Phylicia Rashad, and Terrence Jenkins. Packer attended Florida A&M University and is an avid HBCU advocate — so much so that he hosted the first-ever fireside chat with students from multiple HBCUs two weeks before the Oscars.
Despite taking interviews for over six hours of the day, Packer’s energy never lacked during the session. He answered questions from Clark Atlanta University alumna Tiffany Cross as well as the students who one day aspire to be of similar stature as him.
“I was just like [them]. I was sitting in classes at Florida A&M University dreaming about what’s my next move and what I was going to do,” Packer said. “And my career started making a movie with my partner Rob Hardy at the time on the campus of FAMU as a college sophomore. So that’s where it began, and it’s going pretty good. Now, we’re at the Oscars.”
“I would say to the next generation of HBCU folks, start where you are,” he continued. “There is nothing limiting you. The sky and literally your own imagination are where the limits are. Dream big and dream in color. Everything that I do and every success that I have, I wear that, I own that and feel that responsibility. The power is not in what Will Packer can do but how many people Will Packer can touch. The power is in the legacy.”
The 94th Academy Awards, hosted by Regina Hall, Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer, will begin airing on ABC at 8 p.m. EST on Sunday. See all nominations here.