Last June, amid rising deaths from the coronavirus and widespread protests over police violence and racial injustice, BET aired the first major awards show of the pandemic. The 2020 BET Awards featured stunning pretaped performances from artists such as Megan Thee Stallion, who delivered “Girls in the Hood” and “Savage (Remix)” on a desert set that evoked the post-apocalyptic film “Mad Max.” The show spoke to the moment with recurring social commentary from host Amanda Seales and honorees, including Beyoncé, who urged viewers to “vote like our life depends upon it, because it does.”
Producer Jesse Collins has helmed the annual event for decades, but it was last year’s show, which marked the event’s 20th anniversary, that really got the entertainment industry’s attention. This year, Collins and his eponymous production company have been more in-demand than ever: In February, he produced the Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime show, becoming the first Black executive producer of the closely watched pop culture spectacle. He’s a co-executive producer of the Grammys, airing this weekend on CBS, and will produce next month’s Oscars ceremony alongside filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and veteran producer Stacey Sher.
“People didn’t know what to expect, and I think people thought it was going to be a bunch of performances from people’s living rooms and kind of a low production value,” Collins said of the BET Awards. “What we delivered was the opposite of that. Artists stepped up with their creativity, and we were able to do things that were visually stunning.”
The event was also praised for its tone, striking a balance between uplifting the audience and reflecting on the grim state of the country just over a month after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
“We spent a lot of time making sure that we were telling the emotional story of the culture,” Collins said. “Everyone was just at a place of real frustration. Rather than running away from that, we tried to tell that narrative as best we could and tried to reflect how people were feeling in that moment.”
Those are themes Collins expects to continue this awards season, which officially got underway a few weeks ago with the Golden Globes. The virtual ceremony, not produced by Collins, conspicuously battled technical challenges, including audio issues that briefly usurped Daniel Kaluuya’s best supporting actor acceptance speech for “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
Collins says technical challenges are always a possibility when producing live events. “The excitement of live television is you never know what’s going to happen,” Collins said. But overall, he thinks the entertainment industry has adjusted well to unprecedented circumstances.
“People are shooting stuff on their own. As an industry, people are shooting films. They’re shooting television shows,” Collins said. “Everybody has figured out how to do it safely and still provide a high entertainment value.”
Collins, 50, grew up in the Washington area, and attended J.E.B. Stuart High School (now known as Justice High School) in Falls Church, Va. He worked at local hip-hop radio station WPGC 95.5 before moving to Los Angeles in the ’90s to launch his career in Hollywood. He has produced an array of scripted and unscripted titles — including BET’s highly rated miniseries “The New Edition Story” and “The Bobby Brown Story” — through his production company, which launched in 2012 and signed a multiyear deal with BET’s brand-packed parent company, ViacomCBS, last year.
Collins has lent his talents to the Grammys since 2005, when he staged a showstopping performance of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” This year, he’ll co-executive produce the show alongside Ben Winston (of “The Late Late Show With James Corden”). Collins stayed largely mum on what he and Winston are planning for the upcoming ceremony, which is slated to feature performances by artists including Dua Lipa, BTS, Bad Bunny, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift and Megan Thee Stallion. But he promises that viewers can “expect great performances” that live up to “the tradition and the expectation of music’s biggest night in television.”
“I’m really excited for what we’re going to do this year,” Collins said. “It’s going to be very different.”
Just hours after the Grammys air this Sunday, the nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards will be announced, bringing Collins one step closer toward his next high-profile project: the Oscars ceremony, slated to air April 25.
“We are working hard to create an Oscars that is going to entertain everyone, that’s going to get people excited about film — not only the movies that happened in the past year, but movies in general,” Collins said. “The Oscars is the gold standard for film awards shows. We just want to make sure that what we deliver is as special as everybody expects it to be.”
Despite his packed schedule, Collins says there are other events he and his company colleagues have on their bucket list, including producing a feature film, the opening ceremony of the Olympics and the Emmys ceremony.
For now, he’s just taking it all in.
“I’m just having fun. We’re just bouncing from one [project] to the other,” Collins said. “So, maybe there hasn’t been any downtime. But I feel very fortunate to even be in this situation. I don’t have a right to complain about anything.”