WTF Happened At the Oscars?
Diversity, Duty of Care, & the Slap Heard Round the World

UPDATE: this blog was written before the Academy banned Will Smith from the Oscars for the next 10 years.

1. First, the Positive: A Seminal Moment for Diversity & Inclusion
Among the many ways Will Smith’s awful behavior tarnished this year’s Academy Awards, his overshadowing of what was otherwise a milestone event for diversity and inclusion is perhaps the worst. The deaf clap standing ovation when CODA won Best Picture should have been the signature moment of the evening, one that gets notched in memories and history books. Earlier, Ariana DeBose crowed “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina who found her strength in life through art.” Jane Campion won Best Director, the second year in a row for  a woman and only the third time ever. Deaf actor Troy Kotsur delivered his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor in sign language. And Questlove’s Summer of Soul, the untold story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, long overshadowed by Woodstock from the same year, won Best Documentary.

2. The Oscars Reboot: Why Everyone Thought ‘The Slap’ Was Staged
For years the Oscars telecast has been struggling with declining viewership, dropping from 42 million viewers in 2010 to just under 10 million in 2021. This year, we were told, would be different, with lots of changes afoot: removing 8 minor awards from the show; Godfather and Pulp Fiction star reunions; the introduction of a Fan Favorite award, which somehow had Jennifer Hudson’s knockout performance from Dreamgirls mixed in with four superhero scenes.

So when Will Smith strode onstage and cold-cocked Chris Rock after a joke about Smith’s wife he didn’t like, I – along with most viewers – thought it was a staged bit, a press stunt designed to go viral and return the Oscars to must-see TV. Surely it was today’s version of Madonna open-mouth kissing Christina Aguilera and Brittney Spears at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. Surely, someone of Smith’s stature as a good-guy box office superstar, widely expected to win his first Best Actor Award that night, would never dream of interrupting a live broadcast in such a jarring fashion, unless it was pre-planned. But it was real. Any remaining doubts were immediately extinguished by seeing (and later hearing) Smith twice barking at the top of his lungs, “Keep my wife’s name out your f-ing mouth!”

3. A Planner’s Duty of Care: Should Will Smith Have Been Removed?
One of the biggest questions has been: Why wasn’t Smith removed after the incident? Why was he allowed to remain in the front row and then later go up on stage to deliver an acceptance speech, the juxtaposition of which only served to compound the incident? 

As event professionals, we have a duty of care to provide a safe environment for all attendees (including presenters). Is there any event you’ve produced – or attended, for that matter – where you can imagine such an individual NOT being immediately escorted out by security? Not doing so not only ruins the rest of the event for many attendees, but it would certainly open up the host organization, and the planners, to a lawsuit, to say nothing of horrible PR.

In my view, what Smith did was assault, plain and simple, and he should have been removed from the theater afterwards. On top of that, he blatantly disrupted the Academy’s signature event, both through his action on stage and his shouting threatening obscenities from his seat afterwards. In less than a minute, he single-handedly took the air out of the entire room, and completely undermined the presentation of Best Documentary to Questlove which immediately followed.

I understand Smith is Hollywood royalty, and removing him is a call a planner can’t likely make without senior-level client approval. The same could be said if it were a CEO or some other dignitary. But at the very minimum, the planners should have given their strongest professional recommendation to do so, and made crystal clear that not removing him puts the host at risk. 

Escorting Smith out of the theater wouldn’t have had to be a scene on live television, however. They could have escorted him out, with tuxedoed security, during the next commercial break and instructed the producers not to lock any camera positions on his seat. It would have been the white-glove equivalent of how event organizers handle hecklers at televised events, or streakers running onto a football field: quickly removed and not given any attention, enabling the rest of the event to proceed as scheduled.

By not taking any action on Smith, the Academy not only made the entire audience incredibly uncomfortable, it also sent the message that no one is in charge of the event. Attendees now had to be on guard for a possible repercussion, a melee, or who knows what. 

Let’s also remember the context of the moment. This was not Kid Rock punching Tommy Lee at the 2007 MTV Music Awards. This happened amid the current zeitgeist of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and the slew of movements bringing heightened awareness to abuse of all kinds. What might have been brushed under the rug in another era had the jarring effect of a nuclear blast in today’s world.

4. How the Academy Handled It
The Academy initially said it considered removing Smith but didn’t have the time to pull the decision-makers together, which is a total copout. [I would pay serious money to get my hands on a recording of the radio chatter among the event producers about this.] They later claimed Smith was asked to leave the ceremony and refused, but that LAPD officers inside the Dolby Theater were never consulted to forcibly remove Smith, though Variety disputes Smith being ever asked to leave at all.

A number of people have justified this inaction by noting that Chris Rock said he declined to press charges, but that should never have been a factor in the decision-making in the first place. If an audience member throws a tomato at a speaker he doesn’t like, event organizers would likely insist on removing that person, even if the speaker said, “That’s ok, let him stay.”

5. Context: When Is A Joke So Offensive It Justifies Violence?
Smith’s defenders point to the offensiveness of the preceding joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald head, which is due to her having Alopecia. While the joke may have been in poor taste, assuming Rock knew of her condition, it in no way justifies assault. Ricky Gervais has done far worse when hosting the Golden Globes. Comedians’ jobs at award shows are to skewer celebrities, the more famous the better. And if you’re lucky enough to be so famous, to the point where there’s already a camera position marked on your seat to capture reaction shots, well, make a face if you like – and many do – but it comes with the territory.

A common refrain on Twitter is “Hey, it’s not like she has cancer.” I appreciate the distinction, but that doesn’t justify violence either, and I speak from experience. I had brain cancer in 2019/2020 and lost my hair, and if someone made a joke about my bald cancer head at an event, I’d think it was in incredibly bad taste, but would try to handle it with grace. Anyone who’s lost their hair from cancer treatment will be the first to tell you that it’s nothing compared with the brutal and often debilitating side effects from chemo, radiation and surgery. [Next month I’ll be two years post-transplant, and am, thankfully, cancer-free 🙏]

For those who do not think Smith should have been removed, ask yourself, what if Rock lost his cool and slugged Smith back, turning the event into a bad hockey game? Maybe then security would’ve stepped in What if a relative or B-list celebrity friend of Jada Pinkett Smith was the one who walked on stage and hit Rock? Is there any doubt they’d have been whisked off immediately?

As event professionals, we face crazy situations of all kinds, unfolding in real time, and have to make judgement calls like this on the fly. There’s usually not any time to do an investigation and determine whether some type of backstory mitigates the action that should be taken. But if we’ve learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it’s that you can’t make exceptions for people in power. A celebrity or a CEO is no longer allowed to touch a colleague inappropriately, let alone commit an act of assault. And if we’re properly executing our duty of care, all attendees deserve equal treatment and protection at our events, regardless of stature.

Prepare you, your teams and your events for the future. Join us at the upcoming Innovation & Engagement Summit. Learn from over a dozen leading experts on everything from emerging event tech, the art of audience engagment, the metaverse, & more.

3 Comments

  1. I appreciate the discourse on this topic but I took immediate exception to the implication in the attention-grabbing headline, “Did Event Planners at the Oscars Drop the Ball?”, that the very diverse (primarily black) event planners did not do their job. I respectfully disagree with that premise.

    I believe that the event planners had a number of other people in various roles to consult in a very short time window and ultimately had to follow the decision of the leadership over the entire event: the Academy of Motion Pictures governing board and the Executive Producer of the Oscars. Without being part of the discussions we still don’t know the full story of what was decided and when. Statements (several contradicting) are still being released.
    We as event planners do wield a great deal of power but we ultimately answer to our clients. If we do not follow the direction of our clients and make a decision that they do not support, we are in danger of not just losing a client but also taking a significant hit to our brand credibility.
    I do not hold the opinion that the event planners tasked with bringing the 2022 Oscars to our tv screens dropped the ball. And because I still do not know what actually transpired behind the scenes in the tense seconds and minutes after Will Smith’s violent assault and outbursts I will continue to reserve judgment.

  2. Curious about “Diversity” in the title of this opp piece. What was the connection? I wanted to better understand prior to responding.

  3. Thanks, Howard, for this. What’s interesting most of all to know and I couldn’t find it nor I gather could you, is any sort of contingency plan “in the event of”. No doubt like hotels tell us that “if we give the emergency procedures to you, the terrorists might get it” (has, still being said!) we can’t find out specifics. For a high profile event, I’d think that they must – just for safety – if someone chokes or has an emergency medical incident. And given all you cited and no doubt more ‘behind the scenes’ or in the audience (alcohol, served or brought, often contributes to ‘behavior unbecoming’), there has to be communication and action plans.

    THAT said: when asking planners, even experienced ones, what they have IN WRITING and coordinated with critical stakeholders to manage crises, most still say they depend on the venue.

    Lastly: Will Smith had not yet receive the Oscar for which he was a contender and which we know now he won. Certainly a contingency plan for last-minute-no-shows has to be in place .. or is it? Of course no-show and ‘kicked out’ are so different.

    What now as a result of this will change for the Oscars (Tony’s, Grammy’s, etc.) AND more importantly, what now will all in the meetings and events industry do for the physical and virtual meetings and planning for as many contingencies as possible. (Smith’s slap could be considered “any disruption by a participant/audience member/crew”.)

Comments are closed.