Oscar producer goes from West Bloomfield to the Academy Awards

And the winner is Shayla Cowan, the Metro Detroit native who, along with Will Packer, is producing Sunday's Oscar ceremony. "It's our time," she says.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Winners aside, Shayla Cowan knows pretty much exactly how Sunday's Academy Awards are going to play out. 

The Metro Detroit native is producing the telecast along with her professional partner, Will Packer. The pair is the first African American producing duo in the show's 94-year history. 

Shayla Cowan and Will Packer at the 94th Oscars Nominee Luncheon held at the Fairmont Century Plaza on Monday, March 7, 2022. The 94th Oscars will air on Sunday on ABC.

"It's our time," says Cowan, who was born in Oak Park and raised in West Bloomfield Township, on the phone last week from Los Angeles, where she's deep in the final planning stages for Hollywood's biggest night. "I think we are really going to move the needle with this one." 

Cowan's opportunity comes at a crucial juncture for the awards show. Last year's Academy Awards telecast was the lowest-rated in history, and projections for Sunday aren't much better. And the show has already come under fire from film enthusiasts and industry professionals who are upset that several of the show's awards have been bumped from the program and will be handed out at a pre-show ceremony, highlights from which will be sprinkled into the live broadcast.

Cowan is not oblivious to the criticism or the controversy. She and Packer have been working for months to produce a lively show that celebrates movies and movie lovers, and pleases both the home viewing audience and network execs at ABC.  

"In order to maintain the viewership that the network so desperately needs — which people don't tend to understand, especially artists — you have to create an entertaining show," Cowan says. "People don't particularly like change, no matter what it is. And for this, change is necessary."  

Movie Lovers Unite

Packer — producer of comedy hits such as "Girls Trip," "Ride Along" and "Think Like a Man" — and Cowan inherited a show in need of some change. The Oscars telecast has faced declining ratings in recent years, due to trends in live network television viewership, the evolving habits of audience members and the types of films that get nominated for awards.

The nominees are the nominees — the producers have no say or sway in that department — but Packer and Cowan are working to restore the luster of a show that in 2021 dipped to a record-low 10.4 million viewers, down from 2020's pre-pandemic broadcast, which drew 23.6 million viewers. 

This year's theme is "Movie Lovers Unite," and Cowan says she and Packer are bringing the same mentality to the show that they do to the movies they produce.

"We always think about the consumer," says Cowan, 39. "The real people, the people outside of the Hollywood bubble, who maybe haven't tuned in in the last couple of years, our goal is to bring them back in to check out this year's show. And how we're doing that is with entertainment."

Cowan says she can't give away too much, but Sunday's show already has several advantages over the 2021 broadcast, a scaled-down affair that was largely criticized for its cold feel, its lack of clips from nominated films and its anti-climactic finish, which saw the Best Actor prize go to Anthony Hopkins rather than the late Chadwick Boseman, who was expected to win.

Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall are hosting this year's show, the first time the show has had a host — let alone three — since 2018.

Shayla Cowan on the set of 2018's "Night School."

Presenters announced this week represent a large swath of familiar faces from across the worlds of the movies, television, sports and music, among them Bill Murray, Tiffany Haddish, DJ Khaled, Venus and Serena Williams and Tony Hawk. Previously announced presenters include Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry and Lady Gaga. 

And there will be some non-celebs in the mix as well. Trophy presenters will include theater professors, students from HBCU schools and members of the Oscar internship program. Packer and Cowan also included everyday folks during last month's live Oscar nomination broadcast, which included a cutaway to Beaumont Hospital in Troy, where hospital worker Chantia Bobo Harden recited the nominees for Best Original Score.

It was a bit of an inside job: Harden, a physician's assistant, is Cowan's cousin.

A tenacious worker

Cowan is an only child to Alfreda Cowan-Fulton, a single mother who grew up in Highland Park, who had her daughter enrolled in dance classes by age 3 and modeling by the age of 5. 

Alfreda was a social worker with the state of Michigan who always loved the entertainment field and had performed on "The Auntie Dee Show," a local TV show in Detroit, as a child. She had her daughter try out as many activities as possible to see what would stick. 

"I put her in a lot of things because you never know which way your blessing is gonna come," says Alfreda, who will be in attendance at Sunday's Oscar show. She says Shayla showed leadership skills from an early age, and she always knew her daughter was destined to do big things.  

By the time she was in elementary school, Shayla was modeling in local print campaigns for Jacobson's, the Metro Detroit department store, and participating in dance competitions. She began dancing at bar mitzvahs in sixth grade, when she and her mother moved to West Bloomfield. 

Shayla Cowan (2nd row, fourth from left) was a member of the West Bloomfield High School Pom Pon squad.

By the time she was at West Bloomfield High School, Cowan was a member of the pompom squad, and she was active in student politics: during her senior year, in 2000, Shayla was among the students and parents who started United We Walk, an annual march to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Following high school, Cowan was a dancer for the Detroit Pistons' Automotion team. She was also modeling on the auto show circuit, and she relocated to Atlanta, where she nabbed a job in the music industry, working as an assistant for the manager of R&B singer-songwriter Ne-Yo. 

In 2007, Ne-Yo was cast in "Stomp the Yard," an HBCU-set dance movie that starred Meagan Good and was the first major movie produced by Packer. Cowan met Packer on set and they hit it off, and Cowan eventually joined Packer's team as his assistant.

Shayla Cowan (second row, fourth from left) was a dancer for the Detroit Pistons' Automotion team during the 2000-2001 season.

She rose to become his chief of staff and creative partner; she has received associate producer credits on a number of his movies, including 2016's "Almost Christmas," 2018's "Night School" and 2020's "The Photograph." 

Packer says he has always appreciated Cowan's drive.  

"The word I would use to describe Shayla is tenacious," Packer, 47, said in a statement to The News. "In an industry where you’re constantly being told what you can’t do and what you aren’t good enough for, she is fierce in the way she lifts up and supports those around her. Myself included. I’m very fortunate to have her as my right hand."

Restoring the luster

Packer got the nod from the Academy to produce the Oscar telecast in the fall. He immediately called Cowan and told her the news, and she started looking at their company's 2022 slate to see how and if producing the show would fit into their schedule. Packer took a few days to respond to the Academy, and in that time, he suggested to Cowan that she produce the show with him.

"I said, 'huh?'" Cowan says. "And the excitement I had for him quickly changed to, 'oh, well, I've got to think about it.' And then I called a couple people that I look to in my small tribe and they all were like, 'are you kidding? You have to do this!' So I called him and I was like, 'all right, let's go. But let's do it our way.' And he said, 'say less.'"

From there, it was pedal to the metal, and by the following day, Packer and Cowan were in meetings with Academy leadership. The announcement was made public on Oct. 5. 

Jami Gertz, Taraji P. Henson, Director Adam Shankman, Producer Will Packer, and Shayla Cowan attend the Hawks Means Business Chat in partnership with 'What Men Want' at State Farm Arena on January 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.

It hasn't been all smooth sailing since. Last month, the announcement was made that eight categories — documentary short, live-action short, animated short, original score, film editing, makeup/hairstyling, production design and sound — will be filmed in advance and folded into the broadcast. It's a decision that even the mild-mannered Steven Spielberg spoke out against, and there has been some talk of Academy members withholding their ballots in protest. 

This week there was a minor outcry when Rachel Zegler, star of Spielberg's Best Picture-nominated "West Side Story" remake, made it very public that she was not invited to attend Sunday's ceremony. She has since been offered a presenter slot on the show. 

And then there's the matter of the nominated films themselves. This year's Best Picture race is shaping up to be a footrace between the gruff revisionist Western "The Power of the Dog" and the heartwarming "CODA." Both films were released on streaming platforms — "Dog" on Netflix, "CODA" on Apple TV+ — and neither was widely seen by audiences.

It's a far cry from the days when blockbusters such as "The Fugitive," "Forrest Gump" and "Titanic" competed for the evening's top prize. (Neither Netflix or Apple TV+ has released viewing figures for the two films.) The last Best Picture winner to cross the $100 million threshold at the North American box office was "Argo," in 2012. 

Part of Cowan's job, as she sees it, is to reengage casual movie fans to help restore the luster and popularity of the Academy Awards. 

"Everyone loves movies," Cowan says. "Now it's debatable as to which movie is the better movie, right? But we all love movies to a degree, so why not celebrate that?

"And how do you celebrate that coming off of what we've endured these last couple of years? You create a very entertaining, celebratory show of these folks in these 23 categories, who have worked so hard to get to this position to be nominated for what is the most prestigious award today."

That's the task. Coming out of the show, ratings are obviously important, but Cowan says that's not the only measuring stick she'll use to determine the show's success. 

"I think Will and I are very happy with the show that we are planning to deliver," she says. "Obviously, Will and I are so competitive, so the idea of killing it is also really important. But also hearing the response: social (media), for what it's worth, is very real, so it's also what that chatter is like. And hoping people get together and have watch parties and tune in and make it a moment, if nothing else, because we have worked so hard to put together such a great show." 

And no matter what, Cowan is proud of getting to this stage, and what it means in a larger context. 

"The fact that I can stand next to (Packer), as a Black woman from West Bloomfield, Michigan, and stand proud? I'm just so happy that people who look like me are inspired to know that they can, too, be in this position," she says. "Because it's possible."

Twitter: @grahamorama

The 94th Academy Awards

8 p.m. Sunday