Spotlight: People’s Choice Producers Den of Thieves on Building Awards Shows for a Viral Era

a couple of people sitting posing for the camera: Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager © Sharon Suh Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager

For more than a decade, Jesse Ignjatovic and Evan Prager‘s Den of Thieves production company has been the driving force behind some of music’s most iconic live TV moments, including the MTV VMAs, the iHeartRadio Music Awards and co-producing the Hand in Hand telethon that raised over $64 million for hurricane relief in 2017. Though they aren’t household names, the duo has helped keep awards shows exciting and relevant in the social media age as much as any performer, and their collaborative success dates back to a friendship that began more than two decades ago.

Ignjatovic and Prager are now tackling a new challenge with the People’s Choice Awards on Sunday, as it undergoes a number of major changes this year. The show switched networks, ending a run of more than 40 years on CBS to air on E!, and has changed up its scheduling from early-January to mid-November. The moves are significant, but they’re also signs of a show that cares about keeping relevant and dynamic, Prager says. The scale of the production meant Den of Thieves began production work in earnest roughly six months ago.    

The Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California, will serve as the site for Sunday’s show. It’s a switch locations from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles where it has been held since 2010. Nicki Minaj will open the show this year, while John Legend and Rita Ora will also be performing. They key to putting a successful event like this together, says Prager, is striking the right balance of planning and spontaneity.

“We don’t script every moment of the show,” he says, “But we do put people in positions to have their moment and to try and get that right through the flow of a two-hour show — and hopefully people tune in the whole time.”

The new venue will contribute to that sense of controlled chaos, says Prager, but change ups like this also on a very basic level help to keep an awards show fresh and better “reflect changing culture.” The move from the Microsoft Theater also allowed Den of Thieves to change the seating style of the show and bring a greater sense of closeness and spontaneity to the evening.

“With the People’s Choice Awards, we really wanted to have table seating for the nominees and the VIP attendees,” says Ignjatovic. “The venue in that regard sometimes is crucial, because we couldn’t take this show into a venue that has theater seating and achieve what we wanted, which is an intimate and celebratory environment.”

The duo also had to navigate the decision to push the show up nearly two months, which they supported and felt worked particularly well given the fan voting that makes the People’s Choice Awards unique in the awards show circuit. Having fans vote on their favorite music, movies and stars of 2018 before it rolled over into 2019 helped make the event feel like an encapsulating of the year’s best in culture at a time when that still really matters.

“I think that decision was made while we were coming on board, but we embraced it,” says Prager. “The idea of having a year-end show in our mind was great, also just getting out of the clutter of all the other awards shows.”

Ignjatovic and Prager became friends in the 1990s living in New York when Ignjatovic was working at MTV and Prager at Epic Records. They eventually both decided to move to Los Angeles and began mulling over the idea of launching a company together in the mid-2000s, finally taking the plunge in 2007 with Den of Thieves. Both grew up as big awards show fans and Ignjatovic gleefully recalls iconic performances from artists like Michael Jackson and Prince creating lasting impressions that years later helped inspire this career move.

“When we started the company in 2007 we obviously wanted to introduce all sorts of types of programming and content, but music is really crucial to everything we do, and obviously in the awards show space it’s a key element on shows that are music-based,” says Ignjatovic. “And even shows that aren’t necessarily music like the PCAs, we still try to get music into it.”

“For some reason, we still enjoy each other’s company,” Prager jokes. “Obviously there are people who say, ‘Don’t go into business with your friends,’ but for us it’s been the best thing we’ve ever did.”

While they grew up as awards show junkies, both Prager and Ignjatovic have no problem acknowledging that the nature and role of an awards show has changed in the social media age where the best moments are cropped and become Twitter fodder virtually instantly. Ignjatovic stressed that such moments come from artists being able to execute their ideas, offering Lady Gaga’s appearance as her male alter-ego Jo Calderone at the 2011 VMAs as an example.

“With all of our shows, what triggers those kinds of things and that engagement on the social side are moments, and that really begins and ends with talent coming to the show and feeling like they can bring whatever vision they have or feel comfortable in expressing themselves in a way that the audience will respond to and want to create GIFs out of,” says Ignjatovic.

Prager stressed that what can make an awards show magical, and what he and Ignjatovic often watch for, are the smaller events that comprise the whole and hopefully stick in the minds of fans.

“We try to look at every awards show as its own new opportunity to create moments. Sometimes, you can help an artist have their moment, whether it’s a newer artist launching their career or an iconic artist having one of their marquee performance. Those are the moments we’re looking for,” says Prager. “Within the structure of an awards show, the presenters and awards will happen and hopefully those awards mean something to those people and those are nice, genuine moments… But it’s really about the in-between.”

SPOTLIGHT:

The best moments of shows we’ve produced are things like the Kanye-Taylor on-stage interruption. That moment, per se, isn’t necessarily what I’m proud of, what I’m proud of is more what unfolded during a live show after that. The way that the entire team pulled together, and obviously Taylor had to come right out of that moment because in the very next act she was performing, and just the way she handled that moment and really made it a triumphant performance and moment and how the production really worked throughout the night to rectify it. And for Taylor to come back out on stage and really have her moment to me really turned a bad situation into something that, at least in some small way, brought it full circle and tried to make the best of it. Live television is like nothing else, because when a 15-20 minute diversion happens you really have to reset and re-focus and everyone did. Also when we had Lady Gaga open our show as Jo Calderone [at the 2011 VMAs] in character. She came out, did a monologue, and then performed with Brian May. The dream of an artist like that to have a vision and come onto your stage and do something that you wouldn’t see anywhere. The way she owned it, the way she stayed in character throughout the night, those are just iconic moments that I’m very fond of as a producer. [Ignjatovic]

It’s good to have a partner, a business partner. We run this company together, we’re friends, which in certain times is amazing. It’s obviously incredible to share success together, and it’s good to have someone you can talk to when things aren’t going great. I think a lot of times also it’s the checks and balances of one person checking the other and being able to say, “Don’t get too high or too low.” For us, it works really well. For our company it’s a huge asset that there are two of us here. [Prager]

My big break was when I left MTV in 2006, because Evan and I were starting Den of Thieves. I feel that was a big turning point moment. It was a great run there, but for us to be able to launch the company in 2007—the day I was.leaving MTV I had a meeting with the man over there who was running the network, and he was always such a great friend and mentor. I told him what I was doing, and I said, “Before I leave I want to pitch you an idea for the VMAs.” And he heard me out, and before I walked out of his office he said, “We’re going to do that.” He really liked it and backed it and it was such a big moment for me and the company, because we got our start in 2007 and produced the show. It’s an iconic show for me and Evan. [Ignjatovic]

It’s a good idea to have a bottle of wine on standby at all times. [Prager]

Something most people don’t understand is how much work goes into every step, every moment of one of these live shows so that you can get the most out of it, but also obviously give the talent room to create and hopefully make moments. How meticulous the preparation is to make two full hours of entertainment. [Prager]

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