While plenty of food and libations will be on the menu at the 28th annual Critics Choice Awards on Jan. 15, so will spontaneity when it comes to capturing on camera all the hilarious and heartrending moments. 

“When you’re producing a show like this, you’re always trying to create the space for moments to evolve, but you can’t tell what’s going to emerge,” says Critics Choice Assn. CEO Joey Berlin. “You don’t know when you’re going to have Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock tie in a category and end up kissing on stage. With all the talented, creative people that we’re going to have in the room representing so many spectacular projects, we know there are going to be a lot of magical moments.”

The telecast, airing live on the CW from 7-10 p.m. ET (and 7-10 p.m. PT via tape delay) will be broadcast from the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles.

This is the second time the awards will use the beautiful ballroom in lieu of the Barker Hangar where the event was previously held, and it presents a challenge. 

“It’s a little bit smaller capacity,” Berlin says. However, it adds to the allure. “It makes it a tough ticket, which is not such a bad thing when you’re producing an event.”

Last year, the critics were faced with a monumental task, having to work around constraints caused by the pandemic. This included pushing the show back for two months to a date that clashed with other awards shows. 

“We were up against the BAFTAs in London so we had to have a second stage last year,” Berlin says. “We had to actually produce two events simultaneously. One show, two events, two stages and I was really proud of the way we pulled it off.” 

Now, with all that in the past, Berlin promises big returns. “This is really going to be the highlight of the award season leading up to the Oscars.”

When the Critics Choice Assn. mounts such a massive telecast, the process begins early. “There are literally hundreds of top live professionals who work on it. We’re working on it now and have been working on it for a long time already. We’re doing countless Zooms leading up to daily meetings.”

Berlin also credits executive producer extraordinaire Bob Bain, who’s produced other live event kudos ceremonies such as the Creative Arts Emmys, Billboard Awards, Kids’ Choice and Teen Choice awards, for his guidance and support. 

“I just can’t imagine doing the show without Bob Bain and his incredible team. He’s been doing it for many years,” Berlin says. “We do filter in new people — and this will be the most diverse crew that we’ve ever had. It’s a lot of reliable hands doing live television. It’s not a simple thing to do.”

The show’s direction is also evolving in front of the camera, shifting its emcee from actor Taye Diggs (who’s hosted the past four years) to comedian Chelsea Handler. “Having Taye Diggs as our host for the last several years has been great and there’s a real comfort level there. He’s such a spectacular talent. We were really happy to have him,” Berlin says. “But we’re also really excited to have a great comedian at the top of her game as the host. We had a list of choices of who we wanted to ask to host and she was our number one ask. That never happens, when the person you want the most says ‘yes’ immediately.”

Besides the usual network no-nos, there are no boundaries pre-set for Handler: “She’s been lined up for months. Her writers are at work and we’re all working together. No holds barred except, of course, it’s a broadcast network so we have standards and practices. We want Chelsea to be Chelsea and help us shine a light on the greatest work in film and television of the past year.”

While no specific dinner decisions have been made yet, Berlin says they’re continuing their pledge to have a vegan option available — something the group enacted when Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for “Joker” at the 25th Critics Choice Awards. 

“We certainly are committed to having vegan options for everybody.” However, unlike that year’s event, the evening’s selections won’t be exclusively vegan. “There will be some non-vegan options as well.” Whatever dishes they serve, Berlin promises a festive atmosphere: “It’s gonna be a pretty wild party. There will be free-flowing alcohol and that helps to make a great party. There will be some food before. There’ll be some food during. There will be food at the after-parties.”

Typically, during the Critics Choice Awards, a handful of the categories are not allotted time for the winners to speak. Berlin says while “the Big Six” on the film and television sides are immovable, others might shift each year depending on the nominees. “We’ll certainly be doing best comedy series, best drama series, best limited series and actor and actress. Below-the-line categories, which we think are really important to recognize, won’t get those full presentations with clips and acceptance speeches. You end up with a dozen bubble categories and you have to see what’s going to make the most entertaining show for the audience.”

Yet Berlin is confident they’ll be spotlighting a few special awards that evening, including the SeeHer Award given to honorees Halle Berry, Zendaya and Viola Davis in previous years. 

“We’ll have some special awards that haven’t been announced yet. Maybe a lifetime achievement kind of thing.” 

Berlin also hopes to incorporate those who’ve been honored at the association’s recent spinoff events, such as the Celebration of Black Cinema & Television, Celebration of Latino Cinema & Television and the inaugural Celebration of Asian Pacific Cinema & Television, all of which highlight the importance of diversity in the entertainment industry. 

“When you go to the Critics Choice Awards, it’s super fun, especially for the audience,” Berlin says, further contextualizing the differences between these events. “But the vast majority of people who come as nominees do not leave as winners. That has influence on the experience. At the celebrations, everyone is being honored. It’s a different vibe. It’s really special.”

Part of what makes the Critics Choice Assn. and its awards show a standout is the diversity within its membership body, he says. “We think it’s really important to support those strengths in our business. It’s important to be diverse, but also to help underrepresented voices be heard. That’s become a really important part of what we do and who we are. We know there are other groups who’ve gone the other way on that question. We’re really proud of who we are and who we’ve always been.”

The Critics Choice Assn.’s year-round effort to discover and discuss the best films, TV and streaming series is the reason why these projects can be recognized on an expansive, far-reaching platform that evening. “There’s so much stuff out there,” Berlin says. “Our job, day to day, week to week, especially on Jan. 15, is to help people find the good stuff. And, of course, help the people who make the good stuff find their audience.

“It’s a big night for the network. I think it’s the only night they program a three-hour block.” 

What makes this telecast different is its fresh approach to showcasing the best of the best. “The show changes radically every year. By definition, it has to be organic, so we have to be nimble.” 

The membership, comprising film critics and journalists, is also different from those who vote for the Emmys and Academy Awards.

“The gold standard is always going to be the Academy Awards and the Emmys — the people who make film and television deciding what they think is the best of the year,” Berlin says. “But, frankly, we have a lot of influence on that. We are the people who are passing judgment all year long. We’re the people whose job it is to make these assessments and to help people find what’s really worth their time [while] they’re off making these shows and movies. We’re the best group out there who is able to make these determinations. That’s why it’s taken so seriously.”

Considering the myriad ways in which the Critics Choice Assn. has grown over the years, the sky’s the limit as to how they’ll continue expanding the industry. “Twenty-eight years ago, at the first show, we had 44 members,” Berlin says. “We built a really strong foundation. We did the show for five years before we even tried to put it on television. Ever since, the graph has been a line going up and up and up.” 

They’re determined to keep reaching for the stars. “Every year the membership has gone up, the audience has gone up, the prestige has gone up. And now, we think we’re ready to be the number two show after the Oscars.”