The Big Changes for the 2011 Oscars

Bob D'Amico/ABC

Show producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer reveal their plan to mix reverence with radical, fresh changes to the set, pacing, performances and more (like tweets from the nominees’ moms!)

With just 10 days to go until the 83rd Academy Awards, Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer, the show’s producers, sit in the middle of the Kodak Theatre, the center of a controlled storm of mounting activity. In front of them, stagehands are busy hanging scenery; a messenger arrives with a DVD player; a photo crew, off to one side, is readying a shot.

Cohen and Mischer are taking on the challenge of producing Hollywood’s biggest night for the first time. Having spent the summer reviewing every Oscars since the first TV broadcast in 1953, they have been wrestling with how to take a ceremony that often bogs down in tradition and give it a face-lift. Not a wholesale makeover, mind you, but a freshening around the edges that will offer a respectful nod to Hollywood’s past but also invite in a generation of viewers more accustomed to the jokey spoofs of the MTV Movie Awards than the more formal and lofty cadences favored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

They think they’ve solved the challenge. Instead of turning to another stand-up comedian to steer the often-unwieldy proceedings, they’re gambling that two fresh-faced actors, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, can give the show a light and youthful edge. And they’re surrounding them with a novel, high-tech set that, they hope, will make anxious nominees and a rubbernecking TV audience forget that the ABC broadcast is taking place within the confines of the Kodak.

But having brushed up on their Oscars, they also know that nearly every other Academy Awards producer before them has faced Oscar Night similarly convinced he has solved its problems. And while some have walked from the show to the Governors Ball to the sound of genuine applause, others have had to endure the catcalls of naysayers for whom finding fault with the Oscars is its own form of perverse entertainment.

“Look, we’re following in the footsteps of a lot of great producers who have produced this show,” Mischer admits, and without missing the beat, Cohen finishes, “and if they couldn’t figure it out, why should we?”

Cohen and Mischer do bring complementary talents to the party. One of the Oscar-winning producers of best picture winner American Beauty, Cohen knows what it’s like to sit nervously, waiting for the telltale envelope to be opened. And Mischer is an experienced hand at producing and directing live TV events; his credits range from the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial to last year’s 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards.

They first collaborated on the 2007 CBS TV special Movies Rock, which focused on music’s role in shaping the film industry. And they earned the Academy’s respect in 2009 when they produced the first Governors Awards, a private dinner inaugurated to spend an entire evening toasting honorary Oscar winners. But that event was not televised — a fact that contributed to its success. Could the two work the same magic with a live broadcast that plays out before a huge worldwide audience?

Handed the job by Academy president Tom Sherak in June, Cohen and Mischer spent the summer watching all those previous attempts to get the Oscars right, and they were struck by the twofold nature of the assignment.

On one hand, they have to come up with something new and different. On the other, they want to acknowledge the previous 82 years of Oscar history.

They asked themselves: Is there any way to approach the show where those two ideas are working together and not fighting each other with every single decision? The solution, they decided, was to somehow make those old traditions feel new again.

First was the question of a host. “When we went back and looked at a lot of the shows, we really fell in love with the idea of movie stars as hosts,” Cohen says. “It’s funny, there have been three really iconic hosts — Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal — who all gave it a comedian’s approach, though, of course, Hope and Crystal were also movie stars. But in the years before Bob, and in the years between Bob and Johnny and Johnny and Billy, there were movie stars. That felt like it really fit our theme because this is a movie show, and the whole point of the Oscars is to celebrate the great achievements of film through the year and to remind the world what they love about the movies and what they love about the Oscars. That said ‘movie stars’ to us.”

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But who? The other thing that struck them was that there had never been a male-female duo who physically shared the same Oscar stage in the history of the broadcasts. Although plenty of actresses — Rosalind Russell, Goldie Hawn and Jane Fonda among them — have shared emcee duties, they’ve all been part of tag-team groups of three- or four-host combos. And when Thelma Ritter shared the job with Hope in 1955 and Celeste Holm followed with Jerry Lewis in 1957, Ritter and Holm were beamed in from New York as part of bicoastal telecasts. So having a male-female duo interacting in person would be a genuine first.

Hathaway’s name immediately emerged — the actress proved herself game two years ago when emcee Hugh Jackman plucked her out of the audience, seemingly spontaneously, for what was actually a carefully rehearsed turn in his opening number. But when first approached this time around, she didn’t commit until the producers had also roped in James Franco, for whom hosting the Oscars is just one more bit of real-life performance art.

It was just like casting the romantic leads in a big movie, Cohen says — “finding a combination that hasn’t starred together in a movie before but that feels really right and good
and exciting.”

It also helped that Hathaway, 28, and Franco, 32, are two of the youngest hosts to front the Oscars. “Yes, they are famous, but they are on their way up,” Cohen says. “They are not untouchable, they are not unreachable. We hope they will offer the audience a way in. So everyone come along, and we’ll see through the eyes of these two up-and-coming stars what it’s like to host the Oscars.”

To underscore that theme, Hathaway and Franco have jumped into promotional spots for ABC where they play “Oscar hosts-in-training,” dressed in workout gear as they make sport of their hosting duties.

To surround the stars, Mischer and Cohen also decided to do something different about the traditional glittery Oscar set. In fact, they abandoned the idea of a traditional set altogether to enter a world of virtual reality via a series of “projections” designed to give the show a constantly changing look.

“Our design this year is actually going to reflect more content than you would usually expect of an awards show of this type,” Mischer says. “We’re using our environment to take us to different places, different times, and it will change dramatically.”

The end goal is for Franco and Hathaway to take viewers on a trip through Hollywood history.

“We’re doing six or seven scenic transitions during the show, but they are each sort of a different concept. In other words, one might be a scene from a film, one might be a more specific time in history, one might be a specific event, one might be a specific genre,” Cohen says. “The hope is that we briefly leave the Kodak in 2011 — not literally but metaphorically, and take the audience, both in the room and on television, to a specific time and place.”

As the show took shape, the producers were on the look-out for more human-interest hooks, so they invited the P.S. 22 Chorus, an elementary school chorus from Staten Island, N.Y., to appear on the show, where the kids will sing “Over the Rainbow.” Says Cohen: “If there were members of the audience who thought, ‘Oh well, those Oscars, I like to watch them, but what do I have in common with these rich, fancy, famous people getting awards?’ Well, this year you get to see what it would be like to be a 10-year-old and to get to perform on the Oscars.”

Cohen and Mischer also decided to jettison some familiar elements. Gone will be the movie montages — like last year’s salute to horror films — that often contribute to the broadcast’s seemingly endless running time. Although there will be clips from the 10 best picture nominees and brief filmed introductions to various segments of the show, Cohen promises, “Within the body of the show, we are not doing any film-montage sequences.”

Gone, too, will be the relatively new tradition, established just two years ago, of using five presenters to offer testimonials about each of the best actor and actress nominees. “We’re not going to do that this year,” Cohen confirms. “What we did love about it was that it was a moment where each of the nominees really gets their due. But we found a version of that, without using the five people onstage, from the 1970 Oscars, and we stole it.”

At the same time, they’ve decided to reinstitute a tradition that was scrapped last year: individual performances of the four nominated songs. They have lined up most of the names associated with the tunes: Randy Newman will perform his “We Belong Together,” from Toy Story 3; Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi, who sang the duet “I See the Light” on the Tangled soundtrack, will reteam with composer Alan Menken; and Gwyneth Paltrow, who sings “Coming Home” in Country Strong, will reprise it. Because Dido, who was nominated with Rollo Armstrong and A.R. Rahman for “If I Rise” from 127 Hours, was not available, the producers have drafted Florence Welch from Florence + the Machine to appear with Rahman.

“We feel we really lucked out, and this is a good year to bring the best song performances back,” Cohen says.

And if they can do all that and still come in under three hours and 30 minutes, all the better.

“We hope to keep it tighter than that,” Mischer vows, concerned that some Oscarcasts, by the time they got to the big awards, were “sort of barreling through them in a way that is almost disrespectful. We hope, at the end, we can be a little more graceful.”            

AND THE NIGHT'S MOMINEES ARE... The producers even have the nominees’ mothers tweeting about the Oscar race.

To further humanize the Oscars, Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer enlisted the mothers of the nominees — actually, nine moms, and in the case of James Franco’s grandmother Mitzi, one grandma — to follow along through their Twitter accounts. And guess what? Moms make the best publicists: Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich’s mom, Emilie (@emilieunkrich), has offered links to stories about Pixar. The Fighter director David O. Russell’s mom, Theresa (@ORUSSELLSMOM), tweeted of her son: “So proud of him! He’s come back from some quiet years always staying positive & having faith.” But it’s Franco’s mom, Betsy (@FrancosMom), who’s been the most prolific. A poet and children’s book author, she confessed of watching 127 Hours, “Yes, I covered the left side of the screen (for a little bit more than 2 minutes!) and it was fine.”

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