Oscar producers gear up for the big show

First-timers Adam Shankman, Bill Mechanic tackle telecast

Bill Mechanic has a thing against shoes.

Not his shoes, nor your shoes, but the Oscar winners' shoes, the ones that do all the walking, taking precious minutes out of every three-hour Academy Awards show, including the one he is now producing.
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"Cut the shoe leather!" he growls.

He's sitting in a bland, modern office above a Mercedes dealership in Beverly Hills, papers strewn around him, huddled with fellow producer Adam Shankman. Their director, Hamish Hamilton, is nearby, along with a talent booker and two seating mavens -- and right now it's obvious they're all feeling the pressure. If they can't find a way to trim the show's notorious length, viewers will peel away and so will the ratings.

"The least interesting people take the longest time to reach the stage," Mechanic grouses, referring to how the audience sees things. "It's a waste of time. We should move the celebrities back and bring (the unknowns) forward, so the stars have the long walk."

A chorus of protests swells up.

"We're dealing with the biggest stars in the world and their egos," the talent booker gasps. "You can't move them back. They'll be furious!"

The team weighs the pros and cons, with Shankman, the co-host of "So You Think You Can Dance," weighing in on the other side. Finally Mechanic agrees: It just won't work.

The group collectively slump in their chairs, lost. As Hamilton notes: "It's a mind-f***."

A mind-f*** might be an understatement for the challenge Mechanic and Shankman are facing.

With just four weeks to go, the producers have to figure out how to showcase 10 best picture nominees, present 24 Oscars, stage various song-and-dance numbers, keep the show to roughly three hours -- and satisfy the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"It's fun," says Shankman, the ebullient one of the pair. "But there are bad days when a bomb drops that could blow up your whole show and then we have to put it back together again."

Last year, producers Larry Mark and Bill Condon were widely praised for doing that with singular skill, but this year they were too busy to tackle the project. So newly elected Academy president Tom Sherak, in his first major decision on the job, called his old boss Mechanic and asked him to take over. It was Mechanic who then approached Shankman.

Shankman remembers his surprise when his agents said Mechanic, whom he didn't know, had called.

Adam Shankman (left) and Bill Mechanic

"I was at home, and my agents called, and there was laughing in the background, and one of them said, 'I really got an interesting phone call (from) Bill.' And I say, 'Oh my God! Are they going to ask me to choreograph?' And he said, 'He wants to know if you'd produce the show with him.' "

Shankman burst out laughing.

But now he says: "I was petrified. I had just come off a summer producing three movies and I'd told (choreographer-director) Anne Fletcher, 'If anyone asks me to produce, make sure I say nooo!' "

He pronounces that "no" with all the glee of a bubbly newcomer. Slim and dapper, Shankman's a natural ham who virtually bubbles over with joy. You'd never think he's also the astute filmmaker who turned "Hairspray" into a hit for New Line.

Mechanic couldn't be more different. The one-time distribution executive-turned-head of Fox, who this year produced the Oscar-nominated "Coraline," is as understated as his colleague is over-the-top. Rumpled and professionally skeptical, he also has a down-to-earth intelligence crucial for a show that must satisfy many constituents.

"I worked for Bill for six years at Fox," Sherak says. "He is as honest as the day is long and I felt he would give us a great show this year."

This study in contrasts, this yin and yang, is now responsible for pulling off a production that brings millions in revenue to the Academy annually, but that has lost vast chunks of its audience in the 12 years since "Titanic."

"I thought it was over-sold as a 'nightmare,' " Hamilton quips. "I was wrong."

The nightmare is going full throttle when Shankman and Mechanic hear news that plunges them into despair: They won't be getting Brad Pitt as a presenter.

It's late morning in the Hollywood Hills home of composer Marc Shaiman, and Mechanic is looking over music cues and costumes, when Shankman arrives and Mechanic tells him.

"He says he's going to be out of the country," Mechanic explains.

Out of the country? How can that be? Isn't "Inglourious Basterds" meant to be one of the highlights of the show?

As Shankman reacts, he realizes they haven't just lost a presenter, they've also lost the chance to score a double whammy with Pitt and Clooney tag-teaming onstage. Worse, at least for now, it seems they've lost the eye-candy of having Brangelina on the red carpet.

Nor is that all: Julia Roberts may be out of the country, too, they quickly find out.

It's too much. Mechanic throws up his hands.

"I'm sick of them saying 'I can't show up,' " he complains.

Shankman giggles. "Do we sound pissed?"

"Well, we are pissed," Mechanic says.

Minutes later, Alec Baldwin is on the phone.

The media has been buzzing about Baldwin and Steve Martin co-hosting the show. But this morning, the pressure seems to be getting to the "30 Rock" star, who makes at least two calls to Shankman within half an hour.

"Look, Alec," Shankman mollifies him, "they are writing jokes in the dark at this point. I know we have to protect you. But they have to protect your ass, too! Chill out."

How on earth do Mechanic and Shankman cope with all this drama?

"Honestly, I think there's no challenges with the hosts, other than the fact that Alec is working," Mechanic argues. "Alec is doing '30 Rock' in New York and Steve is here working ardently on the show. (They) are communicating. Steve is sending jokes to Alec, and nothing gets solved until Alec lands in L.A. Then we start rehearsals."

Three days later, Baldwin is rushed to the hospital after his daughter dials 911, claiming he's threatened to end his life.

Adam Shankman rehearses with the dancers

Rehearsals for some of the lesser-known players are already in progress days later, when Shankman heads for a black-walled dance studio in Burbank.

There, before an ocean of mirrors, he's truly in his element, surveying the scene as a group of male dancers and one blonde girl practice backflips and pirouettes and stretch in directions hitherto unknown to man.

Three kinds of dancers are present: B-boys, crumpers and trickers. All are trying to coordinate their moves to a medley of music from the nominated films.

"In this part, the girls should be like wind rustling through the grass," Shankman tells them. "First, they are like waltzing figurines, and then everybody ends up in a Cirque du Soleil kind of thing."

As they dance to the themes of "Avatar" and the animated hit "Up," for a few moments Shankman relaxes. The chaos of the office is behind him. The 1,001 petty details can be pushed aside and he can really give his all to the work he loves best.

His old friend and colleague, Anne Fletcher, is with him. Now she's the in-demand director of "The Proposal," but Shankman has known her since both were dancers.

With her pretty face and brown ponytail, she's the perfect foil for Shankman. She squeals with laughter as he attempts a move with the lone female dancer -- and attempts it again and again, never quite getting it right.

Shankman shrugs it off.

"It's our anniversary," he notes -- 20 years since the two former backup dancers for Paula Abdul and appeared as dancers on the Oscar show.

And dancing is still what they love best.

"This is our home," he says. "This is where we feel the most comfortable."

Then he pulls Fletcher over. And they waltz to the music of "Avatar."

"Avatar" may rescue this year's Oscars.

The first mega-blockbuster to be Oscar-nominated in years, it is one of 10 pictures in the expanded list of finalists. With the help of other crowd-pleasers like "District 9" and "The Blind Side," it could make this year's telecast the most viewed in ages. But for now it's just another of the myriad details Shankman and Mechanic have to wrestle with.

Back in their Beverly Hills office, as the day is ending, they're still trying to figure out that all-important problem: The seating.

The drama of where to place the stars is over. Now they're confronting personal relationships, like where to seat "Avatar's" James Cameron and his chief competitor, "The Hurt Locker's" Kathryn Bigelow, who just happen to be ex-husband and wife.

Issues like these are weighing heavily on the producers.

"I have dreamed about the Oscars for the last four months," Mechanic sighs. "Some of the dreams are nightmares."

"I had a nightmare that I was trapped in the basement of the Kodak with Matthew Broderick," Shankman adds. "He told me it was because I was fat."

They laugh, and get back to the matter at hand. And this time someone comes up with a solution. "Put them one in front of the other, so that if one wins, we get the other's reaction."

They think about it. And smile.
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