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The perfect MTV moment

For the network's annual movie awards, Austin Reading knows it's got to be shocking, glitzy and, above all, buzzworthy.

June 04, 2003|Mark Sachs | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 200 young female dancers, dressed in schoolgirl uniforms, filled the stage and aisles at the Shrine Auditorium for a lesbian-undertoned production number for the notorious Russian pop duo t.A.T.u.

It was only a rehearsal Friday afternoon for Saturday night's "MTV Movie Awards 2003," but even then it appeared this could be the buzzed-about moment for the current MTV generation that Madonna's raunchy rendition of "Like a Virgin" was at MTV's Video Music Awards 19 years ago.

Austin Reading, the man largely responsible for the look of this visually striking event, which premieres Thursday night on MTV, was almost oblivious to all of the writhing bodies and the quasi-stripping the girls did as the two t.A.T.u. singers belted out the song.

He was focused more on who he had to impress at Saturday's event.

"This is a tough crowd; it's so industry," he said. "They are fickle, and they've been here before, so you want to wow them every time."

A superheroes theme

Reading and his packaging company, Liquid Theory, came to MTV last December with the concept of giving this year's show a superheroes theme.

He had worked on the previous two awards shows and had written and filmed MTV promos for several years before that, so the show's executive producers, Joel Gallen of Tenth Planet Productions and Salli Frattini of MTV, were eager to listen.

"We seek out people like Austin," Frattini said. "They have those obscure, incredibly creative ideas for particular shows. The more he talked about his vision, the more we believed him."

The result is a massive set featuring, from stage right to left, a circular portal Reading said was inspired by the "X-Men" movies; a control-center backdrop that might be at home in the Batcave; and a looming, off-kilter Metropolis-like skyline.

The staging areas whirl into place as performing acts such as 50 Cent and Pink come on and off, and the huge video screens embedded in the set blink into life with innovative animation sequences Reading and colleague Josh G brought in from the company Mainframe.

The show's hosts, Seann William Scott (the "American Pie" movies) and 'N Sync heartthrob Justin Timberlake, are integrated into the animation in the show's opening segment and return in cartoon form throughout the broadcast in bits introducing the nominees.

It's a formidable undertaking, even if it all looks improvised and fun on Thursday's telecast.

"We're under the gun," admitted a weary Reading on Sunday, just hours after the marathon live taping of a program that must be shoehorned into a two-hour time slot. "As fantastic as I think it went last night, we're going to spend the next five days making it better."

Reading, 30, is what is known in television production circles as a design packager, a multimedia guru charged with wrestling cutting-edge animation, sound and graphics into a punchy program guaranteed to shake the most laconic shoe-gazer to his soles.

MTV's reputation as a pop-cultural arbiter is at stake, and that means delivering a show that has the right people and the right look as well as a sprinkling of shock-value theatrics to appease TV audiences with itchy remote fingers.

That explains t.A.T.u., as well as a goofy recorded segment featuring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu from "Charlie's Angels 2," with Vince Vaughan as a consultant hired to accentuate the women's backsides.

But the show also must dazzle the Hollywood glitterati on hand to promote, present and maybe even take home an award or two.

The difficulty in putting all these pieces together is one reason the show isn't televised live, said MTV's Frattini.

"We honestly feel we get a better, tighter show," she said. "If the Oscars would take the four hours and take it down to three hours, it would be a better show. But we try to strike a balance."

As for Reading, he's content that the show has topped itself again, not that he has much time for resting.

"I'm already thinking about next year," he said.

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