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A golden touch, an iron will

As producer, Gil Cates must be part diplomat, part dictator to keep his 11th show on track.

March 16, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

It's a late afternoon in February, and Gil Cates has a pregnant actress on his mind.

Inside the production offices for the 75th annual Academy Awards, with the show less than a month away, every detail -- no matter how intimate, obvious or unpredictable -- is grist for the worry mill.

At the moment, Cates, who is producing his 11th Oscar ceremony, is dealing with the fact that the two actresses who sang "Chicago's" nominated song, "I Move On," are unlikely to reprise the number on his show. Renee Zellweger, it seems, isn't eager to sing in front of a global TV audience, and Catherine Zeta-Jones' baby is due a few weeks after the broadcast.

So Cates and his talent coordinator, Danette Herman, convene a meeting with the film's director, Rob Marshall, to kick around possible replacements. Even though Cates is 68, he can toss out the names of all the hottest names in hip-hop.

"We have to find someone who can generate excitement," Cates tells Marshall. "And someone who can also make people want to tune in and see the song." They eventually narrow the list but don't settle on anyone. As soon as Cates finishes, he moves on to the next pressing matter, a special-effects shot for the show's opening.

It's clear, in several behind-the-scenes visits with Cates, that producing the Oscars has no Hollywood equivalent. In addition to the basic requirements of putting together a live awards show -- hiring a director, electing a set designer, supervising a choreographer -- Cates also must serve as diplomat and dictator, team leader and chief executive, schmoozer and bouncer. Then there's the small issue of war threatening to break out just in time to cast a pall over next Sunday's broadcast -- even if the show, as promised, goes on.

This may be the most thankless job in show business. If the show isn't lively, it's the producer's fault. If it's a hit, most of the public recognition goes to the award winners. And every little decision can have enormous consequences, as Cates is well aware.

For instance, he was savvy enough to hold up the announcement that he was producing this year's show until after he lined up Steve Martin to host.

Had he not secured Martin at the outset, Cates says, he would have been inundated by calls from agents and managers pitching their clients, and the real work of the show would have been delayed for weeks.

Cates, who sometimes zips around the office on a scooter, is drawn to Martin not only because he's funny but also because, as a stand-up comedian, Martin knows how to "run a room." "He likes to keep things moving," Cates says. And keeping things moving is Cates' highest priority.

On a timetable

It's a day after the announcement of Oscar nominations, and the academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater stands empty. Just 24 hours earlier, academy President Frank Pierson had announced that New York Oscar viewers will be able to go to bed at midnight knowing who won best picture -- meaning that this year's telecast cannot last a second longer than three hours and 30 minutes.

Cates wasn't blindsided by Pierson's promise; he had agreed to it beforehand. But it's one thing to promise a short show and another to deliver it. Laura Ziskin, the rookie producer of last year's ceremony, set the bar pretty low when she vowed her broadcast would come in under four hours and 20 minutes. (She then missed that epic milestone by three minutes.)

Cates, who has directed 25 feature and TV films and has been the producing director at the Geffen Playhouse, knows he holds one small advantage in this regard. Ziskin had to confer honorary Oscars on Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier and Arthur Hiller -- each of whom gave Castro-length acceptance speeches after long film clips. Cates has only one such award to dispense: an honorary Oscar to Peter O'Toole, who has said he doesn't really want it, and thus may get offstage in a hurry.

But Cates also must deal with the unspoken predicament every Oscar producer confronts: all of the less glamorous awards that must be presented. The Golden Globes don't have to hand out trophies for sound effects editing. The Screen Actors Guild Awards don't have to pull together highlights of scientific and technical prizes. But the Academy Awards have to bestow all this, and much more.

There are 24 awards to be presented, including the award added last year for animated feature. Even with very few commercials, ads eat up about 10 minutes of every hour, meaning Cates must somehow dispense an average of a statuette every seven minutes, and somehow make the show more meaningful than pizza-and-trophy night for the Baldwin Hills Little League.

The briefer, the better

In a 12th-floor conference room in the show's Century City offices, Cates is reviewing film clips for all the acting categories with senior executive consultant Robert Shapiro and Douglass Stewart, who edited the clips.

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