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Oscars just glad to be scrambling

February 12, 2008|John Horn and Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writers

The Academy Awards may have to add a new category to this year's ceremony: fastest writing of an award show.

Oscar planners went to work Monday with an apparent end of the screenwriters walkout at hand, meaning they could scrap provisional plans for a celebrity-free Academy Awards broadcast. But since the 15-week-long strike is not expected to end until Wednesday, writers for the Feb. 24 broadcast will have just 11 days to create the entire script for the three-hour-plus ceremony.

"We're in scramble mode right now," Bruce Davis, the executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said Monday.

As the strike entered the new year with no end in sight, Oscar producer Gil Cates developed two parallel ABC broadcasts for the 80th annual ceremony: one contingent on the labor impasse still continuing, the other on the dispute being resolved.

The former broadcast was to rely on an assembly of film clips and pre-recorded packages, and assumed no stars would be on hand to pass out or receive statuettes, as the ceremony was subject to pickets by the Writers Guild of America, an action that torpedoed the Golden Globe awards. The latter would be a traditional Oscar show, with host Jon Stewart bantering at the start and some of the biggest names in show business hoisting their trophies on the Kodak Theatre stage at the end.

"We have always prepared for two shows, and now we are going with the show we always wanted to do," Cates said.

It was not immediately clear if any of the film packages for the backup broadcast -- including an assembly of opening monologue riffs from hosts Stewart, Billy Crystal, Johnny Carson, Chris Rock and others -- would be relegated to the academy vaults or be shown in this or some future broadcast.

Even during the screenwriters' strike, Cates and talent booker Danette Herman locked in about 85% of the show's celebrity presenters, with their participation dependent on not having to cross picket lines. On Thursday morning, Cates and academy officials will announce all of the confirmed celebrity presenters and musical performers for the year's nominated songs.

Oscar officials will have to race to book travel arrangements and rehearsal schedules for the presenters, many of whom are currently making movies or living far from Los Angeles. "It's just part of the unusualness of the year," academy President Sid Ganis said.

The academy needs to hire not one but two writing staffs. Some half a dozen writers will collaborate with Stewart on his opening monologue. Another group of three or so writers will put together the banter between presenters and the introductions for film compilations and nominee clips.

"We are all showmen and showwomen," Ganis said. "We will all pull it together."

At the Kodak Theatre and the academy offices, scores of workers were continuing to build sets, rehearse dancers and plan the logistics for a broadcast that is historically among the year's highest-rated television shows.

The news of the strike settlement revived the usual Oscar frenzy that overtakes the town. At the Four Seasons Hotel -- which serves as de facto Oscar headquarters -- the staff was relieved by the news. The hotel's 285 pricey rooms have been booked since mid-January, and some of the 53 nominees checked in a week ago. Hotel concierges already are receiving Oscar gowns to be stowed until the big day.

"It's just business as usual," said the hotel's director of entertainment, Carol Watkins. "It's countdown time."

Momentum was building on the party scene too. After last week's cancellation of several high-profile Oscar week bashes -- agent Ed Limato's usual Friday-night event, Dani Janssen's ultra-exclusive dinner party and the high-wattage Vanity Fair party -- everyone was scrambling to secure invites to the handful of events still scheduled.

"This town likes a good party," said event producer Jeffrey Best, who is coordinating three events the week before the Oscars.

The Saturday-night fundraiser for the Motion Picture & Television Fund at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a tradition started by DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, is expected to be the weekend's hottest ticket. Meanwhile, organizers of Elton John's AIDS Foundation Oscar-night event were being bombarded by invite requests from celebrities and the photographers who shoot them.

Academy officials said that while the backup show would have worked well given the strike circumstances, they are relieved they won't have to use them.

"The big thing you had to solve was no actors to present the awards and the very likely chance of few of the winners on hand to receive their trophies," executive director Davis said. "Other than that, it would have been a good show."

john.horn@latimes.com

gina.piccalo@latimes.com

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