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Let's put on a show -- fast

With the writers strike settled just last week, the team behind Sunday's event is working full bore.

February 22, 2008|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Gusts of nervous energy have been whipping through the Kodak Theatre this week.

With Sunday's Oscar telecast just days away, host Jon Stewart and his team of "Daily Show" scribes hadn't finished his comic bits. Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth was still hashing out the details of her Broadway-scale musical number -- the largest of several major productions.

Show director Louis J. Horvitz and his staff were breathlessly playing catch-up, working out the glitches that come with one of the most logistically complex sets of any Oscar ceremony.

And then there was Sunday's weather forecast, a 30% chance of rain. Crews were hurriedly tenting the red carpet, an otherwise glamorous path stretching longer than a football field.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, February 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar preparations: An article in Section A on Friday about preparations for Sunday's Academy Awards telecast said the U.S. invasion of Iraq began hours before the 2003 Oscar ceremony. The U.S. invaded on March 20, 2003; the Oscars ceremony took place on March 23.

Backstage, half a dozen small, hand-written "Quiet please" signs had sprouted up overnight and were then replaced a day later by "QUIET PLEASE!" posters -- evidence that a stress threshold had been reached. This Oscar brain trust had been pulling double duty for weeks, thanks to the recent writers strike, because plans had to be made for two shows, one if the labor dispute was settled and one strike-proof.

Until 10 days ago, Hollywood was panicked by the possibility that the 80th annual Academy Awards would be nothing more than a sophisticated film package. But when the strike was lifted Feb. 13, producer Gilbert Cates told Stewart to catch a flight to L.A., and production kicked into high gear on the star-studded show everyone hoped to see.

Although it has been an especially bumpy ride to the Oscars this year, Cates and his team of veterans hope that all this last-minute running -- along with the extravagant musical numbers and the presence of young stars such as Miley Cyrus, Jessica Alba and Katherine Heigl -- will result in a show that beats ratings expectations and draws at least the same 40 million viewers that tuned in last year. Stewart, who is accustomed to news deadlines on his Comedy Central show, is convinced that all this freneticism can only help the telecast.

"There's always got to be a certain sense of urgency with these types of shows," he said, reviewing script changes in his office Wednesday. "It's that way with our show, and we only have a day to do those. If you don't have that urgency, it's reflected in the emotional energy of the program. And also in the writing. And in the performance. You need that sense of -- not panic -- but it should be a controlled panic."


Show almost wasn't

The extravaganza that audiences will see Sunday night is the show that almost wasn't. At one point, it looked as if the writers strike -- and the high-profile actors who would refuse to cross picket lines -- would force Cates and his team to go with his "Plan B" for the ceremony. Instead of swanning starlets and a tuxedoed George Clooney, viewers would have seen three-plus hours of film montages of old opening monologues and award-winning foreign films, among other subjects. Now only a fraction of that work will make this year's broadcast. The rest goes into the vaults of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for future shows.

"There were times during the first two weeks of February I thought we were absolutely going to do the B show, when it was clearly not questioned at all," said the producer.

Cates has maintained (publicly, anyway) an oddly Zen attitude about pulling this off while helping settle the recent contract talks between the studios and the Directors Guild of America. Many industry insiders considered his work the catalyst that revived negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and studio heads, ending the 14-week strike and saving the Oscar telecast from the fate of this year's dead-in-the-water Golden Globes.

"He's the hero on all of this," said associate producer Michael Seligman, fielding calls in his backstage office.

Planning for the Academy Awards began as usual around Thanksgiving, when Cates and set designer Roy Christopher started creating the stage. It wasn't until mid-January -- with the stage being built and talent wrangling underway -- that Cates and his staff realized they needed a Plan B. For the next few weeks, they put together two shows: one that allowed for celebrities and writers and one heavy on film packages and musical numbers.

At the same time, Cates would duck out to act as the chairman of the DGA's negotiating committee, leading talks on behalf of 13,400 members. Somehow, he said, the two duties didn't peak at the same time. "While I was doing negotiations, the set had already been designed and they were doing blueprints on it," he said. "When negotiations stopped, then [Oscar planning] began to heat up."

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