Over the years, the Oscar telecast has suffered with a show that was regularly pitched more to the Hollywood crowd sitting in the hall than the viewers at home. The result: a fairly steady loss of TV audience.
"As good as even last year's show was, there was a little inner circle [in the hall], and it maybe played better in the room than it played on TV," producer Bill Mechanic said, choosing his words with some diplomacy in a telephone interview Thursday.
So, Mechanic, the former chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment, and his producing partner, choreographer and feature film director Adam Shankman ("Hairspray"), have tried to come up with a show that will reverse the ratings slump. Given all the talk surrounding the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences' decision to expand the best picture category from five to 10 this year, think of this as the producers' 10 best ideas for how to recharge the Oscar telecast's ailing mojo by making it more like contemporary TV.
Rethink everything: "It actually started with our very first meeting of talking about the show," Mechanic said. "We wanted to rethink everything that would make it play to a wider TV audience."
"We are both just fans - we're not fancy-pants guys," said Shankman, who is perhaps best known as a judge on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" reality competition show. "So as fans, we've really been focusing on making a show that is for fans as opposed to just trying to cater to the people in the room. Those people in the room are getting honored no matter what. ... The telecast is for the fans."
Perhaps the best indication of their thoroughly TV mind-set and subsequent approach comes from Shankman: "The Oscars is not only the best-dressed reality-competition show out there, it's also in its own strange way, like an old-time TV variety show, and we tried to work with that."
Change seats: The producers say it hasn't been easy negotiating with the academy about who will sit where in the Kodak Theatre Sunday night, but they did make some progress in trying to get rid of what they call "shoe leather" camera shots - time-consuming coverage of winners making long, slow walks to the stage.
Shankman said he "totally freaked out" during a rehearsal this week when it took the stand-in presenters "like four extra seconds" to make it on stage.
Learn new dance moves: The dancers will be younger and more like the contestants on Fox or ABC reality shows than the chorus of a Busby Berkeley MGM musical. About a dozen of the 69 dancers who will appear in numbers choreographed by Shankman are, in fact, from "So You Think Can You Dance."
Be funnier, be faster: "The two hosts, Alec [Baldwin] and Steve [Martin], were picked because they are funny and they create a comedic tandem that gives you the ability to move the show faster and funnier all the way through it," Mechanic explains referring to their ability to trade quips, ad-lib and respond to an expanding or shrinking show on their feet.
Get younger: The presenters this year will include teen-age talents like Miley Cyrus, Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart - what the producers have termed a "youth element."
Wring more emotion: "How will it get more emotional?" Mechanic says, restating a question asking for specifics. "We're going to make Adam cry on-screen."
"Oh, really? I thought that was the funnier part," Shankman counters.
Despite being pushed, the producers offered only a vague description here of how the show was going to get more emotional. They said it would comes about as a result of the telecast being filled with themes and story lines explaining "why we do what we do," as Mechanic put it.
Translation: There is going to be a running narrative about love of film, Hollywood and popular culture. How will that play onscreen? Look for a presenter such as Barbra Streisand, a pioneering figure in feature film directing, possibly handing out the Oscar for Best Direction given the probability of Kathryn Bigelow ( "The Hurt Locker") being the first woman to win the award.
"We are definitely looking for more emotion," Mechanic says.
Go post-modern, TV retro: Sound complicated? Not really. Shankman says that when he got the call to produce the Oscars show, he had just finished watching DVDs of Mitzi Gaynor's beloved TV variety shows from 1968 to 1978 on NBC and CBS. If you are not familiar with those, think of some of the Judy Garland classics from the same era on CBS.
"I am a worshiper of old TV variety shows, and the way that music is used in variety shows always felt comfortable and organic. And that's the way I approached the musical element of the telecast," Shankman says. "Viewers will be beyond satisfied - I'm not kidding."
Embrace a minimalist look: "The inspiration for the stage design are those old variety shows, which are very minimalist, if you recall. I mean, you could even think of a show like 'Hullabaloo' in a way," he says, referring to a 1960s youth-oriented dance show that often featured sets populated only by young dancers - and maybe a couple of go-go cages.
In keeping with that minimalist look, the stage will be white for the first time in years, according to Mechanic.
Ditch the best song performances: Ditching the five best song nominees was one of the first and most controversial moves the producers made. But, as Shankman sees it, stopping the telecast in its tracks to stage a song only because it is a nominee is neither "organic" nor "comfortable."
Add more cameras: This year, there will be 26 cameras, the most ever. And while more technology can sometimes lead to overproduction, Shankman says his goal is to use their resources to give viewers the best viewing experience possible.
"I have only been to the Oscars once in my life, and that was 20 years ago when I was dancing on them," Shankman says. "So, I only know the show as an audience member. And at every step of this process, I'm thinking, 'What do I want to see?'."
Will you be watching Sunday night? What do you want out of an Oscar telecast?
I'll be watching and bloggging.