The wizards behind Oscar night

Movie fan and Barnum-type aim for magic

Academy Awards co-producers Bill Mechanic (left) and Adam Shankman had never met, though Shankman had danced on an Oscar show and Mechanic is a member of the Academy. Academy Awards co-producers Bill Mechanic (left) and Adam Shankman had never met, though Shankman had danced on an Oscar show and Mechanic is a member of the Academy. (Associated Press/Matt Sayles)
By Sandy Cohen
Associated Press / January 31, 2010

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - The art department is plastered with geometric and architectural images. Sketches show the brand-new Academy Awards stage setup in various forms. A sample of the show’s crystal curtain hangs in one corner. Copper-colored circles, squares, and rectangles dangle from a cork board.

“We commissioned, with every great intention, the most complicated automated set the Oscars have ever had,’’ says Adam Shankman, half of the production team putting on this year’s Academy Awards. “We’ve had to add additional technical days now, just to make sure that it’s all going to work together. So there’s a mixed bag of excitement-slash-fear that’s coming with that because, if it works, it will be the most beautiful thing the audience has ever seen on the Oscars.’’

Shankman and Bill Mechanic have been crafting the March 7 telecast since October. They’ve planned their production numbers, designed the stage, and come up with a clever way to present the 10 best-picture nominees. They’ve hired the hosts (Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin), booked a bunch of presenters, and sketched out the show’s 13 acts.

Now, all they need are the nominees, which will be announced on Tuesday.

“By and large, we know the layout of the show,’’ Shankman says from the Academy Awards production office, tucked inside a quiet office building in Beverly Hills. “But there is a huge piece of content that is yet to be decided, which is the most significant piece of the content.’’

“We can’t finish the show until we know,’’ Mechanic says.

Sitting on twin black sofas in Shankman’s office, the two men finish each other’s sentences and praise each other’s work. When they first took the Oscar assignment, though, they didn’t even know each other.

“I knew him through his movies,’’ Mechanic says, citing Shankman’s 2003 film “Bringing Down the House’’ and 2007’s “Hairspray.’’ “If we did any production numbers, I thought [his approach] was very contemporary. It felt like dance that I could watch.’’

“Dance for straight guys!’’ Shankman quips.

But when he first got Mechanic’s call, “I actually thought it was a joke,’’ Shankman says. “I’m not even in the Academy.’’

He did perform on the Oscar show once, as a dancer in a production number in 1989. “I had the weirdest thing where I got thrown off stage and almost killed Jessica Tandy,’’ Shankman recalls.

Mechanic, meanwhile, is a longtime Academy member and studio chief who has been to several Oscar ceremonies with such films as “Braveheart’’ and “Cast Away.’’ After attending a few times, he started thinking maybe he could put on a better show. And now he’s getting his chance.

The two men say they’re a well-matched team. Mechanic is “the true film historian and the insane fan,’’ Shankman says, “and I’m a little bit more of the P.T. Barnum energy.’’

So what kind of film-focused circus magic are the two planning?

The show will be funnier, shorter, and more inclusive than past telecasts, Mechanic says. It will feature not just nominated films, but popular movies from throughout the year.

Expect “fun’’ presenters, Mechanic says: “We didn’t do the normal-normal thing.’’ Look for lively, emotional, and educational moments, Shankman says: “You want to feel either like you’re learning or you’re getting to know people.’’ And expect an homage to the best year in box-office history.

The two producers have been watching the season’s other awards shows “to see what the story of the night is going to be and trying to build that into the show in a meaningful way,’’ Shankman says.

Already emerging? The theme of ex-spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow possibly competing against each other in the picture and director categories, Mechanic says.

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