Complete Academy Awards coverage
As if Chris Rock were not enough, this year's Oscar ceremony is shaping up to be hip-hop loose and in-your-face. Or at least as hip-hop loose and in-your-face as a show that revolves around a bunch of film types in evening dress getting awards and making speeches can be.
Ever since the announcement that Rock would host the 77th Academy Awards, the buzz has been as much about how the high-intensity, often blasphemous comic will fit into a traditional ceremony as it has in predicting the winners.
To which producer Gil Cates replies: Who said it would be a traditional Oscar ceremony?
As Cates hinted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' nominees luncheon Monday, this year's show will be as different in structure from past shows as Rock's style is from previous hosts.
In a separate interview, Cates elaborated further. To accommodate Rock's hip-hop-direct brand of comedy, Cates is breaking open the show. Not only will some awards be announced with the nominees present on stage, others will be presented to winners still seated in the audience. Cates said his goal is to get all nominees on television.
"The concept this year is to minimize the line between people on stage and in the audience," said Cates.
Rock will also be "recognizing" certain members of the audience, Cates said, in the style of "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"Chris is an up-front, right-at-you kind of guy," said Cates, producing his 12th Oscar telecast, "so we needed to format the show to accommodate that."
The set itself will, he said, blur the line between on-stage and off, giving the show a more interactive feel. According to Louis J. Horvitz, the director of this year's show, the set will jut into the audience from center stage and lead "like the yellow brick road" to the gondola that hangs from the center of the ceiling at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, home to the Feb. 27 Oscar telecast.
The diversity of presentation formats means Horvitz must mix up the traditional camera positions — an award presented with all the nominees on stage gives him more freedom to catch the faces of family and colleagues, but an award presented in the audience is just plain tricky.
"I have worked with Gil for nine years," Horvitz said. "He's inquisitive and mischievous, and there are things he's always wanted to try.
"He keeps coming into my office and saying, 'I want you to have fun, and make it easy on yourself,' " Horvitz added with a laugh. "And I say, 'Well, it will be fun, Gil, but easy
The trick of a successful show, Cates said, is balance — no one portion should stick out and nothing should overshadow the winners. The choice of Rock, a never-still performer who takes up a lot of room both physically and psychologically, put the show's center of gravity on a different plane from that of other hosts.
"This set would not work for Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg," said Cates, declining to go into more specifics. "But we think the audience will realize it is a very good fit with Chris."
The style shake-up is also an effort to make the television audience feel an even bigger part of the show and to spark greater audience interest (re: ratings), which have been stagnant in recent years. (The show will be broadcast live on ABC.)
"We've always tried to make the viewers feel like they are really there, in the audience, on the stage, in the orchestra pit," Horovitz said. "This time we're literally breaking that fourth wall."
The changes require additional work for everyone, including the nominees — Cates made his announcement at the nominees luncheon because some of them will now have to attend a separate rehearsal, probably on the Friday before the show, which means a separate set of logistics for the producers and the publicists.
In addition to finessing the camera work, Horvitz and his team must figure out how 50 or 60 audience members — more than usual — can unobtrusively leave their seats during the show. Extra seat-fillers must be found, camera shots finessed and the movement on the floor of the theater kept efficient but also not disruptive to the show itself.
"It's very complicated," said Cates. "And I guess it could be a complete mess. But I don't think so."
The format changes match the attitude shift Rock has brought to the proceedings from the moment he agreed to host. He has resolutely refused to take any of the hoopla too seriously, trashing nominated movies in the press, talking up his favorite nominees, and generally reminding everyone that in the comedy business nothing is sacred, and that includes the Oscars.
"My job is to make a lot of people laugh," he said. "It will be great if the people in the room laugh, but I am doing a television show. I am aiming my jokes at all the people who aren't in the room."
Cates and Horvitz stress that the centerpiece of this show, like all the Academy Awards, are the winners and their work.
But, Cates added, sometimes it's good to try something a little different.
As is his habit, Cates used the annual Oscar nominees luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to tell the 115 collected nominees how to — and not to — deliver a compelling acceptance speech.
Cates pretended to deliver his own parody of a bad speech, thanking everyone from his agent to Santa's reindeer.
"Please, please, please don't pull out a piece of paper," Cates said. "If you do, you're done
. This is your assignment: Just say one unexpected thing."