Lynette Rice
January 27, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

Brian Grazer jokes that he’s got an ambitious goal for the 84th Academy Awards: He’d like them to be less than two hours long. ”Hey, a two-hour show has never happened before,” laughs Grazer, who’s producing the Oscars for the first time. ”That’s going to be our objective!”

Obviously, the man who produced A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code knows a thing or two about logistics — and that handing out 24 awards in less than 120 minutes is as unlikely as luring a Titanic-size audience of 55.3 million viewers (a record set in 1998 that has yet to be broken). But Grazer is already thinking like a man who’s got a network to answer to and hundreds of affiliates to please. ”What we are all trying to do is move the show along quickly and to be unpredictable,” he says. ”We will try our best to be on time.”

Time has been in short supply planning this year’s ceremony, which airs Feb. 26 on ABC. After all, the show got off to a famously bad start. Its first host, Eddie Murphy, and one of its producers, Brett Ratner, resigned last November after Ratner made a series of impolitic and antigay comments. In the wake of the controversy, Grazer agreed to step in and produce with Don Mischer, an awards-show veteran who oversaw last year’s telecast. And to collective sighs of relief throughout the Academy, Billy Crystal announced he’d return as host for the ninth time — and his first Oscar stint since 2004.

Still, the Oscar producers face serious challenges in drumming up interest in this year’s contest: Of the nine Best Picture nominees, six have yet to top $60 million at the box office. (The Artist has only grossed $12 million.) ”I think that it’s good for us,” says Mischer. ”There will be a sense that there is not an absolute, unequivocal clear favorite who is going to win.”

The big winner is not the only mystery still to be resolved. Mischer and Grazer say they aren’t sure whether five previous winners will pay tribute to the acting nominees — a popular but time-consuming moment introduced in 2009. And they haven’t yet settled on the order in which awards will be presented. (Our last-minute, probably futile plea? Hand out the short-film prizes at a nontelevised lunch!) However, the producers will say that they’re redecorating L.A.’s Kodak Theatre for the ceremony. ”The theme is to celebrate the collective and social experience of going to the movies, being in front of a big screen with hundreds of people around you,” says Grazer. ”We want to modify the Kodak as a timeless picture palace.”

There is still much to be ironed out — and the producers concede that two months of preparations were wasted on the Ratner-Murphy debacle. ”Yes, we did lose some time, but I don’t think it had any real negative effect,” says Mischer. ”I think we’re in good shape, and we’re really happy about Billy hosting. Comedy is so important on a long broadcast like this, especially when there are some awards that not a lot of viewers are particularly interested in.” Just don’t add too many jokes — or you’ll blow well past that two-hour time limit.

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