In anticipation of Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast on ABC, EW talked to Executive Producer Don Mischer about host Billy Crystal, what went wrong with last year’s show, and how challenging it is to wrap the show in three hours.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where’s the production at right now?
DON MISCHER: We’re now at the Kodak – we’ve been here since Monday. Things are loading in. We’ve begun to look at how the scenery looks. Things are going well, and Billy is busy really focusing on what he’s doing. He really tackled this job. I’ve worked with Billy for years, and it’s always been the way that he likes to operate. He meets with his writers for four and five hours, three to four nights a week. He’s been doing that since January. He’s really committing to it.
When did you work with Billy in the past?
I directed a show, it was a Saturday night variety show that was hosted by Howard Cosell. I think it was Billy’s first network television appearance. I remember he did a bit about taking home movies in the backyard, a guy who is barbecuing and all of that. It was just really wonderful, and people began to notice him immediately. That show didn’t last long, but of course he then went on to the other Saturday Night Live, and that started what has become a really wonderful career.
Talk about when you approached him about hosting.
It was the first week in November when the Brett Ratner incident occurred, and Brett decided to remove himself. I have been a fan of Billy’s from the beginning. There have been many wonderful hosts of the Oscars, but when you look at the big three it’s really Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Billy Crystal. Having worked with Billy and knowing Billy through the years, he brings a kind of confidence to what he does that I’ve always found appealing as a host. When Brett resigned and Eddie Murphy dropped off immediately thereafter, the first thing that happened was that the Academy put Brian Grazer and me together on the phone. I had not met Brian at that point, but of course I’m a big fan of all of the great films that he and Ron Howard have done. Within an hour after that call, we had Billy on the phone. There was no doubt in our minds that Billy was the way that we should go. It’s been a great thing to work with Billy. From a producing and directing point of view, one thing I learned early on is you cannot have a host whose arm you have to twist to do the job. It just never works. You want somebody up there who wants to be there, feels that they deserve to be there. They’re comfortable, they can improvise, and they are light on their feet and can roll with the punches. Billy is all of those things. I cannot tell you how positive it’s been.
It didn’t seem like James Franco wanted to be there last year.
James, I think the world of him. I don’t know if he didn’t want to be there. I think he probably did want to be there, it’s just how you play it. Some people want to be a little cool, and appear that way, but sometimes that comes across the wrong way. James, I just think everybody ganged up on James. I thought it was unfair, personally. I tell you, I like him very much. I think he’s got a great career as an actor.
James and Anne Hathaway just didn’t riff as much as they should have on some of the night’s big moments.
It was a different approach. One thing that Brian Grazer and I decided at the very beginning was we need to go for comedy. Comedy is what really helps keep people with you, and keeps an evening moving and entertaining when you have a long show. Unlike a lot of the other award shows, like the Grammys which just aired, we present 24 Oscars. Many of those are not awards that viewers are invested in. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the show, but there are a lot of awards that people who are not part of the motion picture business don’t relate to. I mean, Live Action Short, Animation Short, Documentary Short, Sound Mixing and Editing – all key and important areas of the motion picture business, but not something that the billion people who are watching this around the world are invested in. In a situation like that, it’s even more important to have comedy. When I reflect back on last year, I think that we needed more comedy. We made a commitment with Brian that we were going to go that direction this year. I think it was the right choice.
Do you think Billy should be edgy and mean, like Ricky Gervais?
Ricky is entertaining and all that, but I don’t think the Oscars is a place for being mean-spirited, or taking real brutal shots at people. I think that you can be irreverent, and I think that you can take yourself not so seriously with comedy, and have a little fun, but underneath it all there’s got to be a fundamental respect of the Oscar, and of the motion picture industry, and the people who make movies no matter what their role is. That has got to come through underneath it. But you don’t have to take yourself too seriously all of the time.
Do you feel pressure to appeal to a younger demo?
I think that you can perhaps over-focus on that sometimes. I think a show that’s good, entertaining, funny, exciting – those elements are going to appeal to everyone. I do think that getting into the social networking area and all of that is very important in terms of letting people know what’s coming, creating anticipation on the part of potential viewers. One thing we learned last year was that the older demographic, older viewers, make plans to watch the Oscars. They will generally plan a week ahead of time – “Hey honey, the Oscars are on Sunday, let’s invite so-and-so over, and we’ll watch the Oscars together.” The younger generation, like my son who is a sophomore at NYU, his generation makes a decision about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes ahead of time about whether or not to watch the show. It kind of comes down to what’s trending on the social networks.
Will you bring up former winners to introduce the nominees in the best actor categories?
I don’t think I should comment on that, because we’re still considering it. Probably not. But we need to focus on the nominees, and what they’ve accomplished, with some gravitas and not just slough it off and say, `The nominees are, 1,2,3,4,5.’ We’re still trying to figure out exactly what we’re going to do. But those did take a lot of time. About 80 percent of the country is in the central and eastern time zone and they’re watching it late at night. We go on the air at 5:30 here in Hollywood, which is 8:30 in New York. When you hit 11:30 in New York, which is 3 hours into the show, no matter what’s happening, it’s just really hard to try to keep viewers with you. Time is really of the essence, because viewership begins to really fall off after 11:30 on the east coast and in the central time zone, even if they haven’t seen best actor, or best movie. We really have to stay as close as we can to the three-hour mark, just so that more people will stay with us as we go later into the evening back east.
Did you finish the show in three hours last year?
No, last year we were about 11 minutes long, which was the shortest it had been in many years. Honestly, some of my favorite Oscar shows ever, like the first one that Laura Ziskin produced, I thought it was brilliant – unequivocally brilliant. But it ran four hours, and the ratings were historically low.
Who hosted that year?
Whoopi Goldberg. I remember Tom Cruise came out, and it was the first show after 9/11, and there was a special tribute to Sidney Portier. It was the night that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both won Oscars. It was a magical night, and Laura gave it such an intelligent treatment. It was 50 some odd minutes, almost an hour long, so no matter how good it was, people eventually dropped off and it caused the ratings to plummet.
So is that the line you want on your tombstone — ‘I got the show off on time’?
No no, it’s not about getting them off on time, it’s about having a great show that gets off close to time. I’d be very happy about that.