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Oscars Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan On Their Big Night

The men behind Sunday night’s Academy Awards show tell all

When the 85th annual Academy Awards airs on Sunday night, the nominees won’t be the only people hoping for a win. This year’s Oscars broadcast has been put together by veteran film and TV producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan—who’ve worked on everything from Footloose to Hairspray and Smash—and when DuJour caught up with the pair just weeks before the big show, they were justifiably anxious.

The two took time out from working on the show, which will be hosted by their fellow first timer Seth MacFarlane (check out his video promos, below), to talk about what they’ll keep, what they’ll change and how it’s different from their normal Oscars night.

How did you guys come to be producing this Academy Awards?

Neil Meron: It came to us by a phone call. We were going about our daily life with Smash and our other projects and one day the phone rang and it was Hawk Koch from the Academy and he asked whether or not we’d be interested in producing the Oscars. It was not something we were campaigning for but it was something we had always wanted to do in the back of our minds. When the call came, it was like, Here it is.

So did you jump up and down and say yes right away?

Craig Zadan: We didn’t say yes right away. We wanted to discuss it and see if it was something that made sense to take on. First of all, it’s an honor, so there’s that aspect. But we also have deals with a lot of different people and we were in production on a lot of different things, so we couldn’t just pick up and say, ‘Bye, guys!’ So we had to go to all of our partners and tell them we’d been given this opportunity. Each of them said, ‘We don’t want you to do something else because we need you, but you have to do this. How can we say no?’

How do you go about preparing for a gig like this?

NM: There’s no rulebook. We started by watching 40 years of the Academy Awards and looking at them piece by piece and deciding if certain things were still valid today or if it would make sense to move ahead with other ideas we had to freshen up the show. 

Going back to watch 40 years of shows must have taken forever. Were you surprised by anything you saw?

CZ: Some of them are better than others. All of them have great aspects to them; it’s just that some have more than others. We wanted to give the show more energy; you try to figure out how much time you can save during the course of giving out 24 awards so there’s room for more entertainment.

One eternal criticism of the telecast is that it’s too long. Is that going to change?

NM: The thing about it that’s hard to say is that sometimes people criticize the Oscars for being too long is because it’s not entertaining. I think it really is all about how much entertainment will satisfy the audience and keep up the pacing.

CZ: You can’t make it shorter, though, and the reason is, you have to give out 24 awards. If you look at other awards shows, they give out technical awards prior to the telecast. The Oscars is the only show on television that gives out every single award on the show.

What were you determined to include in your Oscars? 

NM: We wanted it to be a celebration of film music and have entertaining moments throughout. 

CZ: When you pick someone like Seth MacFarlane to host, who can do great comedy and can sing and dance, you want to utilize all of those talents during the course of the show. There will be people who are frightened he’ll go too far, and then there will be people who wish he’d gone further. It’s very hard to please everybody.

What’s it like working with a host who makes people a bit frightened?

NM: We know more about Seth and the depth of his talent more than most people. As much as he is irreverent, he loves some traditions as well. He has great respect for film music, he’s kind of a geek that way, and he has a great knowledge of film and its history.

Is your process with him collaborative?

NM: Incredibly. We can finish each other’s sentences, and he’s fantastic.

CZ: We’ve heard that in past shows, certain hosts will go off and do their own thing and prepare whatever they’re going to do on the show. Seth isn’t that way. He’s been working with us every day and using us as a sounding board.

You’ve done away with the models that used to hand awards to winners and replaced them with college kids who won the spots. How did that idea come about?

NM: Looking back at 40 years of Oscars, it just seemed that the idea of the bodacious trophy presenter was stuck in the 1950s. We want to make sure that everybody on that stage has a connection to and passion for film.

Will you be updating anything else?

NM: It’s an attitude thing. I wouldn’t say we’re conscious of updating things, but the whole set will be very fresh, and it’s just a re-examination of everything.

What’s next for you guys?

NM: We’re starting a miniseries for the History Channel, Bonnie & Clyde. At the end of the year, we’re doing a live broadcast of The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood for NBC. And who knows what other phone calls might come in?

Would you want to come back to the Oscars?

CZ: We’re going into this as a one-time thing. Let’s see how this year goes. We’re putting everything we have into this one show. It’s hard to think past this one night.

Before you were producing the show, what was a typical Oscars night like for you?

NM: Since we’ve been in New York doing Smash for the past couple years, we’ve been going over to watch the Oscars in a very casual environment with Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue. It’s unfortunate we’re missing it this year.