The day after the Oscars last year, the show's producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron received a call from John Travolta apologizing for fumbling the name of singer
"John said, 'Oh, God, I hope I didn't ruin your show,'" Zadan recalled, in a recent interview from a backstage office at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, where he and Meron are preparing for Sunday's Academy Awards. "We said, 'You made our show. The social media went berserk, and the show became historic because of you.'"
This year Zadan and Meron are producing their third Oscar telecast, bringing aboard new host Neil Patrick Harris and hoping for more of the kind of chatter-generating, Adele Dazeem-like moments no team of writers could script.
FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2015
Zadan and Meron will need some kismet to help draw and keep an audience this year, since their list of nominated films is light on mainstream hits, with "American Sniper" the only one of the eight best picture nominees to generate more than $100 million at the domestic box office.
"The challenge this year is to honor the films that were nominated, which weren't the most commercial, blockbuster-type films, and balance that with a good show," Meron said.
To entice a broad audience who may not have seen art house nominees like "Whiplash" or "Boyhood," the duo will rely on a formula that has worked well for them in the past — inviting a glittery and demographically diverse group of presenters and artists.
This year's list of planned performers includes
Presenters will include
"If you're tuning in because you care to see who wins what, that's great," Zadan said. "But ... we've attracted a whole new audience who have tuned in to see the entertainment."
In a year when the homogeneity of the acting nominees ignited a controversy and spawned a trending Twitter hashtag "#OscarsSoWhite," the racial makeup of those on the show is also noteworthy.
"We've always been very conscious of diversity in terms of our presenters and our performers," Zadan said. "We feel that's the way the world exists, and we've always been believers in having an Oscar show that reflects the way the world exists."
In choosing their host, Zadan and Meron selected a friend they've known since the early 1990s, when they met Harris at the 20th Century Fox commissary while he was a child star on "Doogie Howser, M.D."
As host, Harris will rely on skills he's honed winning rave reviews for emceeing the Tony and Emmy awards in previous years. The producers said he'll sing an original musical number by
At the Tonys and
"Neil wants to have a tone that is very funny, very friendly. He's not gonna take jabs at anybody," Meron said. "He has all sorts of unusual, unique things he wants to do that we haven't seen on another Oscar show."
The producers feel one of the host's most important tasks is relaxing the audience in the Dolby, with their empty stomachs, uncomfortable gowns and tuxedos and palpable nerves, and enlisting them as co-conspirators in creating an entertaining show.
"We feel that if the stars are humanized, it feels much better in the living room," Meron said. "If the home audience sees everybody having a good time and their hair is basically let down, it translates to having a good time at home."
Some of last year's highlights worked only because A-listers were game —
"Those moments worked because you had a host everybody really liked, and that's the case with Neil this year," Meron said. "They feel comfortable with him. He's not going to bring them down; he's going to celebrate them."
In that time, the duo says it has learned, more than anything, to have a tough skin. When Meron reminded Oscar nominees at a luncheon last month that, as in previous years, they would have only 45 seconds to deliver a speech, the audience jeered him.
"Everybody wants to talk longer, and then everybody complains that the show's too long," Zadan said. "You learn when you do this show that you can't win. You have to just do what's necessary and not worry about what people are gonna say. If you turn left, they say you should have turned right, and if you turn right, they say you should have turned left."
The two said they have not yet been asked, nor considered whether they'd like to produce the Oscar show again.