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Facetime: Don Mischer on directing and producing the Oscars

In several decades as a television producer, Don Mischer has sat at the controls of some of the world’s premier live broadcasts. He has produced opening ceremonies at the Olympics, awards shows such as the Emmys and the inauguration of President Obama.

Producing a live television event is like rounding up a giant herd of unpredictable buffalo — while 20 million or 30 million people watch your every lasso. A tiny snafu can mushroom into disaster (just ask those who oversaw the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, an event that prompted organizers to hire Mischer the following year in the interest of righting the ship).

On Tuesday, Mischer was named the director and, along with film-world veteran Bruce Cohen, the producer for the 83rd Academy Awards telecast in February. Managing the egos and competing needs of those involved in the ABC telecast is a pressure cooker — made more so because the producers who managed the show in 2009, Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic, ushered in the telecast’s highest ratings in five years.

Mischer talked about the added pressure of his new job, his most fearful dreams (they involve Prince and high-heeled dancers) and what changes we can expect at the next Oscars.

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You’ve produced so many big events that in some ways this must just feel like another assignment. Does it feel different to you?

When you work overseas, as I have sometimes, you understand how the Oscars are a world event, and that increases the expectations. The Oscars is one of the few shows that are appointment television. It’s also a marriage of film and television so the expectations are higher because of that.

And there’s a lot to consider. First and foremost we have to honor the standards of the academy. We also have to do something that expands the interest of viewers, but without jeopardizing the first thing. There’s a tradition you need to uphold. A show like the Oscars cannot be entirely ratings-driven.

There’s always talk about how the formula can be changed. What changes are you looking at?

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It’s still a little early for that. I’m taking a stack of shows home this weekend. I’m going to do a content analysis of what’s worked and what hasn’t the past 10 years, how you can expand and make it all more appealing. There are a lot of things you hear from the people in the business. You hear things like, “Ratings fall off when songs are sung.” We hear the same about dance numbers. We want to see if that’s true. And we have the benefit of going back and studying minute-by-minute ratings, which we’re going to do.

Oscar producers are usually treated as the primary factor in a show’s popularity. But so many things are out of your control. How much can you influence ratings?

The two things that make a show successful is how familiar your nominees are, and what people say if they’re fortunate enough to win. And neither of those things you can control. But there are things we can control. We can broaden the motion pictures and include the work of films that haven’t been nominated. And when you do a show like this you have historical elements, and so you have the opportunity to do great things with the films from the past.

There have been some reports that the board of governors is considering a move to January for this year. Is that something you’ve been apprised of?

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When I read that in [Deadline Hollywood] I was completely surprised. I do know that it would not be happening for the show we’re doing. If you want to make that kind of change you have to plan for that a year and a half in advance. I understand why the academy might want to consider it. But it’s not going to change anything this year.

It’s said that the only time anyone notices the producer of the Academy Awards is when something goes wrong. What’s the appeal for you?

There’s no question we feel the pressure, Some people say we’re addicted, or we’re stress junkies. Maybe we are. There’s nothing like that feeling that the clock is ticking down and you’re sitting in the truck, and then suddenly it’s time, and everybody gets quiet. That’s when I get calm. I’m much more uptight two weeks ahead of time when I feel we’re not on top of everything, when a major presenter can drop out or a piece of film isn’t ready.

What’s the worst nightmare you’ve had about what can go wrong?

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Right before the Prince halftime show (at the 2009 Super Bowl) we were dreading rain, and I was terribly afraid. I had dreams the night before that it would rain, and his two dancers, called the Twinz, in their 8-inch-high heels would fall over. Would we cut to a wide shot? Bring out a stretcher? You worry about all that. You worry about everything. You worry about earthquakes.

Probably the most scrutiny Oscar producers get is over host. How much thought have you given to that aspect?

It’s the No. 1 priority. We’re going to start discussions on Monday. All options are open. And I’m sure we’ll get a big push for Betty White. I can feel it coming.

Would you take her?

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I think she’d be great in some capacity. [Laughs] I don’t know if she’d want to host the whole show.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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