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Producers Don Mischer and Bruce Cohen join to put on Oscar show

Don Mischer was having a meeting in his Beverly Hills office last summer when the hyper, curly-haired movie producer Bruce Cohen showed up unexpectedly. “Bruce comes bursting into this meeting, saying, ‘I have to talk to you immediately,” said Mischer. “We went into my kitchen, and he said, ‘Do you want to do the Oscars with me?’ Of course, I was walking on air for the rest of the day.”

Once the elation dissipated, the two got to work planning an event that will mark Oscar history and its current nominees in part by using elaborate contextual set pieces, bringing in a public schoolchildren’s choir and, of course, tapping James Franco and Anne Hathaway as unlikely hosts, a decision the producing duo is thrilled with. Says Cohen about the couple’s interplay, “It’s really funny. It’s really sweet. And it really works.

Mischer is as experienced as it gets when it comes to live television. The veteran producer has overseen some of the biggest live events in the world, including Olympics opening ceremonies, Super Bowl half-time shows and seven Primetime Emmy telecasts. But the Oscars was the one event that had remained outside his grasp. “I love live television. I love motion pictures,” says Mischer, who, despite his commanding 6-foot frame and baritone voice, seemed almost giddy with the realization that he’s finally directing and producing the Oscars. “To be given the opportunity is just a thrill. There is nothing like the Oscars.”

He and Cohen, an Academy Award fanatic himself who has been counting Oscar night as his favorite evening of the year since he was 8, have been working tirelessly to produce the 83rd Academy Awards ever since.

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Tom Sherak, president of the academy, hired them in June. They have been combing through videos of the past shows to look for ideas to poach to create a theme that celebrates the old and the new, and they have gotten presenters on board early by giving them specific duties for the night.

“We’ve heard from so many past producers about the challenges of getting movie stars to present, but, surprisingly enough, it’s not really been a problem for us,” Mischer says. “I think we’ve been pretty successful.” Thus far, Mischer and Cohen have landed Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Bridges and Oprah Winfrey, among others.

Aussies Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman will together present the best score award in one of about six “contextual pieces” — 45-second production numbers that will involve a combination of sets, lighting, sound, music and visuals about specific awards. The pieces will also present facts about Oscar history.

Cohen says that when he approached actors about presenting awards, he gave them a very specific pitch: “‘Here’s what’s happening, here’s what the set is doing, here is why it’s doing it. You walk out here, you say this, then you present the Oscar.’ It was complicated for Don and I to get to that, but it turns out the actors really responded.”

Cohen says that two more of his ideas have been realized: James Franco is co-host, and the YouTube-sensation choir from P.S. 22 in Staten Island, N.Y., will sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

“When they first asked us to do the Oscars,” Cohen says, “the two things that flashed into my mind were P.S. 22 and James Franco. P.S. 22 I admitted from the beginning, and James Franco I kept secret for months. I knew if that was my first idea, everyone would have thought I lost my mind, including James.”

But it may be that Franco, who has become ubiquitous in the last year, juggling films, art projects, Broadway shows and soap operas, was the most prescient idea of the bunch. His pairing with Hathaway has been generally well received and gives the Feb. 27 ceremony an air of mystery that doesn’t usually accompany Oscar night.

“What we have with James and Anne is a ‘what’s going to happen next?’ And I think viewers are feeling that,” Mischer says. “It makes people tune in and watch.”

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So far, Hathaway and Franco have been rehearsing primarily on weekends, around Franco’s school schedule, and Mischer and Cohen have been struck by the pairing’s chemistry. “Anne is extremely quick-witted. She has a comedy writer’s mind. Every take she is throwing out lines, trying lines,” Cohen says. “James has this hilarious deadpan, where he’s just a deer in her headlights, reacting to whatever she comes up with.”

While Cohen and Mischer have had more time to prepare than most Oscar producers, their last three weeks will be as crunched as any others. During the Oscar luncheon last week, their minds were clearly on the acceptance speeches, reminding nominees with something close to a schoolmarm tone to keep speeches short, memorable and absent of any paper trail. For regardless of how good the content of the night is, what audiences inevitably remember is how long the show goes on.

Still, it’s a conundrum, because the more successful the show, the longer it lasts. “If the jokes are really good, you get long laughs. If you create a lot of emotional moments, you get standing ovations,” says Mischer. “Each one of those is 45 seconds to a minute long. If you get eight standing ovations, you could add eight minutes to the show. But we want the ovations.”

nicole.sperling@latimes.com


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