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Oscars 2015 producers talk Ellen's selfie and secrets to making the show click

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Oscars 2014
twitter.com/TheEllenShow

The Selfie, from a planning perspective, was a failure.

It may have been one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Academy Awards broadcast, a snapshot that was retweeted 3,362,031 times (at last check) and spawned countless spoofs and recreations. But it was supposed to happen differently.

A year later, producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who are again overseeing this Sunday’s Oscar broadcast, reveal the initial plan:

“The joke as originally scripted was that Ellen was going to come down and see Meryl Streep, and she was going to gather people around to take a selfie with Meryl,” says Meron. “Ellen said in the script, ‘You know Meryl my arm isn’t long enough so will you stand up and take the picture of the group?’ with Meryl Streep getting up and being out of the picture. And that was the joke.”

Instead, Bradley Cooper (“who had long arms,” Meron notes) grabbed the phone and snapped the famous shot with DeGeneres, Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o and her photobombing, Angelina Jolie-blocking brother. It wasn’t what anyone expected, but when producing the show, it’s important to open yourself up to risk.

“That is what creates an Oscar moment,” Meron says.

No matter who produces the ceremony, they always face the same annual concerns: The show’s too long. There’s too little entertainment between awards. There aren’t enough celebrities attend besides the nominees. The formality makes viewers feel like they’re not at the party.

When Meron and Zadan (best known for movies like Best Picture-winner Chicago and their live TV specials like Peter Pan Live!) took over the show three years ago, they binge-watched four decades of past shows and discovered most of those troubles were connected.

Take problem #1: The show’s too long.

The producers realized it took both winners and presenters a very long time to get to the microphone—up to 40 seconds. That meant there was more walking happening at the Oscars than in a Lord of the Rings movie. “A lot of it had to do with the set, with staircases,” Zadan says. “Women in gowns and high heels cannot walk down a staircase without putting their lives in jeopardy.” That’s true: ask Cinderella. “Or Jennifer Lawrence,” Meron adds with a laugh. (Her onstage stumble after winning Best Actress was a memorable moment during their Seth MacFarlane year.)

The fix was deceptively simple. Now presenters stand close to center stage, and the scenery moves to reveal them. Acting contenders tend to be in the camera-friendly front rows, but nominees from the technical categories – previously relegated to the back of the theater – are now rotated in and out of balcony boxes beside the stage when their category is up. “It gives them face time,” Zadan says. “The camera is able to pick up their faces instead of shooting people in the back. And also, when they win, they get out of the box and they are on stage in seconds.”

As Meron estimates: “It cut out half the time.” Which helps solve Problem #2: Where are the performances?

Every producer wants more entertainment in the ceremony, but with 24 awards to present that’s always a crunch. By cutting down on all those long walks to the stage, though, Meron and Zadan could add more performances and set-pieces. That also helped solve Problem #3 by making more celebrities want to attend and participate. Previously, they could be hard to recruit unless they were up for a trophy.

“If the talent is going to be sitting there, they are going to see a good show,” says Meron. “They are going to be entertained. They won’t be bored. It is not just going to be a procession of awards being handed out. There is going to be a lot of stuff that will engage that audience.”

Which leads to problem #4—engaging the home audience.

Zadan and Meron have tried to do that by taking Oscar viewers directly into the newly star-studded crowd with moments like the aforementioned “Oscar Selfie” and the mid-show pizza delivery. But those improvised interactions taught Zadan and Meron a final important lesson: embrace mistakes. Yes, John Travolta garbling his introduction of Idina Menzel by calling her “Adele Dazeem” was awkward for all involved, but it was unforgettable television.

DeGeneres’ plan to hand out pizza in the middle of last year’s show was also a nervous-making moment for the producers. “We said to Ellen, ‘We are a slightly concerned about this pizza thing,” Zadan recalls. “It could be amazing, or the women could say, ‘I’m not gonna get grease on my gown,’ and the guys are gonna go, ‘I’m not gonna get grease on my tuxedo.’ And it could not work.”

Part of the worry was an unknown variable: “That was a real pizza guy,” Zadan explains. DeGeneres wanted his authentic surprise to be part of the joke, but that meant Zadan and Meron had no idea how he would respond. “He was supposed to be delivering to a bunch of writers. And we had to get him through security, which was a chore in itself,” Meron says.

As the host walked out with the piping hot pies and descended into the audience, the routine was actually dragging on and falling flat. Then an unlikely savior appeared.

“The person who deserves credit for that working is Brad Pitt,” Zadan says. “Brad Pitt jumped out of his seat, grabbed the paper plates and the napkins and started handing them out. And then everyone grabbed pizza.”

But he wasn’t enlisted to do that ahead of time.

“No!” Meron says. “No, nobody knew. None of the actors in the audience knew. They were not set up for any of this. It was completely spontaneous.”

A few jokes were planned, like when DeGeneres tried to get the rich and famous to cough up their share of the bill. “She was going to ask Harvey Weinstein for money. Which she did,” Meron said of the The Weinstein Co. honcho known for his deep pockets during award season. “And he ponied up.”

Sometimes, the most controversial elements of the show are actually the planned ones. The first year Meron and Zadan produced the show, host Seth MacFarlane was slammed by some for his satiric “We Saw Your Boobs” song—which was meant to be a spoof of how he could potentially ruin the show with a tasteless number. (All of the actresses included in the song were asked for their blessing ahead of time, and some—including Jennifer Lawrence—shot their reactions ahead of time for inclusion in the number.)

Still, it remains the one moment from that show that got the harshest scolding.

“The thing that was so interesting about the year with Seth was, and I’ve had this discussion with a lot of people since then,” Zadan says. “I’ve sort of had a questionnaire, and I’d say, ‘Did you like the Barbra Streisand section?’ She hadn’t sung on the Oscars in 36 years. ‘Oh I loved it, it made me cry.’ ‘Did you like the Les Mis number?’ ‘Oh it was thrilling.’ ‘Did you like the Dreamgirls section, did you like the Chicago section, did you like Adele?’ I mean, I went through the entire show from beginning to end. And the response from everybody unanimously is ‘I love that… I love that… I love that… I love that… I love that.’ And then you get to The Boob Song, which is under two minutes. And they go ‘Ugh. It was distasteful.’ And we go, ‘Well we did a three and a half hour show. And we did a musical sequence that was one minute and 50 seconds. So you mean to tell me that that one minute and 50 seconds then diminished the show [enough] to be dismissed? Because of that?’ In the scheme of things, it was a blip.”

But also, there’s nothing wrong with provoking a debate through a show that has far more often been criticized for being moribund.

“Having the provocative nature of that song and having the dialogue created works to the benefit of making the show more relevant,” Meron says. “Because if people weren’t talking about it, then we failed. The fact that people talked about it—and that song in particular—became a lightning rod, was a good thing.”

The song also had its share of defenders. “When you look at the research from ABC, the press latched on to it, ‘The Boob Song.’ The press latched on to it, and certain people in the Hollywood community latched on to it,” Zadan says. “But if you look at the national research that’s done, America loved it.”

According to those same surveys, the 2013 Oscars ceremony included a much more upsetting moment for viewers—but it wasn’t anything MacFarlane did. “Actually, the research showed that the most controversial element of the show was not The Boob Song, but the appearance of Michelle Obama,” Meron says. “That, to them, was more controversial.”

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