The Oscar 11: Team Aims to Revive Awards' Telecast

On Oscar night, there is one goal: Steal your attention.

And if Hollywood has demonstrated anything, it's that it takes a team to pull off a successful heist.

The Academy Awards are suffering; ratings plunged to 32 million last year. A massive reworking of the Sunday telecast (ABC, 8 p.m. ET/5PT) has been launched — much of it still under a cloak of secrecy.

This much is clear: The people behind the show this year are trying something very different. Without revealing specific details, the ceremony will have a narrative, unfolding like a play in which awards are given as part of the plot. Some of the industry's biggest stars (many of them aimed at younger fans) drop in for guest roles, but the producers have tried to keep them hush-hush, going so far as to sneak some in through the Kodak Theatre's loading dock.

VIDEO: Hugh Jackman talks about hosting Hollywoods big night. Play

But the overall objective remains unchanged: Sneak into living rooms across America, seize the attention of movie fans, and take off with it.

Backstage, it's similar to the spirit of great teamwork movies from the past, "The Dirty Dozen," "Reservoir Dogs," or "Ocean's Eleven." Each member of the gang has a field of expertise, a specific assignment, and they all depend on one another to pull it off.

Here's a look at what could be called Oscar's 11.

The Ringleaders: Bill Condon and Laurence Mark

Assignments: Executive producer and producer

"It's time to shake it up a little bit, isn't it?" Mark says.

Dreamgirls was their big hit together: Condon directed, Mark produced.

Condon loves old Hollywood, as evidenced by "Dreamgirls" and "Gods and Monsters," his biopic about Frankenstein director James Whale. Mark is a producer of sophisticated crowd-pleasers, such as "Jerry Maguire" and "As Good As It Gets."

This is their first time overseeing the Oscars, and they are the masterminds of the plan to craft it as a combination vaudeville show and nightclub — where 24 awards just happen to be dispensed.

"We often talk about the odd hybrid that the show is," Condon says. "It is a live theater performance that is celebrating movies that is broadcast to millions of viewers."

Another goal is to honor all of the movies of 2008, including pop hits (say, "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight") that aren't among the top honorees.

Mark and Condon are also the force behind this year's riskiest move: not revealing the presenters. In past years, celebrity presenters were released bit by bit like a trail of glittery bread crumbs to lead viewers to the show.

"Somehow, to give away the entire show before you've seen the show runs the risk of being reason not to tune in," Mark says. "Why would I want to give out the entire plot before you see it?"

Adds Condon, conceding a few leaks: "Some of these things are going to be known. But we'll have kept at least, for every act, a secret or two where somebody comes out and surprises.

"And isn't that why we keep watching movies, because you want to know what happens next?"

The Faceman: Hugh Jackman

Assignment: Host

The star of "X-Men" and "The Prestige" (and People magazine's current Sexiest Man Alive) will be calling on his Broadway background as emcee.

It's his first time as Oscar host, and he's the first non-comedian to take the job solo since Jack Lemmon in 1985.

"In the opening, I can tell you right now, I'm not going to be knocking out a seven-minute stand-up monologue," Jackman says. "It's not really my bag anyway. But hopefully there'll be a few laughs."

Having been host for the Tony Awards and a star on Broadway in the musical "The Boy From Oz," he adds: "There's going to be probably a lot of singing and dancing. If I was a betting man, I'd put a lot of money on that." (A much riskier bet would be whether he dances with those Wolverine claws.)

In addition to host duties, Jackman serves as the lead in the stage-play the producers are designing around the ceremony, which they promise will have a "let's-put-on-a-show" theme. Viewers will see the event as if they were backstage making it happen, which, Jackman says, is usually more interesting anyway.

"I think you see more going on in the wings of the stage than you do in people's dressing rooms," he says. "I love watching people just before they go on. That's where you really can see people at their rawest. It's a very intensely personal moment."

He's also aiming at keeping the notoriously overlong show somewhat shorter. "I was thinking, 'Yep, gonna be shorter this year. We're going to try to make it under 3½ hours.' And you realize just how many people have promised that in the past. I feel like a politician," he says, joking: "We're going to lower taxes, too."

Ratings worry him, and he says too many imitators have worn the shine off the Academy Awards.

"Simply put, the Oscars is the epitome of showbiz," he says. "It's the night of nights. It's the night of glamour, and it's the night where I think you want to see things that you can only see at the Oscars. I think that's been missing a little bit."

The Getaway Driver: Michael Giacchino

Assignment: Orchestra conductor

As actors and actresses flow out to present awards and winners stagger joyfully up to collect their trophies, their entrances and exits will be accompanied by Giacchino's 41-piece orchestra. Those overstaying their welcome at the microphone will be driven off by a swell of his music, too.

Giacchino is another newcomer to the telecast team, but last year, he was in the seats as a rookie nominee for writing the music in "Ratatouille." He also wrote the themes for the upcoming Star Trek remake and the TV shows Lost and Fringe.

While hurrying around the Kodak Theatre days before the telecast, he was equal parts breathlessly excited — and out of breath. He's resurrecting some of Hollywood's classic theme music for the show, re-imagining the songs in a big-band style.

"My original pitch was, 'Let's take 'Lawrence of Arabia' and do it like 'Benny Goodman' would do it, like 'Sing, Sing, Sing,' and just have fun with it.' … If you're working with really good melodies, it always works."

The Inside Guy: David Rockwell

Assignment: Production designer

Rockwell is primarily known as an architect who designs restaurants, airplane terminals and children's hospitals, but from time to time, he dabbles in dressing a stage or two, most notably for the Broadway show "Hairspray."

Creating the set for the Oscars is a kind of homecoming. Rockwell also designed the Kodak Theatre, which opened in 2001 and has been the telecast's home ever since.

"I can't complain about how much space there is in the wings, of course," he says. It can get pretty tight back there, with massive pieces of scenery needing a place to be when not onstage.

This year's set is notable for its shape-shifting. Normally, a few pillars move or a staircase is slid into the center stage. But as part of the narrative idea, this year's set will become entirely different by the time the best-picture prize is awarded.

"The evening builds from the beginning to the end," Rockwell says. "The physical environment doesn't stay the same. What you'll see for orchestrations is very different from what you'll see for best actor. That ability to morph and change is most unique."

The orchestra will be onstage rather than in a pit, which, Rockwell says, removes "a kind of moat" from between the stage and the audience. He says that will help create a kind of nightclub, Coconut Grove-in-the-1930s feel.

Other aspects will be almost futuristic. In some scenes, 20 screens at a time will be moving around the stage, sometimes coalescing into one to show scenes from the nominated movies.

Says Rockwell, "The screen is almost a live special effect."

The Fixer: Michael Seligman

Assignment: Supervising producer

As far as veterans go, Seligman is as grizzled as they come.

"My dad once asked me what I did in the show, years ago, and I said, 'If anything goes wrong, it's my fault.' "

Seligman turns all the gears of the telecast, hiring and firing, coordinating logistics and grappling with assorted crises. "One second today," he says, "we were losing one of our major stars. It's a continual juggling act. I'm talking to the agents and changing the schedules" — to accommodate one person.

He has done the show for 32 years. Producers and hosts come and go, but Seligman is the Oscars' institutional memory, the warhorse. He's a traditionalist, representing the academy's interests, but he acknowledges the need for change and says this year will be a significant leap.

He doesn't hesitate to speak up. "I do have a say, and I do voice my opinions, and sometimes they like them and sometimes they don't," Seligman says with a laugh, noting that often, "they have to come back to me and beg me for something."

The Muscle: Jon Macks and Bruce Vilanch

Assignment: Comedy writers

Tucked into a back corner of the Kodak, Macks sits forlornly at a desk beneath a sign that has a piece of white tape over the "h" in his misspelled first name, while Vilanch sits next to him giggling at a dirty joke while wearing a skin-tight hot-pink Finding Nemo T-shirt.

It's possibly the saddest joke-writing room in the universe, but still somehow funny.

The success of the experimental "storytelling Oscars" rests in the hands of these veteran telecast scribes. They hope the narrative approach makes the non-celebrity awards, such as cinematography, sound design, etc., more colorful.

"When best actor comes up, those are the big ones they're waiting for," says Macks, who also has written for Jay Leno. "But how do you present other awards so people understand they're important, and make it entertaining so they'll watch? That's our job."

Another challenge is powering momentum into the celebrity patter. "It's funny because when (viewers) don't like what people say, they say, 'Oh, the writers! What lousy banter!' " Vilanch says. "And when they do like what they say …"

Mack finishes for him: " 'I wonder if they came up with that themselves? They must have!' "

The Femme Fatale: Jenny Bicks

Assignment: Comedy writer

The Academy Awards team is mostly male.

Bicks, who wrote for "Sex and the City" and who created jokes for former president Bill Clinton, is the only female scribe on a show that tends to skew heavily toward females. "It's certainly not surprising, since I wrote romance and romantic comedy," she says of her addition to the club, joking: "I'd also like to think I might bring something different to the table besides my genitalia."

Her other challenge: changing into a gown before the telecast. "All the boys just walk into a bathroom and change into a tux, but I have to find a way to put a gown on and do hair and makeup in a hallway somewhere."

Flim-Flam Man: Baz Luhrmann

Assignment: Choreography

Mr. Moulin Rouge was recruited by Jackman to devise an elaborate song-and-dance routine that includes a number of stars who surprised even the host.

"Baz has got such an eye on not only pop culture but history," Jackman says. "Every person we have called has been up for it."

The operatic Luhrmann is their confidence man, the host adds, but first he had to find his own. "He had just finished the press tour for 'Australia' when I rang him," Jackman says. "I remember the poor guy had the flu. His body was just kind of collapsing on him. I asked him, and he said, 'Mate, give me 24 hours.' And he called back and said, 'Of course! Are you kidding?' "

The Wiseguy: Judd Apatow

Assignment: Moviemaker

The "Knocked Up" and "40-Year-Old Virgin" director's contribution is one of the more mysterious pieces.

He and his team have made a short film, but the king of bromance is keeping a lid on the specifics.

"I can't give any details about the film because even the smallest detail gives the entire joke away," Apatow says. "But let's just say it is exactly what you would expect from us. I hope that is a good thing."

The concept belonged to the producers, and he claims to be just a gun for hire. "It was their idea. If it bombs, blame them," he jokes.

He's setting the bar low, about the height of your average hand puppet. "I hope the piece is half as funny as The Muppets were when they sat in the balcony and made fun of the show a few decades back," Apatow says. "If we can be almost as funny as any Muppet, we have succeeded."