LOS ANGELES, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Producers of Sunday's Academy Awards telecast expect the show will offer something of a break from the past with risk-taking comedian Chris Rock as host and an array of state-of-the-art graphics embedded in the set design, but the main attraction of the Oscars is still what it always has been: movie stars on display.
Rock has certainly attracted attention to the telecast with controversial comments in entertainment media interviews -- even if the controversy didn't amount to much in the end. Talk of a rebellion among voting members of the academy upset with producer Gil Cates' choice of Rock as host went nowhere.
Roy Christopher, the production designer on the Oscars telecast, said Rock's presence should send a signal that this year's show will be different.
"Right off the bat you think this could be a watershed year," said Christopher in an interview with United Press International. "Gil wanted something dynamic."
Cates also wanted the set to be different, to make the audience feel as if it is part of the show, so Christopher has designed a set that reaches into the audience more than it has in the past. This is Christopher's 15th time designing the Academy Awards show -- a semi-steady gig that has earned him 14 Emmy nominations and six Emmy Awards.
Christopher knows full well that, whatever set design he comes up with, it needs to show off the performers to their best advantage.
"Making the actors look good is our No. 1 priority," he said. "When you cut through all the stuff, you can design a stunning Academy Awards, and if it detracts from them being lit well, if it makes them feel uncomfortable or insecure in any way, you've failed."
Production values seemed to have hijacked that notion at the 1988 Academy Awards, when producer Allan Carr notoriously turned the show into a glitzy, almost campy, extravaganza. The negative criticism was blistering, but Carr also had his defenders.
As author Steve Pond wrote in his new book "The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Oscars," Carr had only been trying to pump up what had become a comfortable, but boring, annual telecast.
"At that point the Oscars had sort of been on autopilot for years," said Pond. "That show forced them to say, 'Wait a minute -- something happened here that we don't like. We need to take a closer look at this show and figure out what we want it to be."
Since then the show has mostly been in the hands of Cates and frequent host Billy Crystal -- whose acceptance by viewers and the entertainment community has been nearly universal. Pond thinks Rock might attract some extra viewers to the show this year.
"He'll bring in the curious and he'll bring in the male audience," said Pond, "which is a group they've been after for a while."
Pond thinks it is unlikely that Rock will cost the telecast many viewers -- people who might find him too raunchy, for example.
"I suspect if anybody's interested enough in the Oscars to be considering watching, Chris Rock isn't going to keep them away," he said. "They probably think that Hollywood is full of degenerates anyway."
Conventional wisdom in Hollywood holds that viewers do not tune in to see the host in any case -- they just want to see stars. It is also widely held that ratings for the telecast benefit when an enormously popular movie -- such as "Titanic" or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" -- dominates the proceedings.
Pond doesn't see that happening this year.
"I don't think the races this year are going to pull people in the way they sometimes do," he said.
Viewers who watched the Super Bowl halftime show featuring Paul McCartney might have noticed a flashy bit of technology involving TV monitors embedded in the stage floor -- showing images ranging from live shots of McCartney to action shots from the first half of the football game. Christopher's set for the Academy Awards features the same technology.
"When Nicole Kidman is walking onstage to present," said Christopher, "you'll get an overhead camera shot showing her, and a moving image of her winning her Academy Award (for "The Hours" in 2003)."
Christopher said academy officials prefer minimal public discussion of financial matters associated with the Oscars, but he said the set for Sunday's show cost about $1 million.
Regardless of the lengths the academy and ABC go to, the battle to keep ratings up for the Academy Awards seems to get tougher all the time -- particularly in an era when network ratings overall are in decline. Even if the Oscars are the top-rated awards shows of the year, Pond said the academy might want to prepare itself for even tougher times ahead.
"Certainly the academy doesn't want to be in a situation where they're finishing second to 'Joe Millionaire,'" he said.
The 77th Academy Awards will be presented Sunday at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, in ceremonies to be televised live by ABC at 8 p.m. EST.
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