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Hey kids, let’s put on an Oscar show

Gil Cates gathers the team for the first production meeting
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hands shot up as producer Gil Cates polled about 200 co-workers on which of them had at least 15 Academy Awards shows under their belts.

“Susan Futterman, get your hand down,” Cates jokingly told the woman in charge of the five-second delay on ABC’s Feb. 27 telecast.

“Twenty years?” Cates asked, setting six arms in motion. “My God, Susan’s still got her hand up.”

“Twenty-five years?” he said. “Susan STILL has her hand up.”

Futterman dropped out at the 28-year mark, leaving one 30-year veteran as the winner. Applause rang out from the group seated among nine rows of gold-padded chairs in the Kodak Theatre lobby.

It was the first production meeting for the 77th annual Academy Awards show, a chance for everyone to get on the same page — make that lots of pages — from Cates and director Louis J. Horvitz to the makeup man, city fire marshal and even the parking guys.

Each worker at the Tuesday morning session received an inch-thick notebook with key names and numbers, a show rundown, and other details of the production, which this year will be especially complicated as Cates tries some new tricks to boost TV ratings.

Academy Award veteransCates, who’s producing his 12th Oscar show, presided over the meeting like a dictator — a benevolent one, anyway. A microphone was passed around so everyone from what he called the “Class of 77” could introduce themselves.

“I’m Gil’s intern,” piped up a young man in the front. Cates urged him to stand up and acknowledge the crowd.

And so it went, name after name, like the first day of school. There were the usual jokers sprinkled in the rows. One man called himself “perennial optimist.” Another described his job as “executive knob turner.” A guy in the back called himself “power maven.”

When Futterman — the decency-delay maven — took her turn at the mike, Cates and Horvitz didn’t delay in unleashing a few choice expletives, prompting laughter from the very unoffended group.

Actually, Futterman’s title is director of broadcast standards and practices for ABC. Her job? Make sure nothing offensive — especially from salty first-time host Chris Rock — goes out over the air during the Oscar telecast.

“I’ve really been trying to figure out whether after 28 years I should just resign today or wait to be fired the morning after,” Futterman told the group. “Because I figured the only way I’m going to keep my job for 30 years is for Chris to develop laryngitis.”

“No, wait to resign,” Cates said, triggering another outburst of laughter.

Then it was down to business, with Cates describing designer Roy Christopher’s set — which juts boldly out and over the audience — as a “technological marvel,” designed to blur traditional stage lines.

“Assuming that it works,” Cates cracked, “it’s going to be an extraordinary evening.”

Behind Cates and Horvitz stood a large board shrouded in black that outlined the order of the awards. Not listed were winners’ names (voting still in progress) and the celebrity presenters (still being wrangled).

Big changes in the works“The way we’re going to do the show in many areas is different,” Cates told his co-workers, including his unorthodox plan to present some Oscars in the audience and others with all the nominees on stage.

Cates’ ideas are executed by Horvitz, a nine-year Oscarcast veteran who demands perfection.

“I stack the deck with ‘A’ players, so the comfort zone is high,” Horvitz said afterward. “We do drill like a professional squadron of soldiers.”

But Horvitz can’t control everything, and for years — long before Janet’s malfunction — Disney-owned ABC has quietly imposed an audio and video delay on the Oscars, which unlike other award shows, goes out live to all time zones.

“We are very cautious. We are the Disney channel,” Futterman said after the meeting.

And this year with Rock? “It scares me to death,” she said.

Although she’s never worked with the comic, Futterman is already quite familiar with his provocative material — she uses a tape of his cable specials to train young editors on how to work the delay button.

“You never trust comedians,” Futterman said. “The second people you don’t trust are musicians,” referring to the street-level banter typical of music award shows.

But Carol Leifer, one of Rock’s stable of writers who attended the production meeting, wonders what all the fuss is about.

“Chris is a pro,” said Leifer, who wrote for “Seinfeld.” “He’s trying to be himself, that’s what they hired him for, but he’s also very aware that it’s the biggest gig around. He knows what he’s doing.”

Rock wasn’t at the meeting.