It's a typical sunny Southern California afternoon outside of the temporary office of the 2015 Academy Awards in Los Angeles. The atmosphere inside the building, however, is nothing like the easy-breezy weather outside. Workers rush by, preparing for the rapidly approaching live telecast this Sunday, as a sense of urgency pulsates through the halls.
But when I’m whisked away to speak with producing duo Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, their warm, even-tempered manner takes over; never mind the flurry of work and whirlwind pressure to make the Oscars telecast a hit for the third consecutive year.
These are obviously two men doing exactly what they love.
As we sit down in a quiet corner conference room, Zadan shares one of his favorite childhood memories of the Oscars.
“When I was a really young kid, I lived in Queens and I used to take the subway in to Manhattan on Saturdays to see Broadway matinees,” he says as a wide grin spreads across his face. “One of the very first shows I saw was Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand, and I’ll never forget when she won the Best Actress award [in 1969] for her role in that film. She picked up that Oscar, in that stunning outfit, and said, ‘Hello, gorgeous.’ I remember that as though it were yesterday, because that’s the moment I knew I was a fan of the Oscars.”
It’s that personal sort of memory that likely resonates with numerous gay men who began their own love affairs with the Academy Awards in similar fashion. Affectionately referred to as the “Gay Super Bowl” by many of its LGBT fans, the Oscars have long been an annual event celebrated by the queer community, and Meron doesn’t hesitate to explain why.
“Our community has always been at the forefront of acknowledging the arts and this is like the Olympics of the arts,” he says. “Everybody turns it out, and of course there’s also the excitement of who is going to win, but ultimately the Oscars is about glamour and excellence in the arts. It’s everything our community loves rolled into one night of entertainment.”
But under Meron and Zadan, the Oscars telecast has become more than a beloved piece of pop culture for gay fans. Last year marked the second stint as host for Ellen DeGeneres, the first out LGBT person to ever host the event, and she earned the Oscars its highest ratings in 14 years. Now with Neil Patrick Harris being the first out gay man to step into the role, this year’s telecast is set to make history once more.
However, not everyone has reacted positively to the news.
“The morning this year’s nominations were announced, we spoke to a journalist from Japan and I remember he had a look on his face that seemed to say, Is this really happening? when he pointed out that we’d had two gay hosts in successive years and asked if that was a problem,” Meron says. “I simply responded by telling him that a person’s sexuality has nothing to do with how good a host they are, and that’s the truth. Because while we’re fortunate that our choices in the past two years have been prominent members of the LGBT community — and being members of that community ourselves, there’s certain sense of pride going forward with the hosts we hired — it never informed our decision.”
But Meron and Zadan, who have been professional partners since 1976, say the criticism they’ve received for hiring LGBT hosts two years in a row is minimal compared to the backlash they experienced after Seth MacFarlane marched across the Oscars stage singing “We Saw Your Boobs” during the 2013 telecast.
Meron adds, “What’s really interesting about that is, when we looked at the minute-by-minute analysis the Academy does each year measuring how people react to the show, we found the country as a whole loved the boob song and Seth. Their number 1 complaint was the appearance of Michelle Obama as a presenter because they felt politics were brought in. But in the media and the Hollywood community it was the boob song that was the most divisive. That only proves the media and certain aspects of the community are disconnected from what the public enjoys.”
That enjoyment is one of the main reasons Zadan says he and Meron agreed to produce the show for a third time, and he hopes it will be remembered as the biggest impact the two have had on the Oscars legacy.
“If you look at previous Oscars shows and the amount of entertainment, it’s minimal,” he says. “We took each show and jam-packed it with performances. We brought back a sense of entertainment, which not only resulted in higher ratings, but also fun for those attending. Previous to our time, people didn’t want to go to the show unless they were nominated. But since we’ve taken over, demand for tickets is through the roof because people want to see these performers live.”
“There’s a misconception that once you’ve had some success it gets easier, but you’re still putting in the same hours, the same work, and the same fight every single day," Zadan says. "If anything, this year is much harder than last year because we’re competing with ourselves and that previous success.”
As our allotted time nears its end, I ask both Meron and Zadan if they’d be up for the challenge of producing the Oscars for a fourth time in 2016. The two pause, exchanging a look that communicates an amount of information that could only be achieved by a decades-long working relationship like the one they share, before Zadan answers with a knowing smile.
“Most people only get asked to do this one time, and it seems impossible that the kid who watched the Academy Awards when Barbra Streisand won the Oscar for Funny Girl is now producing the Oscars for a third time, but I don’t think that’s a question that can be answered right now because it would depend on so many factors,” he says. “Ultimately, it depends on how the show turns out — not how other people think it turned out, but how we think it turned out — as well as the ratings. All that would weigh in on whether or not we’d consider coming back, and whether the Academy would ask us back.”
With that, Meron echoes the attitude of the hundreds of actors who have been Oscar nominees throughout the history of the Academy Awards when he adds, “First we’d have to be asked, and under any circumstances, it’s always an honor to be asked.”