LOS ANGELES - With less than a week to go before the Academy Awards, the Dolby Theatre in the heart of Hollywood is on lockdown. Guards stand at every door, and handlers with walkie-talkies keep a close eye on any visitors.
Neil Meron, who is producing the Oscar show for the second time with partner Craig Zadan, hopes a careful blend of secrecy and teasing — topped with some of the tightest races in recent Oscar memory — makes the 86th Academy Awards a lure that viewers can't resist.
"The Oscars is like sports," he said, sitting in host Ellen DeGeneres' empty dressing room, a Starbucks cup in hand. "It is sports to lots and lots of people, because you don't know who's going to win. You have rooting interest. And then we have halftime entertainment throughout."
Some of that entertainment has been announced, and some only hinted at. DeGeneres is returning as host after making her Oscar debut in 2007 and she's had a close hand in the writing process, Meron said.
"Like us coming back for the second time, she comes back also with confidence in knowing what the job entails," he said. "And she will be a host in the best sense of the word, in terms of being very present for the entire show."
U2, Pharrell Williams, Karen O and Idina Menzel are slated to perform the nominated original songs. Bette Midler and Pink are also set to perform, though producers haven't said exactly what.
"That's part of the tease," Meron said. "Why give it away? We want people to see what (they're) going to do."
He and Zadan were both lauded and lambasted for their first Oscar show in 2013. The ratings jumped by more than a million viewers from the previous year, many in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, but some found host Seth MacFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" shtick sexist and distasteful.
"We examined everything that we did last year, which was a very big show that we were very proud of," Meron said. "I think this year we are less daunted by the size of it and... by how much the show means, how big the audience is, how much people care about it. So what you learn is to just focus on trying to do the best show, and try to shut all of that out."
The production duo's concept for this year's telecast includes a multi-part tribute to movie heroes. Special presentations will honor animated heroes, those from real life (such as Nelson Mandela) and popular heroes, "like the superheroes: the Supermans, the Avengers and the Indiana Joneses and the Harry Potters," Meron said. "People have an emotional connection to those characters that have moved them, so that's something that we want to celebrate."
Adding to the show's intrigue this year are tighter-than-usual races, including those for best picture and supporting actress. Jennifer Lawrence ("American Hustle") and Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave") have each won honors in the latter category. "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" are also up for best picture — a prize each claimed at the Golden Globes — along with "Gravity," which won top awards from the directors and producers guilds. Other contenders in the category are "Dallas Buyers Club," featuring actor and supporting actor front-runners Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, "The Wolf of Wall Street," ''Captain Phillips," ''Nebraska," ''Philomena" and "Her."
With so many secrets and teases and moving parts, Meron said he and Zadan are subsisting on caffeine. "Thank God for the little green mermaid," said Meron, adding that putting on the Oscar show is like mounting a Broadway production.
"This is out-of-town previews, opening and closing night, all at the same time," he said. "It is an enormous responsibility. It really is. And actually, it's an enormous honor, especially to be asked back again... It was not something that we had planned on, but when we were offered the opportunity to come back, we discussed it and said, 'Yeah!' Just for the reason it's good to see what a second time would be like."
Anyone who wants to find out has to tune in March 2.