On the gilded path to Oscar night
BY GINA PICCALO
The ever-affable Sandra Bullock, elegant in a red velvet dress and stilettos, was surrounded by a swarm of conspicuously underdressed journalists, leading an animated discussion about macaroons of all things. A few feet away under a crystal chandelier, “The Blind Side” director John Lee Hancock earnestly praised the actress while nearby one of the film’s producers Andrew Kosove gushed about having a “film in Oscar contention.”
Bullock’s Golden Globe win was still a few days away. And the “Oscar contention” still wishful thinking. But this bit of banal chatter is the sort of merriment that often paves the path to awards. Not that any publicist in her right mind would ever publicly admit that a couple hours of cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres in a dimly lit Beverly Hills restaurant could lead to filmmaking’s most coveted honor. Still, there seems to be a strategy that works. Hold enough of these gilded affairs, for instance, where the actors and filmmakers work the charm on select members of the press and a few gadfly Academy voters, and it can mean the difference between an Independent Spirit award and Oscar himself. At least, that’s the theory. This year, with the best picture category expanded to ten films and a complicated new vote-counting method, theories are all we’ve got.
To hear the veteran Academy members talk, scrounging up ten Oscar-worthy films is an enormous chore. Everyone seems poised to grudgingly thrust a statuette in James Cameron’s face and move on. “Filmmakers and executives are just furious and remain furious with Academy board’s decision,” said one longtime voter. “The [Academy] board has been defending its choice to everybody they run into. I just got an email from an Academy producer who is only going to nominate two films.”
Whatever. The Hollywood publicity machine loves a challenge. And at this point, that formidable force moves into what one studio Oscar consultant termed “Phase Two.” The Globes’ awards have narrowed expectations a bit. “Avatar” is the one to beat. It has two Golden Globes for best director and picture and racked up industry guild nominations for best picture (Producers Guild of America) cinematography (American Society of Cinematographers), direction (Directors Guild of America) and best original screenplay (Writers Guild of America). The Academy ballots are due Saturday. Two weeks from today (TUESDAY, Jan. 19), the Oscar nominations will be announced.
And then it’s all just a glittering downhill slalom to March 7. “It’s like the Tour de France,'” said the studio Oscar consultant. “You have to reserve your energy for the post-Oscar nomination part of the race. You’re asking yourself, ‘What else can we do? What else can we do again?'”
Sure, news of the starving Haitian earthquake victims, coupled with our nation’s 10% unemployment rate dampens the mood a bit. There have been reports of more semi-private parties, more filmmaker Q&As. The Hollywood Reporter last month declared it “no longer cool to throw a splashy, public event to hype an Oscar contender.”
And publicists are finding their jobs especially tough this year, because as one Oscar consultant put it, no one wanted to “spend the money, effort, and time to campaign a film that would conceivably be the seventh or eight or ninth nominee.” (Yet, with a broader best picture category, many more filmmakers expected to have a shot.)
“Moon” director Duncan Jones wasn’t one of the lucky ones. He angrily Tweeted in late December that Sony had omitted screeners of his film from its awards season packet send out to voters. “They say it costs too much for our little film,” he wrote. In desperation, he launched an online petition — seeking an Oscar nomination for the film’s star Sam Rockwell. It now has more than 3,700 signatures. (We’re big fans, Sam, but don’t hold your breath.)
For the top contenders, though, there appears to be plenty of time and money to go around. Studios still rely on the trades to run their “For Your Consideration” ads. According to the Los Angeles Times’ Tom O’Neil, each studio spent $200,000 just to send screeners to the entire 94,000-person Screen Actors Guild membership in an attempt to give their nominees a leg up.
Just last week, even Magnolia Pictures’ little documentary “Food Inc.” had scheduled a party at the upscale Italian restaurant, Campanile. And there have been no shortage of events honoring Jane Campion’s indie costume drama “Bright Star.”
Then there was that swag-bag faux-pas last month at the “Brothers” event held by Relativity Media chief Ryan Kavanaugh in which party-goers, including Hollywood Foreign Press members and celebrity Academy voters, were given Blu-Ray players and DVDs of Maguire’s Oscar entry “Brothers.” (The next day, the HFP members returned the players. But that didn’t stop at least one disgruntled competitor tattling to Nikki Finke that it was the gifts, not Maguire’s publicist Kelly Bush’s relentless lobbying that got Maguire his Globe nomination.)
Harvey Weinstein and Universal Pictures meanwhile haven’t exactly scrimped on promoting “Inglourious Basterds.” Producer Lawrence Bender held a big, star-studded party at his home for the film. Then a swank DVD release screening was held at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema, complete with cute girls dressed as WWII era movie ushers. Before the film, Tarantino showed a series of specially edited “trailers” from old films that had inspired him to make “Basterds.” Later, guests went to the nearby Grace restaurant, which was turned into a vintage lounge complete with schnapps bar and DJ Bizzy spinning records.
Back at Bullock’s low-key soiree at the Il Cielo restaurant, her “Blind Side” co-star Quinton Aaron couldn’t entirely believe his luck.
“It’s been interesting,” said Aaron, who had apparently hit hard times after a couple small film roles in Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind” and the Channing Tatum movie “Fighting.” “A year ago today, I was living in a house with no food, no water, no lights.”
He towered over the rest of the crowd, beaming about the night before at the premiere of “The Book of Eli.” Rosario Dawson had hugged him. Gary Oldman congratulated him. He got a picture with Denzel Washington. Best of all, he stood eye-to-eye with Magic Johnson. “We’re almost the same height,” he said.
“I’ve watched ‘Entourage,'” Aaron said, referencing HBO’s comedy. “But to actually be in the moment and be the main reason for people coming to something. It’s almost indescribable.”