AFI Awards Lunch Brings Out A-List Of Contenders

Judging by the turnout and the cool vibe in the room, today’s AFI Awards luncheon has risen to the top of must-attend award season events. The crush to get into the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom was well worth it since the people “crushing” were the likes of Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Brad Pitt, Viola Davis, George Clooney, Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and many others including executivea like Jim Gianopulos, Brad Grey, Stacey Snider and of course AFI Chairman Sir Howard Stringer who had some choice remarks in his closing speech.

This event, devoid of thank you speeches or dividing up “winners and losers” is just an old fashioned get-together in which filmmakers, execs and actors can connect, have some fish and watch some killer clip reels of what AFI deems the 10 best in both movies and TV. This year’s honorees in film were: Bridesmaids, The Descendants, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Help, Hugo, J. Edgar, Midnight In Paris, Moneyball, The Tree Of Life and War Horse. The top 10 television programs were Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, Homeland, Justified, Louie, Modern Family and Parks And Recreation.

After lunch AFI’s President and CEO Bob Gazzale opened the proceedings by remarking to the already award-weary attendees, many who have been plying the circuit for months, “I know what you’re thinking. Just what you need, another awards lunch. That’s not what this is … We are asking you to pause for a moment and consider the compendium. It’s not about you,” he said. In other words it is about the collective work of a very good year in movies and television, and by simply showing it off in an expertly assembled montage and group of clips this class of 2011 could soak in each other’s work and appreciate the real reasons they are in the race in the first place.

Rich Frank introduced the TV programs (“This is my favorite event of the year,” he said) while Leonard Maltin led the film tribute, which included two special awards to The Artist and the Harry Potter series. In fact since everything was presented in alphabetical order Maltin had to calm the crowd after the riotous first clip was shown from Bridesmaids, the scene in the wedding dress shop. Afterward producer Judd Apatow told me they always show such serious clips at events like this so it’s nice to see one where “Melissa McCarthy shits in the sink.” Apatow, clearly proud to be among the chosen 10, also told me he was going back to his office to work on some projects that might get him back in this room next year.

Clooney was especially impressed. “It’s so nice where you can just get together with people you actually admire and want to be around,” he said before adding that he was more impressed with many of the TV clips than some of the movie segments shown, an indication there was some very high quality work on display in both mediums. Breaking Bad had a particularly harrowing clip that got an audible reaction from the audience that included its creator Vince Gilligan and stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. The show’s exec producer Mark Johnson was also there and told me the three-month process of first- round judging of this year’s foreign language movies (he’s head of the Motion Picture Academy’s committee for that category) comes to an end tonight with screenings from Romania and Argentina. He said he has been impressed with many of the films. “This has been a very good year for us,” he says.

I sat at the Boardwalk Empire table next to its creator and exec producer Terry Winter who confessed he should be back writing his series which goes back into production for its third season next month. But he didn’t want to miss the AFI event. “I went to the gift shop and bought some five-hour energy drinks so I can keep writing after this.”

Disney  Chairman Rich Ross, there on behalf of DreamWorks’ The Help and War Horse told me he was extremely happy about his new marketing head Ricky Strauss (Nikki had broken the hiring earlier in the day). “I’m thrilled with Ricky. He’s  a real pro who thinks out of the box,” he said.

Sony Picture Classics’ Tom Bernard and Michael Barker sat at the Midnight In Paris table next to producer Letty Aronson and Barker was laughing harder than anyone at the clip shown between Owen Wilson and Corey Stoll who played Ernest Hemingway even though he’s probably seen it 50 times.

Viola Davis was still glowing over her Critics Choice Best Actress win Thursday night and she said co-star and supporting actress winner Octavia Spencer were really on cloud nine with everything happening to her. “I’ve been through this before and it is just as nice as the first time. It’s certainly better than the alternative,” Davis said as she passed the trio of Harvey Weinstein, Spielberg and Oscar show producer Brian Grazer who were deep in conversation just outside the ballroom doors.

After all the clips were shown Gazzale brought up Stringer for his closing remarks. “Distinguished guests — and George Clooney. Actually Brad Pitt told me to say that,” he said before addressing Weinstein. “The Social Network. Harvey,if you are still out there you remember Social Network don’t you?”, referring to the battle royal between that film from Sony (in which Stringer obviously had an interest) and Weinstein’s The King’s Speech which swooped in and won Best Picture over early favorite Network. “Actually we know no one loves movies more than you, Harvey. The ballots are due this afternoon and I love the Oscars too so congratulations … There are no winners or losers here. Being the Chair of AFI has been an honor,” he said before singling out past AFI Life Achievement winners Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese — all in the audience and all with films on AFI’s top 10 list years after that career honor. And that’s what it, and this awards lunch, was really all about. The work.

  1. I worked at AFI for ten years and this was the one event I never got a chance to go to. Sounds like its getting better and better!

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