“Storytellers, welcome,” said AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale as he opened the AFI Awards 2013 luncheon today. “We open each AFI gathering with a single word: ‘Relax’. You have won. Each of you, and more importantly, all of you, because here you are one community of artists gathered in this room for what we hope to be a bit of respite from your job, but not from your work. Gone from this moment are the ratings, and red carpets and box office and all that you have to endure to sell art. Our goal is nothing short of epiphany, that you feel proud when you consider the compendium and see your place in it”. Gazzale’s welcome came before what appeared to be all of the heavy hitters currently running Hollywood as well as 20 tables full of artists repping AFI’s choices for the year’s Top Ten movies (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Fruitvale Station, Gravity, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks, The Wolf Of Wall Street) and Top Ten TV programs (The Americans, Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, The Good Wife, House Of Cards, Mad Men, Masters Of Sex, Orange Is The New Black, Scandal, Veep).
For my money , this is the most relaxing and fun awards event of the year. There are no losers, no acceptance speeches, only good vibes. And if you want to network, this is the A-list networking opportunity of the season. Where else are you going to find just about every studio head in the same room including Sony’s Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton, Warner Bros’ Kevin Tsujihara, Fox’s Jim Gianopulos, Disney’s Alan Horn, Paramount’s Brad Grey, and Fox Searchlight’s Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula? They were mixing it it up with the TV side including CBS’ Les Moonves (who also was there for CBS Films’ Inside Llewyn Davis), Fox’s Peter Rice and FX’s John Landgraf, and AMC’s Charlie Collier among many others including new kid on the block Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, who had two shows among the Top Ten, House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. It was his first time to this party and he was impressed. Oh, and did I mention both directing icons Martin Scorsese (with Wolf Of Wall Street) and Steven Spielberg (repping FX’s The Americans) were there, but quite frankly just about everyone in this room at the Four Seasons Hotel was someone. Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs was also taking it all in and told me how she’s suddenly getting lots of calls after it was announced earlier today she would be delivering news of Oscar nominations next Thursday with Thor aka Chris Hemsworth. She’s excited to say the least.
What’s really great too are the specially chosen clips of each selection shown to the crème de la crème of this particular awards season. Everyone can be a fan. Among the TV clips (introduced by Rich Frank, who chaired that committee) there were several crowd favorites, but HBO’s Veep with a hilarious Julia Louis-Dreyfus walking through a glass door brought the house down. A great scene from Mad Men with Jon Hamm was also a highlight. When is this guy finally going to win an Emmy for Don Draper? C’mon TV Academy. Hamm told me he’s very excited about his upcoming May release from Disney, Million Dollar Arm, in which he plays a baseball scout who finds a top prospect in Mumbai. Disney’s production head Sean Bailey came over and only had high praise for the movie which is currently being scored by Oscar-winner A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire). Bailey, there as part of the studio’s Saving Mr. Banks contingent, also told me about their Christmas film for 2014, Rob Marshall’s screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into The Woods. They were excited about having Meryl Streep in the cast, and he said she was a total pro. She gets to sing a new song specially written for the film for her by Sondheim (which she told me a few weeks ago was the highlight of her career).
As for AFI Top Tene’r Saving Mr. Banks, star Emma Thompson was there as well as 85-year-old Mary Poppins composer Richard Sherman, who was having a great time. “This is such a fun event. Everyone’s so calm. I’ve never been before,” he told me. Director John Lee Hancock was also there and hoped to catch up with his Blind Side Oscar winner Sandra Bullock sitting one table away. I walked in same time as Bullock and this was her first time at the event. “I’m used to doing these things at night. I can prepare for that. I’m not used to seeing this kind of thing in the middle of the day,” she said as we both made it through the crush of people before the lunch began. Her Gravity producer David Heyman said this was also his first time at this soiree (despite having produced eight Harry Potter films) but was sanguine about the good fortune his film has been receiving so far this season. In fact, he used a word within his film’s title to describe the feeling. “It’s all gravy, ” he said, a sentiment Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron also echoed when I caught up with him on the way out.
Hamm was there with the Mad Men contingent which has now wrapped five episodes of its penultimate season (actually they are splitting Season 7 over two years a la what AMC did so successfully with the finale of Breaking Bad). Show creator Matt Weiner said this was his eighth AFI lunch (he was here with The Sopranos, too) and that it is his favorite event of each season. Another veteran of AMC, Breaking Bad executive producer Mark Johnson — who is also chair of the Academy’s Foreign Language committee — told me they started the process of picking those final five nominees this morning at 10 AM with a specially chosen committee of 20 prominent Academy members in LA and 10 in New York seeing all nine finalists and making the big decisions. Among those voting he said will be actor Tommy Lee Jones and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
The American Hustle team was out in full force with stars Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams joining Pascal, the producers and director David O. Russell at their table. “This is just a blessing to be here,” said Russell who is at the AFI luncheon with a Top Ten choice for the third time in four years after 2010’s The Fighter and 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook both made the cut. Also with Sony at the Captain Phillips table was SAG, Globe and Critics Choice Best Supporting Actor nominee Barkhad Abdi, who was just in from his home in Minnesota and really enjoying the difference in the weather. He is this season’s “it” boy but seemed to be taking it all in stride when we said hello. Of course, co-star Tom Hanks was there enjoying two of the Top Ten (in addition to Banks).
It was hard to take it all in. In one corner was Nebraska’s Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Alexander Payne while in another there was 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and writer John Ridley, who during the long wait for cars afterward told me he’s excited by all this attention just so he can take his wife down some of these red carpets. He’s thrilled at the success of Slave and said it is going wide in 1500 theatres the day after Oscar nominations. The devastating clips shown from it as well as Fruitvale Station proved AFI wasn’t pulling any punches in demonstrating the emotional and wrenching range of some of this year’s honorees.
In fact the final word was left to Shirley MacLaine, a former AFI Life Achievement recipient, who was chosen to give the event’s annual benediction and introduced by Gazzale to a standing ovation. “That’s the nicest reception I have had in 500,000 years,” she said to big laughs. She gave several inspiring words about being in the industry for 65 years and sharing the kind of artistry that most in the room also share. “I know we love what we do. We love it without reason. We love it sometimes without meaning. We love it with non-security and certainly without safety…I don’t think there’s any business or any art or any form of human expression that’s more important than movies and as I have traveled around the world I have found this to be really true…I want to say for my long time and my appreciation for this year’s artists it really has been such agonizing fun,” she said in leading a toast.
As a kickoff to a weekend of awards craziness, you couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a civilized afternoon.