In my book, the “feel good” event of awards season is, was and forever will be the annual AFI Awards luncheon. This year’s model was held today at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to honor AFI’s top 10 movies and TV shows of the year. As AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale said in his opening remarks: “Fair warning: This is a campaign-free zone” — and indeed it was. Each of the honored films and shows had their own table (which Gazzale noted none of them had to pay for, unlike other events of this kind, thanks to sponsors like Audi and American Airlines), and there were no acceptance speeches, not one. As Gazzale said the only “thank yous” would come from AFI to the filmmaking community for their work this year.
The luncheon is rather easy to cover in that regard, since you don’t have to jot down a lot of heartfelt acceptance speeches or relive it all on your Olympus digital recorder in the middle of the night. Such a great event, it really is all about these achievements we get to see again through extremely well-chosen clips and a great opening montage. Gazzale noted proudly that there are 39 graduates of the AFI Conservatory among the creative ensembles being honored, and he proceeded to run through an impressive list of names connected to these honored works. (The full list of film and TV honorees is here.)
In an unusual move, the AFI also gave a Special Award to Mad Men, which had been on the list for each of its seasons — making it, as AFI Vice-Chair Richard Frank said in presenting the TV winners: “The most celebrated show in AFI history. A true cultural touchstone for which we give a two-martini toast.” Creator Matt Weiner and star Jon Hamm were among those present for the tribute. In my years of covering this event, I can think of no other precedent for this kind of treatment. “I have been coming to this lunch year after year, and it really is overwhelming to have this kind of honor,” Weiner told me before the ceremony began.
The AFI Awards always draws a who’s who of the industry, and this year notables making the scene included AFI Board of Trustees Chair Sir Howard Stringer and Board of Directors Chair Bob Daly; MPAA chief Chris Dodd; 20th Century Fox’s Jim Gianopulos and Stacey Snider; Universal’s Ron Meyer, Donna Langley and Jeff Shell; Disney’s Bob Iger; Paramount’s Brad Grey; Harvey Weinstein; Netflix’s Ted Sarandos; ICM’s Chris Silbermann; Open Road’s Tom Ortenberg; and Warner Bros.’ Kevin Tsujihara and Greg Silverman, among others. I ran into Silverman, who walked in with Tsujihara just moments before Deadline broke the news that he had just re-upped with the studio.
Fox’s Peter Rice sat with the Empire table right next to series co-creator Danny Strong. FX’s John Landgraf told me this year’s The Americans and Fargo represent the 12th and 13th shows he has been to this luncheon with. He’s also very high on the upcoming longform series, American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson, which debuts next month. He had nothing but praise for it. Long after it ended Landgraf, Sarandos, Weiner and Gazzale were huddled in a corner talking, but there was lots of networking throughout the afternoon.
I ran into 9-year-old Room star Jacob Tremblay. who looked kind of glum during the arrivals hour but quickly brightened up when Steven Spielberg came by to praise his performance and take a photo with him. His father told me he has been in so many of these “rooms” lately that he isn’t quite sure which is which. Join the club, Jake, but I can tell you this was the place to be. Spielberg was in a great mood, having just gotten word his Bridge Of Spies co-led the list of BAFTA nominations with nine. It tied with Carol, and its star Cate Blanchett and director Todd Haynes were among those on hand to represent the movie. I told her I thought she was hilarious on last night’s Jimmy Kimmel show, where she told the host the guest bathrooms were awful. “Yes, but then they showed a photo of one and it didn’t look nearly as bad on TV. I can tell you they were awful,” she laughed.
The Big Short’s Adam McKay, surrounded by his cast including Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Jeremy Strong, clearly was over the moon about his BAFTA nom for Best Director as well as Best Picture.
Producer Mark Johnson, who chairs the Academy’s Foreign Language Film committee, had just come from starting the final round of voting taking place this weekend in Los Angeles, New York and London. Viewing and voting on the nine finalists, which will be whittled down to five, takes place today through Sunday for the elite group of notables. “We have a stellar group doing this including Darren Aronofsky, Bennett Miller, Richard LaGravenese in New York, Donald Sutherland in L.A.,” he said — reeling off a stellar list of names I couldn’t even keep track of.
As we were leaving, AFI Chair Tom Pollock — who, like Frank did with TV, handled the “reading of the rationales” for movies — caught up with Spielberg and Star Wars star of the box office universe J.J. Abrams (he was getting praise from everyone, to the point Spielberg told him, “I will be sure to tell George”). Spielberg told Pollock how excited he was about John Williams receiving the upcoming AFI Life Achievement Award in June. Pollock noted it was the first time anyone other than an actor or director had been voted the prestigious honor. Turning to me, Spielberg said, “This is one you have got to be covering for Deadline.” No worries about that. I can’t wait. I think Williams is likely to get his incredible 50th Oscar nomination this year for the score to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We will know next week. Gianopulos said as he was leaving, “It’s getting close.” But it seems like an eternity waiting,” he noted about learning the fate of his films at next week’s Oscar nom announcement.
Before it was all over, Gazzale brought on legendary screenwriter Robert Towne for the annual benediction. He received a standing ovation as he passed along some sage advice about finding your way into doing something of quality, pointing out a story about how the Epsteins finally came up with an ending for Casablanca, which was stumbling through production. They were in a car rounding a bend, looked at each other and said at the same time, “Round up the usual suspects.”
It was a great afternoon and will, as usual, be hard to top this awards season.