When it comes to awards season, the luncheons take the cake. AFI Awards lunch, usually around the first Friday in January, is always a warm affair where everyone in the room is a winner, and today’s annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon had the same good-feeling vibe as it always does. Each year’s class of nominees gets to catch up with one another, take a class photo and get their official nomination certificate before heading off to the rest of their day, or more interviews with press. The fact is, the campaign still goes on and ballots don’t even go to voters until Thursday.
“Am I supposed to be talking to you?”The Two Popes Best Actor nominee Jonathan Pryce asked as he exited the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland after the lunch and tried to follow the instructions of a publicist who has set up interviews for him (along with other contenders) as part of the massive press coverage this event gets. That is not only valuable for ABC’s show itself but also nominees for the industry’s most important and visible award. “Actually I have nothing left to say,” he laughed, something a lot of nominees are probably feeling at this point after five months on the circuit (for some of them who started in Telluride like Pryce). And this is actually a short season, with the Oscars coming February 9 — less than two weeks away and a couple of weeks earlier than usual.
Oscar show producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain made the obligatory plea to the gathered nominees to keep their acceptance speech from announcement of their name to wrap-up to just one minute. “We really don’t want to play you off,” Allain said. They also urged the future winners to say something meaningful; that is a common refrain you hear every year at this event from producers who, like these two Oscar producing first-timers, have promised to bring the broadcast in at three hours (which never happens, but you gotta try, right?).
At the cocktail reception before the lunch, I tried to get some info about their plans for the show by predicting how it was going to open. “If I had to guess, I bet you have Elton John kicking it off,” I said about the chance of an upbeat musical number to begin the telecast, much like Queen did last year and Justin Timberlake did a couple of years ago with his nominated “get up and dance” song from Trolls. John’s irresistible Rocketman tune (“I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” would seem to fit the bill, but — knowing how to keep a secret — Howell Taylor didn’t offer me a single indication of what was going to happen, so we’ll just have to wait and see. The producer, who was in the house last year as a Best Picture nominee for A Star Is Born, did say they were trying to take the Oscar show forward with some innovation mixed in with tradition and what it always has stood for. In other words, it will be a balancing act respecting Oscars of the past while bringing the show into the future at the same time. “Right after we’re done here, I am going downstairs, getting into my jeans and going back to work,” she promised.
Indeed, this was the first Oscar lunch ever to take place at the same facility where the show itself will be broadcast. This room was where the season got going in style with the Governors Awards in October and will be where it officially ends with the Governors Ball. The Academy felt that with the shortened season, it needed to be closer to the action of the show’s production and decided to move the nominees lunch — which started in 1982 from an idea by former President Richard Kahn — from its normal perch at the Beverly Hilton to Hollywood & Highland. The setup with its long tables, much like the Governors Awards, was more conducive to mingling, which is basically what everyone was doing.
The plant-based main course was another new innovation. Too bad Best Actor front-runner Joaquin Phoenix — who pushed the environmentally friendly idea at earlier awards this year including the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice and SAG Awards — was unable to attend. He would have loved the roasted maitake mushroom mixed with forbidden black rice, winter squash, cauliflower and red curry. Documentary Branch Governor Rory Kennedy, who is among those Academy officials spearheading this change, told me it is a much wider AMPAS initiative, which was explained in an email to journalists today that emphasized the Academy is committed to helping the planet by reducing its carbon imprint and that for the past seven years the Oscar show has had a “net zero carbon imprint.” Kennedy also noted that the Academy are eliminating plastic bottles from all of its events, the Governors Ball menu will be 70% plant-based, and all four AMPAS buildings including the upcoming museum will be “eco-conscious.”
Speaking of that upcoming Academy Museum, which is promised to open this year, the new and returning director Bill Kramer was at the lunch and told me he couldn’t be more excited to be back to bring the long-gestating project to completion. He’s promising a lot of new initiatives in terms of actual content and will be retooling the previously announced opening events and exhibitions in ways that will really benefit the mission of the museum and launch it in a way that will be memorable and appeal to the public as well as the industry. This is one I can’t wait for, and after talking to him, I am more excited than ever about what they are cooking up.
As the luncheon started, I filed a story chronicling the opening words of new AMPAS President David Rubin about the tragic helicopter accident that took the lives of Kobe Bryant, one of his daughters and seven others and the moment of silence that began today’s event. It was especially poignant since I well remember Kobe sitting at the table next to me just two years ago when he was nominated (and later won) for his animated short Dear Basketball. He got the biggest applause in the room that day, as I recall.
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After that tribute, Rubin lightened the mood a little with his transition to the event at hand. “I have been President for 174 days, and no sign of impeachment,” he said. Rubin later told me he was conscious of not getting political at an event that is meant to celebrate the nominees but thought he would throw in that one joke. “This room is a mind-blowing center full of talent, creativity, passion and a drive to tell stories for a medium we love,” he said. Rubin talked of the many activities AMPAS is involved in besides the Oscars and noted the global nature of the organization, the new museum, the drive for diversity, the Gold Mentor program and much more.
In the lottery to determine where journalists sit, I drew Table 17, which showed the breadth and depth of this year’s nominees. It included screenwriter Larry Karaszewski and composer Laura Karpman representing the Board of Governors; Greg Butler, a Visual Effects nominee for 1917; Jeremy Clapin, director of Animated Feature nominee I Lost My Body; Cynthia Erivo, Best Actress and Song nominee for Harriet; David Giammarco, Sound Mixing nominee for Ford v Ferrari; Damien Megherbi, Live Action Short nominee for Nefta Football Club; Joanna Natasegara, Documentary Feature nominee for The Edge of Democracy; Amy Pascal, producer of Best Picture nominee Little Women; Lawrence Sher, Best Cinematography nominee for Joker; and Quentin Tarantino, a triple nominee for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino showed off his usual enthusiasm for movies of all stripes as he talked to us about possibly doing some film reviews of classic movies for the Rotten Tomatoes site and traded stories about what he has seen since the 1970s and where he saw it. “I can tell you the exact theatre and what I saw for everything,” he said, which especially interested me since we lived in the same area of L.A. and went to the same theaters.
Misery Oscar winner Kathy Bates was thrilled to pick up her Supporting Actress nomination certificate for Richard Jewell ” It’s really hard to get an Oscar nomination,” the four-time nominee told me when I ran into her as she was leaving the lunch. Renee Zellweger came over to say hi. She will be off to BAFTA by week’s end. Netflix’s Scott Stuber was talking proudly about being there with a variety of movies from The Irishman to Marriage Story to The Two Popes and many more that made the streamer the leading distributor in terms of nominations. I told Robert De Niro he won the day’s prize for most enthusiastic applause when his name was called for the class photo as a producer of The Irishman. Well he is De Niro after all. Bong Joon Ho and Tarantino also were high on that applause meter, but there was love in the room for so many. Always hard to tell what that means in terms of indications of winners, but this was a place crawling with voters, obviously.
Laura Dern, Greta Gerwig, 11-timer (!) Diane Warren — who is now the most Oscar-nominated woman without a win but told me she remains eternally hopeful — Joker composer Hildur Guonadottir and her director Todd Phillips and many others talked about the trail they have been on for the past five months and our meetings along the way. Charlize Theron told me it was her mother’s birthday today, and she brought her with her for a unique present not many can give their mothers.
Both Noah Baumbach and newly crowned DGA winner Sam Mendes smiled about the many times it seems we keep running into each other on this circuit. “I guess I am the Zelig of awards season,” I said. “But only in the best places,” Mendes laughed. Neon’s Tom Quinn is thrilled that his young company has not only the phenomenon Parasite but also the extraordinary, history-making Documentary Feature and International Film dual nominee Honeyland, adding up to eight nominations overall. He also just flew in from Sundance, where Neon picked up one of the hot titles, Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs, which got great reviews. “We teamed with Hulu, so we were able to team our resources to acquire it together,” he said of the movie, which could be the Sundance title drawing the biggest price tag this year.
You get the idea. Now in its 38th year, the Oscar nominees lunch is one of the best ideas the Academy ever had, and it proves there are no winners and losers, only a highly deserving group of filmmakers in a very special club.
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