Notes On The Season: Oscar Voting Starts; Starry AFI Awards Draws Top Contenders; ‘The Post’ & Jessica Chastain Light Up Palm Springs

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

Crunch time is upon us as it was definitely signaled by today’s hot-ticket AFI Awards lunch.

That also means Oscar polls open today with the 8500-plus eligible Academy voters starting to cast their nomination ballots for the next week until they are due back on January 12th. Perhaps that explains why there has been a tsunami of awards activity with non-stop TV, print, and billboard advertising aimed at the eyes of the Oscar deciders, particularly since this is proving to be a year with no discernible front runners. Judging from the first wave of guild nominations, including yesterday’s WGA list and today’s Producers Guild announcement, it looks like that may continue to be the case.

There was disappointment for The Post in not making the cut of the WGA’s highly competitive Original Screenplay category after also previously getting cut out of SAG’s nominations. But the film rebounded today at PGA, which pretty much covered the waterfront in terms of expected contenders and showed the wide-openness of this year’s contest, with an unprecedented 11 nominated films instead of the usual 10. It was particularly good news for Amy Pascal, experiencing a stunning comeback with two of those 11 nominations for The Post, as well as the very well-liked Molly’s Game, which is coming on strong this week as it also received WGA and ACE editing nods. I have noticed strong industry sentiment for the latter at Academy waterholes in the last few weeks. Even Wonder Woman made the list, giving it renewed momentum for a corresponding Oscar nod. But then the PGA is the one guild which often honors movies that are good and make money. Wonder Woman is looking to break through and become the first comic book movie to gain a Best Picture nomination. With its female empowerment theme, this is certainly the year to make that kind of statement.

Of course, Sunday’s Golden Globes could offer a little clarity. But the choices of the 90 -some members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association don’t always jibe with those of the Academy. Still, the Globes, coming at a key time for Oscar consideration, are undeniably influential just by the nature of the widely watched platform they offer, something that next Thursday’s Critics’ Choice Awards will also offer procrastinating Academy voters before they are forced to turn in their ballots the next day. On Thursday, the Academy sent members yet another attempt at explaining just how the preferential system of listing your choices in numerical order actually works. It is the prime source of confusion for many, no matter how many times they try to make it seem so simple. One voter called yesterday to ask me if he could just name the same single film in all ten slots, a question that further confirms, as Ricky Ricardo might say, why the Academy still has a lot of ‘splainin to do. The idea behind preferential voting is to create a “consensus” choice for Best Picture, and it is only done in that category, not any of the 23 others. It can create interesting results, which may have helped lead to recent victories of movies like Moonlight, Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, and Argo, which all won with three or fewer awards and took the top prize without an accompanying award for directing or amassing the largest number of Oscars in their given year. That’s a split that rarely used to happen, but might have been attributable to those films drawing a preponderance of #2 or #3 votes over another that may still have gotten more #1’s (only Birdman managed to pull off a more traditional win with Pic and Director in the last five years). I just don’t know why the Academy can’t dump preferential Best Picture voting and judge all 24 categories the same way, letting the chips fall where they may. Perhaps the Academy can also explain this all to me, too.


But getting to the big event for today, one that is potentially very influential and an important stop on the circuit happening right as Oscar voting begins, and that would be the AFI Awards annual luncheon at the Four Seasons, revealing their previously announced choices for the 10 Best Films and 10 Best TV Shows of 2017 with honorees all gathered together for what is unquestionably a highlight, if not the highlight, of the season. It is an event where there are no winners or losers in the room, which always has a great vibe and spirit to it. There are also no speeches, really, except the welcoming from AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale, who noted the large number of AFI alumni involved in the making of many of this year’s winners, including Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, as well as The Post co-writer Liz Hannah and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, to name a few. An invitation to the AFI lunch is as good as it gets, and it is a room that also draws some of the top industry players as well, most of them Oscar voters, so this was also the right place to be at this moment in time. Among industry honchos on hand were Universal’s Ron Meyer, Donna Langley, and Jeff Shell cheering on their Get Out; Warner Bros’ Kevin Tsujihara with Dunkirk and Wonder Woman among the chosen ten; 20th Century Fox’s Stacey Snider with The Post, as well as Searchlight’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape Of Water; Disney’s Alan Horn; NBC’s Bob Greenblatt; Fox’s Peter Rice sitting with Ryan Murphy and FX’s John Landgraf; Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard there with Call Me By Your Name, and many more. This year’s selected films were The Big Sick, Call Me by Your Name, Dunkirk, The Florida Project, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Wonder Woman. If the recent past is any guide, you can bet that at least seven of these titles will also be among Oscar’s Best Picture choices.

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Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks were there with The Post and I asked Spielberg what he thought about the Trump White House’s request to see his movie, which he agrees is actually aimed to be the antidote to fake news. “That is what I called it when I initially talked to (co-writer) Josh Singer about it. But I have had many movies shown at the White House, but I can’t say that Trump will actually see it. I don’t have a direct connection with this President, so I can’t call up and find out,” he laughed. Singer noted that White House staffer Kellyanne Conway loved the film, even as he said he didn’t dance the night away with her at the film’s premiere, as Pascal said in the press. “It was more like two minutes at most,” he added. Spielberg was wearing one of the purple ribbons the scene-stealing 7-year-old star of The Florida Project, Brooklynn Prince, was handing out to anyone who asked. It was designed to bring awareness to the homeless.

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“She’s in our next movie, The Turning, based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw,” Spielberg, a great champion of top kid talent, revealed. Prince was everywhere in this room of Hollywood heavyweights and has been charming the business since I saw her blowing kisses from the stage at Florida Project’s Cannes premiere in May. After the clip from Wonder Woman was shown, this pint-sized Wonder Woman fan was seen leaving her table to emotionally embrace Gal Gadot for several minutes. Great moment at an event where no one is competing, just cheering on each other. That is what Dunkirk’s Christopher Nolan, just back from England, said about why he likes it so much. “I have been fortunate to be here a few times and it’s the one event where there is no pressure. It’s a favorite of mine,” he told me while saying the recognition Dunkirk has been getting has been particularly satisfying.

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Timothée Chalamet, young star of Call Me by Your Name, was soaking up the celebratory feeling in the room as he sat next to co-star Armie Hammer and director Luca Guadagnino. He could become one of the youngest Best Actor nominees ever, and likely will be for a performance that has already brought him several critics’ awards. One of the film’s producers, Howard Rosenman, who worked 10 years to bring it to the screen, was reunited with Jenkins, who he claims he discovered,  and she agreed. “I was just a film student and he came up to me and said, ‘I smell money,’ and said I would be going to the Oscars one day,” she recalled about the meeting long before her film Monster went on to win an Academy Award for Charlize Theron. The Shape of Water group, including Guillermo Del Toro, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and composer Alexandre Desplat, were also in a buoyant mood. Del Toro, at the AFI lunch for only the second time, said it was his favorite, too. “I am just thrilled to be in this room, but I should have dressed better,” he laughed.

Ryan Murphy, whose Feud:Bette and Joan was among the top TV shows, told me he already knows what is going to win at the Oscars (I told him he’s probably the only one who knows at this point then) and he’s betting on Get Out, Saoirse Ronan and Chalamet. Good luck with those bets, Ryan. Who knows? Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed that Ronan performance in Lady Bird, was at her first-ever AFI lunch and seemed gobsmacked by it all. “I mean, Steven Spielberg. Steven Spielberg! Told me how much he loved my movie. This is just incredible to be here,” she said, exiting the ballroom to do yet another Q&A.

Pete Hammond/Deadline

By the way, reaction to clips from the Top Ten TV Shows was easily as strong as reaction to the very well-chosen movie clips. In addition to Feud, the small-screen honorees were Big Little Lies, The Crown, Game of Thrones, The Good Place, The Handmaid’s Tale, Insecure, Master of None, Stranger Things 2 and This Is Us. The latter pair, along with Crown and Thrones, also made the 2016 list. Richard Frank presented the list and said the jury had to comb through 500 scripted hours of television, hoping that next year there may not be quite so much good work. Good luck. Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, also at the lunch, told me they already have over 50 movies scheduled for this year, not to mention hundreds of hours of TV, including honorees like The Crown, Stranger Things 2, and Master Of None, the latter’s outrageously funny clip getting the most vocal response of anything else shown today. Beyond his own films, including Mudbound, Sarandos points to Fox Searchlight’s The Shape of Water as a personal favorite. “I’ve seen it three times already,” he enthused.

Thanks, AFI, for another memorable day, something to look forward to every year.



Spielberg told me he, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks went down to the desert Thursday night where their film, The Post, was the opening night attraction of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. “It was fun. In and out, and we even did a Q&A,” Hanks told me today. Spielberg said it was the first time for any of his films that they did a Q&A before the movie played, rather than afterwards. He gave the fest high marks even if the film has already been open two weeks (but not in Palm Springs). Actually, this was technically the third night of the fest, since it really opened with their annual awards gala on Tuesday night, the day after New Year’s.

PSIFF for Getty Images

I sat then in the cavernous Palm Springs Convention Center with the Molly’s Game and STX contingent that included star Jessica Chastain and writer/ debuting director Aaron Sorkin. Chastain, there with her husband, said she had just gotten back from the Alps on their holiday break and came straight to this event. “I think it is something like 4AM my time right now,” she said, though you would never know it. She was wide awake and in high spirits. At the Christmas party she threw, she said she got Sorkin to actually sing “Tonight” from West Side Story after she told him a previous tenant of her New York digs was that show’s composer Leonard Bernstein. Sorkin laughed, but said he thinks the fire escapes on the side of the building might have inspired the famous images from that show. Sorkin actually presented Chastain with the Chairman’s Award, her second honor from PSIFF after receiving the Spotlight Award a few years ago. Thus, she said the fest holds a special place in her heart. Even though hers was the last to be presented in the long three-hour evening, she clearly stole the show with strong remarks that were widely reported. “It’s been a difficult year, but major change is coming. Change is good. Change is needed. Each one of us is diminished by a flawed system. We must make things better. We must be better and we will be,” she said before offering a shout-out to some men who have been instrumental in her career by saying, “We’ve heard a lot about the bad boys of Hollywood but here is to some of the good ones”, mentioning several from Del Toro to Sorkin, but first the late Dan Ireland, a great guy we all miss who put her in her first major leading role in Jolene. 

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Darkest Hour’s Gary Oldman, who won the Actor of the Year honor, also won over the crowd when he announced that he and his wife are going to be moving to Palm Springs. This was his second honor from the fest as well, and with that pronouncement, he can one day be guaranteed a third, as the audience loved it. It was actually a great night and a good Globes warm-up that including heartfelt speeches from the likes of honorees Allison Janney, Holly Hunter, Mary J. Blige, Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Guillermo Del Toro, Timothy Chalamet, Willem Da Foe, and Gal Gadot.

We might be hearing from a few of them on Sunday. On to the Globes.

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