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Things I Learned on the Oscar Party Circuit

Things I Learned on the Oscar Party Circuit

It’s been quite a week. Oscar parties are in full swing. This is the period when Oscar campaigners are trying to get their films seen, circulate their talent. Quentin Tarantino showed his final cut of “Django Unchained” to the Directors Guild Saturday to two standing ovations, while Peter Jackson finally unveiled “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” over the weekend in both super-sharp 48 fps and 24 fps (which is how I saw it Sunday). He’ll be making appearances in L.A. this week.

Companies brought many of their Oscar contenders to Saturday’s third annual Governors Awards, hosted by new Academy president Hawk Koch and execs Dawn Hudson and Ric Robertson. Also on hand are Oscar producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan and host Seth MacFarlane. As I enter the Dolby lobby, Kathleen Kennedy is talking with “Lincoln” writer Tony Kushner and Working Title chief Eric Fellner, who produced both “Anna Karenina” and “Les Miserables.” The live singing in close-up was a huge gamble they were never sure was going to actually work, he admitted. Heading into the ballroom, Kirby Dick is proud that his doc “Invisible War” has effected change in the rules governing the treatment of women in the military. He’s getting ready to pull the trigger on his next, one of several hot topics.

Inside, Steven Spielberg hangs out with George Lucas. Ewan McGregor comes up to Quentin Tarantino to introduce him to his young “The Impossible” costar Tom Holland. Tarantino goes to chat with Amy Pascal of Sony, which is releasing “Django Unchained” overseas–Sony and Weinstein Co. are splitting P & A costs and global returns 50/50. Joe Wright intros me to his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey (“Anna Karenina”). Bradley Cooper tells me he ardently supported the slow release plan on “Silver Linings Playbook,” as opposed to going out wide. It’s working, he says.

Kathryn Bigelow tells me that being indie was crucial to “Zero Dark Thirty” turning out as well as it did.  Financeer Annapurna’s Megan Ellison wasn’t riding herd on making the film commercial. But Bigelow’s happy she has big-studio Sony pushing it out now. Bigelow and Mark Boal went from intense final editing mix to intense public appearances–but this time they’re doing it in a more condensed time frame than “The Hurt Locker”‘s entire year. “Zero Dark Thirty” stars Jason Clarke and Edgar Ramirez are excited to be in the room, as are Emayatzy Corinealdi and David Oyelowo (“Middle of Nowhere”) who get to meet Elvis MItchell and Sidney Poitier (above).

Judd Apatow and wife Leslie Mann (“This is 40”) are hanging at the Universal table with co-chairs Adam Fogelson and Donna Langeley, while Paramount chief Brad Grey is hosting David Chase (“Not Fade Away”) and Bob Zemeckis (“Flight”). Nicholas Jarecki and Richard Gere (“Arbitrage”) are at the Lionsgate/Summit/Roadside table. Fox Searchlight brought Ben Lewin, Helen Hunt and John Hawkes from “The Sessions,” as well as Tom Pollock and Sacha Gervasi of “Hitchcock,” and the gang from “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

I sit with two charmers, Relativity’s Ryan Kavanaugh and “Jackie Brown” star Robert Forster. On the face of it, the recipients of this year’s Governors Awards might seem an unprepossessing lot, but in the room, the evening was often moving. Even the winner of the coveted Hersholt Award for philanthropy, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the hard-charging DreamWorks Animation executive who makes fun of his own penchant for multiple early breakfast meetings, movingly called on Hollywood insiders who create imaginary fantasies to give money to improve the real world outside. Tom Hanks got choked up introducing him, reminding us that he not only backs many worthy causes such as the Motion Picture Home, but put together the celebrity music fundraiser after 9/11. Will Smith also ribbed Katzenberg’s aggressive cash-raising.

Winning an honorary Oscar was legendary stuntman Hal Needham, the son of Arkansas sharecroppers with eight years of education, a paratrooper who tested parachutes by making over 400 jumps out of airplanes. Only one stuntman ever got the Oscar: Yakima Canutt, says introducer Tarantino: “Needham pushed boundaries in 60s action with better fights.” He made good in Hollywood as a stuntman innovator, founder of Stunts Unlimited and director (“Smokey and the Bandit,” “Cannonball Run”). And in so doing he suffered many cracked ribs, a punctured lung, and a broken back.

Producer Al Ruddy told an hilarious story about Needham shooting off a test missile on the Goldwyn lot that tore through soundstage ten– and set it on fire. “He’s someone you could depend on,” said Ruddy. “Brave and bright.”

By comparison, another winner, AFI and Kennedy Awards founder George Stevens, Jr., grew up the son of a lauded director, and devoted his life to honoring the work of others. He was introduced by Annette Bening and told a great story about his father, filmmaker George Stevens, being away during wartime; he arranged for his 11-year-old son to accept his Oscar if he were to win for “The More the Merrier.” He lost to “Casablanca.” “When you work with George Stevens, Jr., art and activism are never far apart,” said Sidney Poitier.

Senator Al Franken introed D.A. Pennebaker, 87. He was the subject of one of his docs. Doc branch governor Michael Moore praised Pennebaker for his cinema verite docs about musicians Bob Dylan and David Bowie and pastry chefs as well as the Oscar-nominated “War Room.” He “invented the modern documentary” and freed the doc camera from the tripod, Moore said, he shoots films first, then writes and edits them later. The films are daring as well as entertaining; three Pennebaker films are in the National Film Registry. (The first Oscar for documentary was given out in 1942.) “New York is a long way from here,” said a moved Pennebaker, who thanked his life partner Chris Hegedus. “People in New York never expect to go to Oscarland. It’s a long stretch.”

Back on Tuesday night Fox Searchlight threw a “holiday” party on a wet and stormy night at Ceccino’s for their “Hitchcock,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Sessions” talent. Little Quvenzhane Wallis and the tall New Orleans baker Dwight Henry who movingly played her father in “Beasts,” were greeting press and Fox’s new solo chairman Jim Gianopulos. Henry is opening a new bakery in Boston and has no intention of becoming an actor. I caught writer-director Zeitlin at the Governors Awards, weary from having to talk about his movie ever since Sundance, where I flipcammed him before he had his patter down. He said that all the talking noise drowns out the space in his head he needs in order to write, so he’s focusing on writing music for the moment…he’ll get back to screenwriting over the holidays. He owes Searchlight a script.

So does Ol Parker, who wrote “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Not currently lined up at Searchlight, oddly, is “Ride,” Helen Hunt’s next writing and directing effort, a romantic comedy about an anxious New York mother who follows her son to California when he decides to ditch academia and take up surfing. She winds up liking the surfing scene more than she ever would have expected.  Hunt has been pushing this project up a hill for some time–she learned how to surf on “Soul Surfer” and directed indie drama “Then She Found Me”– and hopes her “Sessions” spotlight will help her to raise the financing.

The Searchlight folks admit that they underestimated the vitriol the critics laid on “HItchcock.” They miss the strong often contrary point-of-view of departed studio co-chair Tom Rothman. And more studio flicks have hit the marketplace earlier than usual, because of the pushed-up Academy nominations announcement.

Having missed Friday’s “holiday” Paramount party at Spago, attended by Barbra Streisand, Zemeckis and Chase, among others, I went to chairman Brad Grey’s Sunday brunch at the Bel Air for “Flight,” attended by Zemeckis, who thanked not only his star Denzel Washington, who was there with his wife, but Paramount for its flawless marketing and release of the film. Washington admitted that while he gets piles of offers, few are worth doing.

Grey commented that many folks ask “where have all these kind of movies gone?”– as the studios are simply interested in brands, theme park rides and franchises, “which we are because they pay a lot of bills, we are incredibly interested in films like ‘Flight,'” he said. It was made responsibly, for $35 million, he added. He told me that the studio will reserve three or four slots a year for this kind of film.

Wednesday night, Disney’s Alan Horn and John Lasseter threw a bash for their animated contenders “Wreck-It-Ralph,” “Frankenweenie” and “Brave.” I learned that Lasseter is supervising some 24 feature projects –Pixar, Disney and TV toons–and really fell out with Brenda Chapman when he pushed her off “Brave.” “Creative differences,” he said. Jennifer Lee, one of the writers on “Brave,” was beaming; she’s the new co-director of “Frozen,” mentored by Chris Buck. She’s more of a writer, while he’s more of a veteran animator. On “Wreck-It-Ralph,” whose star John C. Reilly was on hand, Lasseter was particularly tough on the directors about making the three kinds of animation in the film true to their respective periods: he cracked the whip on the animators who wanted to make the crude early videogames look more sophisticated. (I couldn’t make it to yet another “Argo” party across town.)

“Frankenweenie” director Tim Burton, EW’s Geoff Boucher (his new EW online brand will be Hero Nation) and I hung out for a bit. Burton was curious about “Les Miserables,” which stars his wife Helena Bonham Carter in a similar role to the one she played in “Sweeney Todd.”  He hasn’t seen it yet. He’s one of many Academy members who has a lot of catching up to do.  In fact the deadline for registering to vote for the Academy Awards–either online on by paper ballot–has been extended. The Academy realized that folks were probably expecting the ballots to just turn up, and many will be surprised when they don’t. Anyone who hesitates to vote online can go to kiosks at the Academy in NY and LA to cast their electronic ballot with in-person assistance.

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