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The Campaign Begins: Inside the First Weekend Push to Woo Academy Voters with Food, Swag, and Celebs

Truth is, while there are about 6,000 voting Academy members, it can take only 300 or so Oscar votes to get a movie nominated. Hence all the relentless campaigning.

Casey Affleck, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, MIchelle Williams, Matt Damon and Kenneth Lonergan.

Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Amazon Studios


Truth is, while there are about 6,000 voting Academy members, it can take only 300 or so Oscar votes to get a movie nominated. Hence all the relentless campaigning, which is in full gear, as distributors, foreign countries, and Oscar-whisperers plan and execute relentless rounds of screenings with public appearances — at lunches, Q&A panels, premieres, DVD launch parties, and “holiday” fetes.

Check out this slice of the past few days to get a sense of all the wining and dining that goes on. Academy members are being constantly wooed, just like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who vote on the Golden Globes, with yummy food, drink, music, and celebrities —despite various attempts by the Academy to monitor and limit the scale of all this campaigning.

On the animation side, for example, this past week saw a Friday Academy screening of Universal/Illumination’s animated contest musical “Sing,” directed by live-action director Garth Jennings and starring voice-talent charmer Matthew McConaughey, who worked the afterparty at the fancy Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. Then on Saturday Universal mounted a lavish afternoon premiere at LA Live. There was a post-screening concert with performers including Seth Macfarlane, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Hudson, and Stevie Wonder, who sang classics such as “Sir Duke” and “Superstition” — but oddly enough, not his original song from the film, “Faith.” Under the new Academy guidelines, he wouldn’t have been able perform it at the party the night before.

Trying to land an Oscar nominated song requires serious promo work, as music branch members are not only sent tracks to listen to but invited to meet the well-known pop artists recruited to participate in the process.

Also promoting an Oscar song is Netflix, which hosted a screening and lunch reception at the Four Seasons Hotel on Saturday for teen sexual assault documentary “Audrie & Daisy,” which features the heartbreaking song “Flicker” by Tori Amos, a rape survivor and activist. She was on hand, natch.

Trying to break into the crowded animated field is the Swiss Oscar entry, Claude Barras’ delightful stop-motion animated film “My Life as a Zucchini,” adapted by Celine Sciamma from Gilles Paris’s coming-of-age novel about a young orphan who finds friends at a boarding school for abandoned kids. After GKids’ screening at the Landmark, Barras let some of us play with his big-headed 10-inch puppets with latex foam hair, silicone arms, resin faces, and hand-sewn clothing, and boxes full of numbered magnet eyelids and mouths. Barras was next heading up to the Bay Area to screen the movie for the folks at Pixar.

Also trying to make progress with the disparate Academy voters for foreign language are films like Norway’s entry, Erik Poppe’s true 1940 story “The King’s Choice.” The Norwegian Ambassador to Washington and Consul General attended a screening and afterparty at the Pacific Design Center for 200 Sunday night, as guests including Brian Helgeland, Bill Pullman, Julian Sands, and David F. Steinberg chowed down on cured salmon gravlax, kjøttboller on Norwegian-flagged cocktail sticks, and of course, Aquavit.


Two puppets from “My Life as a Zucchini.”

Coming to town, finally, was Martin Scorsese to promote Paramount’s Christmas release “Silence,” which he had finished only a few days ago, he told the Sunday crowd at the Village Theatre in Westwood. The day before, he conducted a Q&A at the American Cinematheque with his long-time producer Irwin Winkler (“New York, New York”), followed on Sunday by the first L.A. screenings of his feudal Japan meditation that stars Andrew Garfield (also in “Hacksaw Ridge”) and Adam Driver (who won Best Actor for “Paterson” from L.A. Critics) as scrawny long-haired Portuguese Jesuits, with Liam Neeson in a pivotal supporting role. The period movie looked great up on the big screen. (An embargo is in place.)

Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield, Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Martin Scorsese at a screening of "Silence."

Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, and Martin Scorsese at a screening of “Silence.”

Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

After the movie, director James Gray meandered through a Q & A as Scorsese talked about screening “Silence” at the Vatican with a crucifix above the screen at the theater, attended not only by “The Great Beauty” Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino (upcoming HBO series ‘”The Young Pope”) but the Pontiff himself.

“He was the most disarming,” said Scorsese, who gave Pope Francis a replica of the Madonna of the Snows. “Everything was fine. He was smiling, thanked us for being there. I thanked him for taking the opportunity to meet us. I told him that Andrew went through the 30 days of the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits, which is very, very demanding to say the least. They said that the next thing for Andrew to do is be ordained.”

Scorsese risks missing SAG nominations; he got away with it last time with “Wolf of Wall Street” and bigger star Leonardo DiCaprio, but that was a far more entertaining ride than this somber crisis-of-faith film.

You can tell from the critics groups’ votes this week that “Silence” is respected and admired more than it is loved. With the first round of votes in, the contender titles are settling. What’s left to see? Critics are way ahead of Academy members at this point, who will still be catching up through the holidays. “Lion,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” are building buzz, especially with actors. Other late-breaking titles like Ben Affleck’s “Live By Night,” and Weinstein Co.’s “The Founder” starring Michael Keaton and McConaughey vehicle “Gold,” not so much.

On Saturday, I moderated a SAG screening for National Board of Review Best Film of the Year “Manchester by the Sea” with cheerful New York Film Critics winners Kenneth Lonergan, Casey Affleck, and Michelle Williams, who said she waited 10 years to land a Lonergan role. They talked up the necessary theater-style rehearsal process ahead of their tight shooting schedule. Even though she was in a small supporting role, Williams spent time in Manchester wandering the supermarket aisles checking out the citizens —their hair, voices, outfits. While Affleck was on call throughout production, Williams had the task of landing on a dime for scenes such as the intense encounter between her estranged ex-wife and Affleck’s ex-husband, which was saved until the end of filming.

Casey Affleck, Kenneth Lonergan sign "Manchester by the Sea" posters.

Casey Affleck and Kenneth Lonergan sign “Manchester by the Sea” posters outside a SAG screening at the Pacific Design Center.

That night, we all reconvened at a holiday party at the Beverly Hills estate of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, who staked a big tent in his backyard with a bar and arrays of high-end scotch as well as crab and shrimp and rich fish stew. Bezos takes seriously his role as owner of The Washington Post, as well as Amazon Studios, which has its sights on Oscars for “Manchester.” Bezos is invested for the long haul and spending to win: He wants to build a brand that means taste and class, he said. He’s been to the Oscars before, and the person he leans on for advice is pal Harvey Weinstein.

On hand were “Manchester” producer Matt Damon, hanging at the bar with Lonergan, Affleck, Williams, and producers Kimberly Steward and Chris Moore; “Manchester” distributor Roadside Attractions co-heads Eric D’Arbeloff and Howard Cohen; Diane Keaton, John Lithgow (Netflix’s “The Crown”), and “Mozart in the Jungle” star Gael Garcia Bernal, who stars in Pablo Larrain’s Chilean Oscar entry “Neruda;” “Snowden” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who hopes to find a new home for his Pivot series HitRECord on TV; IMDb chief Col Needham; comedienne Sandra Bernhard; WME uber-agent Patrick Whitesell; and “Before Midnight” multi-hyphenate Julie Delpy, who is shooting and starring in London-set “My Zoe” after a string of French hits.

Working the room was Amazon’s “Love & Friendship” director Whit Stillman (who’s written three of his six-episode Amazon series “The Cosmopolitans”) and star Kate Beckinsale, who said the degree of difficulty was increased on set when he kept changing the dialogue at the last minute. (Tough to prep in advance.) She’s coming up in an Amazon movie with director Marc Webb, “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

Director Whit Stillman and Kate Beckinsale attend Jeff Bezos and Matt Damon's "Manchester By The Sea" Holiday Party.

Director Whit Stillman and Kate Beckinsale at Jeff Bezos and Matt Damon’s “Manchester By The Sea” Holiday Party.

Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Amazon Studios

Amazon’s “Transparent” star Jay Duplass was abashed at being in the same room with his idol Joel Coen; Duplass costars with Jenny Slate in the upcoming “Landline” from Gillian Robespierre, debuting at Sundance. Duplass was talking with Nick Offerman, who’s hilarious (as usual) in Weinstein’s Christmas movie “The Founder.” Also heading to Sundance was Griffin Dunne, star of Amazon’s latest Jill Soloway series “I Love Dick,” also directed by Kimberly Peirce and Andrea Arnold, and Amazon Studios executives Roy Price, Jason Ropell, Ted Hope, Bob Berney and Josh Kramer. Now that “Manchester” and “Love & Friendship” have worked well in the marketplace, said Kramer, he looks forward to returning to the Sundance acquisition arena with even more clout.

Kimberly Pierce, Michelle Williams, Lucy Walker

Kimberly Pierce, Michelle Williams, and Lucy Walker

On the way out of the party, I walked to the valet with Williams, “I Love Dick” director Kimberly Peirce, and documentarian Lucy Walker, who has finished the sequel to “Buena Vista Social Club,” filmed in Cuba, which will also premiere at Sundance.

— Steve Greene contributed to this report. 

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