What a difference two years make.
Sure, the usual Oscar contenders did the rounds at the reconvening AFI Awards lunch, which finally took place (at the Beverly Wilshire) after several postponements to celebrate the top 10 films and TV shows of 2021. But what always distinguishes this gathering is the way it brings together not only Oscar and Emmy contending talent, but the power players at the top of the studio and streamer pyramid. “Storytellers, we need you more than ever,” said AFI chief Bob Gazzale as he greeted the starry assemblage.
“It’s difficult to separate the categories,” said Rich Frank, as he introduced the top 10 series. “The years are going to keep on changing. Streaming is taking over our business.”
Indeed. Netflix studio head Ted Sarandos celebrated not only Oscar contenders “The Power of the Dog,” “Don’t Look Up,” and “Tick Tick Boom,” but TV series “Maid,” whose star Margaret Qualley sat with boyfriend Jack Antonoff and her mother Andie MacDowell, and the warmly applauded SAG-winning “Squid Game,” which won a special award.
“The Power of the Dog” director of photography Ari Wegner, who could become the first woman to win Best Cinematography at the Oscars, hung out with “Don’t Look Up” star Meryl Streep and director Jane Campion, who celebrated her release from COVID quarantine at Thursday’s “The Power of the Dog” screening with a live Jonny Greenwood performance at the Ace Hotel.
Surprise AFI Awards attendee Apple CEO Tim Cook threw his support to the movie he described as “my favorite,” “CODA” and its AFI grad, writer-director Sian Heder, and her Oscar frontrunner Troy Kotsur, accompanied by his Oscar-winning costar, Marlee Matlin.
The prospects for “CODA,” with three nominations, catching up with Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” with 12, was one lunch conversation topic. One studio marketing chief told me he tried to convince his studio to buy the emotionally satisfying Sundance movie, but nobody but Apple was going to step up to a $25 million price tag. Other Apple honorees included “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “Ted Lasso,” and “Schmigadoon.”
Now “CODA” has a shot at winning all three Oscars, including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay. Enthusiasm for a movie like this is infectious, and when the voting window opens up between March 17 and 22, voters can decide to change votes for other crowdpleasers such as “King Richard,” “Belfast,” or “Dune” to “CODA” instead. According to one Apple award strategist, their late screenings are filling up, something that another Oscar campaigner said is not happening with movies many have already seen. There is power in discovering the unexpected and rooting for the underdog, as well as recency bias.
During the screening of clips from the jury-picked best of the year, the studios clapped for their own: on the verge of merging with Discovery, Warner Bros. executives Ann Sarnoff, Toby Emmerich, and Jeff Goldstein clapped for “King Richard” as well as “Dune,” whose writer-director Denis Villeneuve is tortured whenever he isn’t writing “Dune 2” in a quiet room.
“Dune” producer, Legendary’s Mary Parent, joined her old New Line Cinema colleagues for a reunion photo, among them Warner’s Emmerich, MGM/UA’s Michael DeLuca, and Universal’s Donna Langley. MGM is rooting for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” whose director Paul Thomas Anderson enjoyed hanging with his young discovery Cooper Hoffman.
There was love in the room for Oscar-winner Rita Moreno, who appeared in the reel celebrating the best films of decades ending in “1.” 1961 was the year the first “West Side Story” swept to 10 Oscars wins. Steven Spielberg’s version (written by AFI attendee Tony Kushner), is nominated for seven, including Picture and Director, with Supporting Actress contender Ariana DeBose (also celebrating TV musical “Schmigadoon”) the likeliest to take home a prize.
Another star with two allegiances was Bradley Cooper (featured in clips for both Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza”), who stepped over to greet Spielberg, who later confabbed with fellow Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”).
They will both participate in Saturday morning’s annual DGA directors symposium which includes Campion, Anderson, and Villeneuve, ahead of the DGA Awards that night, one of several award shows this weekend; after that Branagh will head to London for Sunday night’s BAFTAs. Some BAFTA attendees who are also nominated for Critics Choice Awards will crowd into a separate room to join the the live CCAs over a satellite feed.
Disney, which released Twentieth Century’s “West Side Story,” was another subject of discussion; rising studio stars Peter Rice and Dana Walden represented the studio at the AFI lunch, just after news broke that CEO Bob Chapek had apologized to his LGBTQ employees over the studio’s financial support of backers of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and vowed to pause all political donations in the state.
The other hot topic was when and how the studios will supply struggling theaters with more movies, from Pixar family fare to mid-range movies going straight to streaming; exhibitors cannot thrive on Warners’ “The Batman” alone — which did draw 31 percent moviegoers over 35, a good sign for the most important thing on the mind of theatrical exhibitors.
While Emmerich and Sarnoff are relieved to be out of Warners’ day-and-date quagmire, “older audiences need to return,” Sarnoff said. For his part, Emmerich smiled when I asked if Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” will be showing at Cannes. I’ll take that as a yes.