“We all stand together or we fall,” said “Dune” editor Joe Walker at this year’s Oscar nominees luncheon at the noisy Fairmont Hotel in Century City. Walker admitted that he was angry about the eight categories, including Editing, that will be aired in edited form on the Oscars after a taped ceremony before the live show. He was not alone; director nominees Jane Campion, Denis Villeneuve, and Steven Spielberg have publicly stated their disapproval.
“The Oscars are the Super Bowl for film nerds,” said “Mitchells vs. the Machines” producer Chris Miller. “It could be four hours long.”
Producer Lindsay Doran agreed that as far as she was concerned, length was no object. But she remembers — as do any number of people involved with Academy decision-making over the years, from ex-presidents Howard Koch and Sid Ganis to current president David Rubin — that these ABC discussions have gone on for decades. Every year, after the Oscars, ABC runs through every minute of the show with the Academy to track where they lost viewers.
This was the year that the Academy couldn’t afford to wriggle out of making changes. The Board of Governors can’t let the Oscar show decline in popularity any further, even if last year’s event was a pandemic anomaly with only 10.4 million viewers, down from 23.6 million the year “Parasite” won in 2020, and way down from the 1998 peak of 57.2 million, the year of the “Titanic” sweep.
The Academy needs the Oscars to pay for everything the non-profit organization does all year, Rubin reminded: “Our film archive, preservation, student Academy Awards, our great Museum, the Academy intern program, our education and outreach efforts.”
The Academy managers at the lunch recited the same mantra: wait and see, let the Oscar show prove that they can properly honor the nominees. “Everybody involved in management at the Academy, from the board and the committees to the rank and file,” said Ganis, “is sensitive to the issues of the branches, including the one that has loomed for years and years. It has two aspects: How do we make the show more fun for the viewer, and how do we make sure that every nominee and every branch is honored? I’m positive that Rubin and Hudson and these committees have painstakingly figured it out.”
As for Packer, he told me he is keeping his head down as he focuses on this “mammoth job producing the Oscars” and his commitment to a show that leans into comedy —”You can see that from our hosts,” he said (comedians Amy Schumer, Regina Hall, and Wanda Sykes). “It’s going to be good.”
Judging from his rousing speech to the room, the producer of comedies like “Girls Trip” is a born showman. “This is a year like no others,” he said. “I got four words for you ladies and gentlemen: This is the year! This is the time to appreciate and celebrate! If there’s ever been a time to be grateful for and revel in an occasion that allows us to be in the same room, this is the year… You are the amazing people that have tricked your peers into thinking that you are better than them.”
Per usual custom, Packer exhorted the assembled nominees to keep their acceptance speeches short. “They don’t know your agents, don’t know your managers, your lawyers, any of the others, that audience doesn’t care,” he said. “But let me tell you, you know what they do care about? They care about you. They care about your story. They care about your passion. They care about your journey. Lean into that. Talk about that. That’s accessible from Detroit to Dubai. Also, be prepared… You got a 20 percent chance to win. That’s good odds in this town.”
Packer enlisted assistance via a short film starring “true Oscar legend” Gloria Concave (Kate McKinnon) to lay out “don’ts” for winners: Don’t swear, read a list of names, hug everyone in your vicinity, and “if you’re in a group, designate someone ahead of time to speak for all of you,” she said. “You only have 45 seconds for your speech before the playoff music begins. So be concise. There are severe consequences for taking too long after that playoff basic starts. They don’t tell you what it is… if you have a long list of people to thank, you can do that backstage for the special Oscar Thank you camera.”
When he returned to the podium, Packer turned somber. “It cannot be overstated how powerful it is that we are still here,” he said. “We are survivors. And the people in this room are not just that, you’re also thrivers. At a time when tragedy continues to rage around the globe, we are part of an industry that at its best, makes people feel something: laughter hope, inspiration, aspiration. Not many mediums evoke emotion in the way that cinema does. And in that sense, you are essential. You are vital. You are necessary. And I’m proud to be a part of this community with you.”
In his remarks, Rubin stated the Academy’s support of Ukraine, and said, “I want to convey our gratitude to our longtime great partners at ABC Disney: Bob Chapek, Peter Rice, and Dana Walden.” Chapek sat at a power table including “Nightmare Alley” producer Bradley Cooper, “Mitchells vs. The Machines” producer Phil Lord, Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Encanto”).
For the annual class photo, the Academy invited all 212 nominees to join the lunch. 169 attended. No-shows included Nicole Kidman (“Being the Ricardos”), UK-based “The Lost Daughter” costars Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley (who’s starring in “Cabaret” on the West End), and “The Power of the Dog” costars Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, who are both working, and their writer-director Jane Campion, who is recuperating from a mild case of Covid in Los Angeles, and writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (“Drive My Car”) who is still under quarantine in Japan.
Folks are speculating: Will Beyonce Knowles and notorious anti-vaxxer Van Morrison make the trip to perform at the Dolby Theatre on March 27? Among the musicians expected to perform nominated songs are luncheon attendees Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (“No Time to Die”) and Dixson, who co-wrote “Be Alive” from “King Richard.”
The Academy has begun announcing some details of the show. Presenters for this year’s show include Oscar-winner Kevin Costner (“Dances with Wolves”), Zoë Kravitz (“The Batman”), Best Actress also-ran Lady Gaga (“House of Gucci”), Rosie Perez (“Do the Right Thing”), one-time Oscar host Chris Rock, and “Minari” Oscar winner Yuh-Jung Youn, who will presumably present this year’s Best Supporting Actress award.
“Spider-Man” star Alfred Molina read out the roll call of nominees, asking them to step onto one of two risers on either end of the room to be photographed for a total of 11 photos (not the usual big one), as attendees swiveled their necks like a tennis match. Per usual, celebrities scored the biggest applause, from “King Richard” star Will Smith (who told me he loves glad-handing, which made the pandemic hard to handle) and Denzel Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), who boogied up to the riser in sneakers, to their rivals Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick, Boom”), Benedict Cumberbatch (who has been doing the L.A. rounds of late), and Spanish star Javier Bardem (“Being the Ricardos”), who attended with his wife Penelope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers”).
Garfield was part of a luncheon power circle including Cumberbatch, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who brought his father over to meet Del Toro. Completing eight songs for the complex, multi-character Disney Animation comedy “Encanto” while finishing his directorial debut “Tick, Tick, Boom” (Netflix) was a challenge that Miranda has no desire to repeat: “I edited during the day and wrote songs at night,” he said, admitting that he had no idea he’d wind up with four songs on the Billboard Top 100 as well as an Oscar nomination for Original Song “Dos Oruguitas.”
Auteur directors are also beloved, from Villeneuve (“Dune”), Steven Spielberg (“West Side Story”), and Guillermo del Toro (“Nightmare Alley”) to Adam McKay (“Don’t Look Up”), Kenneth Branagh (“Belfast”), and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Licorice Pizza”).
Reading the vibes, the love for Adapted Screenplay nominee Sian Heder’s “CODA” was palpable. Attendees waved their fingers as SAG and Spirit-Award winner Troy Kotsur ascended the dais. His costar Emilia Jones is heading back to her hometown London on Tuesday to sing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” at the BAFTAs next weekend. One Academy governor told me that “CODA” is the feel-good movie for these dark times.
The same could also apply to other movies in the race: Villeneuve’s escapist epic “Dune,” which is sure to score in the craft categories, Spielberg’s energetic musical “West Side Story,” which is likely to win the second Oscar for an actress playing Anita (this time Ariana DeBose follows the original Rita Moreno), Reinaldo Marcus Green’s aspirational sports drama “King Richard,” which is Best Actor nominee Smith’s to lose, and Branagh’s 1969 memoir “Belfast,” which hasn’t settled into a leader position in any category. One nominee who got a rousing wave of applause: Smith’s costar, Supporting Actress contender Aunjanue Ellis.
And on the Best Documentary front, just judging from the applause meter, Indie Spirit winner Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who is a well-known musical presence in American living rooms every night, has a “Summer of Soul” Documentary Feature win in the bag.
Conversations around the room speculated about the most disparate race in years, with a wide range of popular movies, the lack of obvious winners in many categories, and the sense that the studios, led by mighty Disney — which owns Oscarcaster ABC — and lunch attendee Bob Chapek, the CEO, are fighting hard against dominant Netflix, whose leader Ted Sarandos and movie chief Scott Stuber are cranking out more movies and employing more people than anyone else.
Netflix notched 27 Oscar nominations for 10 titles, while Disney scored 23 for 7 titles. Many in the room are still threatened by streaming models that don’t depend on box office returns, although the box office has begun to tick up with recent hits like “Dog” and “The Batman.” Chapek told me that in order for Pixar and Disney titles to open in theaters again, parents need to return with their children in tow.
For all we know, the solution for the Oscars’ ratings anxiety may be to forgo analog broadcasting altogether and embrace a streaming platform instead.