Pete Hammond

The Oscar ballots went into the mail today and should be in every one of the 5,755 voting members’ hands by tomorrow, or at least by the weekend depending on how long it takes some of them to travel to snowbound or far-flung places. The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has set a due date of February 22nd, which could be a lifetime considering the ever-changing twists and turns of this surprising awards season. That’s why no major Academy Awards campaign seems willing to give up the hunt for gold quite yet.

For this second phase of Oscar campaigning, studios have tweaked, or in some cases completely retooled, their advertising to incorporate catch phrases and/or images they hope the Academy will notice. Warner Bros has noticeably increased its Inception buys on TV and in print and online. With its 10 nominations, True Grit is now suddenly “the most honored American movie of the year” (a not-so-subtle dig at the very British King’s Speech). While Paramount’s other contender, The Fighter, has new fighting words saying that “Nothing can stop an underdog whose time has come”.  Disney wants voters to know “the most successful animated film in history” (Toy Story 3 in case you live in a cave) is now nominated for Best Picture. While  Fox Searchlight has changed up their Black Swan poster with a highly dramatic pose by Natalie Portman surrounded by several flying black tutu feathers and Best Actress accolades in the background with the new tagline, “Dare To Be Bold”.

As for The Social Network, their ads continue to emphasize the overwhelming critical support and Best Picture awards it has received so far. The new tagline  somewhat wistfully says “Look Forward”, something clearly Sony wants to do after getting broadsided by the PGA, DGA, and SAG. And  they can look forward to a certain WGA win for Aaron Sorkin this Saturday. My sources say spirits definitely hit a low at the studio this weekend after repeated recent  losses. But producer Scott Rudin has gone on record saying there is plenty of time left for a turnaround. A studio spokesperson says “many events around the city are planned” to get that momentum going again. The January 29th Saturday Night Live hosting gig by star Jesse Eisenberg was a plus in that regard. His  appearance  alongside the real Mark Zuckerberg was a coup for a lot of talk and YouTube action. The film is still favored by numerous  pundits  to take home Oscars in key categories including Adapted Screenplay, Music Score, and even Director for David Fincher, despite his loss last weekend at the DGA to The King’s Speech helmer Tom Hooper.

Oscar consultants have been revving up for this and, believe it or not, they have been finding inventive ways to keep the contenders on the Q&A circuit even though all the major Guild contests are over. The WGA awards are this weekend but voting closed last week. And most Q&As are done since Academy rules prohibit studios from staging these sessions directly for AMPAS voters (who have a large crossover membership in the guilds, of course). American Cinematheque helps to fill the void. The Social Network has already done an event for American Cinematheque and now its competitors are playing catch-up there.

That’s where Inception‘s Christopher Nolan will be this Friday night, obstensibly  for a Memento Blu-Ray launch screening at Hollywood’s Egyptian theatre. Or The Fighter‘s David O. Russell chatting it up there Saturday night after a screening of his Oscar contender. At another American Cinematheque event at the Westside’s Aero, Tom Hooper and Colin Firth appear Thursday after The King’s Speech screening while Darren Aronofsky shows up February 7th after Black Swan reels. The next night, 127 Hours nominees like screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and composer AR Rahman appear during a double feature of that Danny Boyle film and their big 2008 winner, Slumdog Millionaire.

February 7th is the Oscar nominees luncheon and a lot of them are in town. Warner Bros is throwing a reception and discussion session that evening with the “below the line” contenders from Inception at the Landmark. While Focus Features launches a heavily advertised two-day retrospective of Annette Bening films at the Beverly Hills Music Hall. It salutes “one of the greatest ever American film actors”, and subtly reminding voters of her many  Oscar nominated – but never winning (yet) -  performances, including American Beauty, Being Julia, The Grifters, and, of course, The Kids Are All Right. Bening will appear for a Q&A. It isn’t lost on Focus that the Music Hall marquee with Bening all over it will be seen by lots of voters as it is in a prime location almost directly across from the Academy on heavily travelled Wilshire Blvd.

Meanwhile, Social Network nominees Sorkin and co-producer Michael DeLuca were among the many Oscar nominees on view at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival since it began a week ago. There were so many newly minted Oscar hopefuls there they were practically tripping over each other at nightly on-stage career  tributes to Annette Bening, James Franco, Christopher Nolan, and Geoffrey Rush held at the massive 2,000 seat Arlington Theatre  Friday through Monday evenings, all of them near-sellouts. Coming up this weekend is another tribute to Best Actress nominee Nicole Kidman and “Virtuoso” awards to other noms like John Hawkes, Hailee Steinfeld, and Jacki Weaver along with Social Network’s Andrew Garfield and Another Year’s Lesley Manville.

Why the contender crush at this fest? It goes back to those ballots that went out today. At least 100 of them are sent to Academy members who live in the cushy Santa Barbara/Montecito area considered by awards consultants a voter-rich region. And in a close race, every ballot can make a big difference, even a small fest because it’s scheduled at awards time and the local press makes such a big deal of it. So even though Oscar host/nominee James Franco was knee-deep in rehearsals all day Saturday, he made the trek up north, late for his tribute but there nonetheless. Bening and husband Warren Beatty stayed at the post tribute-party at SBIFF Board Chairman (and former MGM-UA head) Jeffrey Barbakow’s sprawling Montecito estate past 1 AM on Friday. (As Barbakow told me, ”How do you tell Warren Beatty it’s time to leave your house?”)

I moderated the tributes to Nolan and Rush. Nolan opened up about his career even though he remained customarily coy when I tried to get news out of him regarding his upcoming Dark Knight Rises (which he’s co-writing and directing and producing) and Superman reboot (which he’s producing). His Inception star Leonardo DiCaprio delivered a heartfelt speech before presenting Nolan with the “Modern Master” award. Nolan later at his post-party remained sanguine when I asked how he felt about his latest snub from the Academy’s Directors branch even though he has two other Inception nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. But after three DGA nominations in 10 years, and no corresponding Oscar nods for directing, it’s clearly frustrating. The snub has received more Internet protest than anything else regarding Oscar this season. Nolan, though, is staying above the fray.  “Fortunately  I am in a 12-week prep for Dark Knight Rises so that’s keeping me concentrated through all of this. The thing I was most surprised about was no film editing nomination for Lee Smith. I thought he was a sure thing to win. I asked both Lee and [composer] Hans Zimmer to do things that had not been done before,” he  told me.

Tuesday night, Nolan was back on the circuit accepting the Visionary Award from the Visual Effects Society which also gave their top prize to Inception, certainly the Oscar favorite in that category.

Rush had flown in Sunday from Sydney where he is doing a play, Diary Of a Madman, and, no pun intended, had to rush to the airport immediately following his Monday night tribute to head back to Sydney. Then it’s back to LA for the nominees lunch Monday and on to New York where he will be appearing in the same play. He’ll have Oscar night off on February 27th. Earlier in the day he was feted at a Peninsula Hotel luncheon hosted by his Pirates of the Caribbean producer Jerry Bruckheimer that drew lots of fellow actors. He and his castmates, Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter along with director Tom Hooper and co-producer Gareth Unwin, then made the trip to Santa Barara, still reeling from weekend victories at the DGA and SAG. SBIFF handed them another Ensemble award (presented by Hooper) in addition to Rush’s Montecito award (presented by Firth).

In the Green Room before the show, Unwin told me any decision about cutting a special PG or PG-13 version of the film instead of the current R would not be made until closer to the DVD release and certainly not before the Oscars. It’s a delicate issue, particularly for Hooper who has previously told me the scene in question where the King uses a series of expletives as a stuttering exercise is crucial to the movie.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.