Pete Hammond

Throw them a party and they will come.  Or at least a reception with good food and drink. That seems to be the case with the increasingly strong turnouts of Academy members at screenings this season. As with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and other groups studios are discovering a shrimp cocktail can be a powerful magnet for potential voters. The Academy’s new pre-nomination relaxed rules seem to be having a positive effect, at least if the evidence at recent screenings is any indication. And that was exactly the Academy’s point when they announced on September 21 that there would be a loosening of restrictions on the kinds of screenings to which Academy members could be directly invited — at least before nominations. In previous years studios and distributors might have gotten their hands slapped or Oscar tickets taken away if they dared to invite Academy members to screenings that included Q&As, receptions, food, drink and mingling with filmmakers.  Members could only just attend a film, not partake in the side shows or receptions. Period.  Of course consultants got around this by going to guild members instead, and obviously there is a very strong crossover membership between the guilds and the Academy. Now the shackles have been removed and members seem to be turning out in larger numbers to watch, eat and mingle.

Monday night The Weinstein Company drew a packed industry crowd to the Academy’s own 1000 seat-plus Samuel Goldwyn Theatre for a special screening, Q&A and reception of their black and white silent, The Artist. In addition to the guild members the attendance by Academy voters was well into three digits. Several of them including Angie Dickinson and David Ladd among others were seeing it for a second time on the big screen. Harvey Weinstein introduced the film as well as special guests, Carmen and Dolores Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters who had flown in from Paris just to give the family’s official endorsement of the movie of which they said their grandfather would truly appreciate. A Q&A (which I moderated) followed with writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and co-stars Berenice Bejo, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle and James Cromwell and then an elaborate reception. Uggie, the dog star of the film even showed for a pre-screening photo op but was forbidden by the Academy from taking part in the Q&A. Apparently this ill-conceived rule will also apply to the horse from War Horse and other animal stars this year. At any rate before this year Academy members could never have been invited directly to something like this, especially in their own theatre.

Tuesday night Paramount takes over the Academy for a similar event for their summer hit, Super 8 which they are also Oscar campaigning. It’s billed as a DVD release party but the studio doesn’t have to hide the intent. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams and cast will be present and so will many invited Academy members among other attendees. Several Acad members also attended a screening and Q&A for the film at Paramount on October 29th. One consultant told me “it’s so odd to be able to invite them (the Academy) directly now, but they are definitely coming out”.

In fact Paramount has really gotten into the swing of it with several screenings of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo on both coasts last weekend.  In Los Angeles a planned picnic coinciding with an 11AM screening of the movie at Paramount with a heavy audience of AMPAS members had to be moved into a soundstage due to a torrential downpour Sunday but even that “didn’t effect the turnout – it was a great screening with a very enthusiastic response,” according to a Par awards consultant.

There’s another one with a reception Tuesday night at Paramount hosted by producer/director Irwin Winkler who tells me he thinks Hugo is the year’s Best Picture so far (Winkler produced such Martin Scorsese films as Raging Bull and Goodfellas). Paramount knows the film with its spectacular 3D is best seen on a screen, not a screener. The relaxed rules are helping them draw more members out of their homes and into a theatre to see it the way it was intended to be seen.

Last Friday night Warner Bros. used the presence of director Steven Soderbergh, writer Scott Z. Burns and Producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher plus “hosts” Benicio Del Toro  and Jerry Weintraub to lure a crowd to a Beverly Hills screening of Contagion that was preceded by a food and drink reception. At first Warners wasn’t planning a big campaign for this movie about a deadly disease spreading across the globe but the strategy changed when it became a hit. And of course Soderbergh has a strong relationship with the studio although he did drop out of their tentpole hopeful, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. last week, telling me it just wasn’t coming together satisfactorily and it was best to exit now rather than down the line when it would really be damaging. He’s excited about the Liberace biopic he is gonna do for HBO next summer before his self-imposed hiatus and hopes to work another film in before then. He said Michael Douglas just called, very excited, and wants to show him what he has worked up so far with the characterization.

Shamberg, clearly frustrated at not making the list of pundits, pointedly asked me why I thought Contagion was not being taken more seriously as an Oscar contender. Maybe it will if Warners keeps pouring the wine at events like these. The Acad members I spoke to at the pre-reception didn’t even seem to know what the film was about before going in but something lured them there.

Sunday and Monday nights Academy members and specifically members of its foreign language committee turned out to special screenings and receptions  for foreign lingo contenders Monsieur Lahzar from Canada and Miss Bala from Mexico. Both were introduced by their filmmakers who talked to those voting members afterwards. Another one is planned for next Tuesday with the filmmakers of France’s entry, Declaration of War followed by a dinner afterwards at a Japanese restaurant down the street from the Landmark Theatre where the film will screen.  Until this year consultants working on these films could only show them sans food and filmmaker interaction. In fact even at the Academy’s own official foreign language screenings it was the food served between the double bill rather than the movies that at least one voter mentioned to me. “I have to say the catering this year is better than ever at the Academy,” they said.

It’s a new day, the Academy has thankfully loosened up and members are licking their chops in appreciation.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.