Pete Hammond

Joaquin Phoenix and Anthony Hopkins may not approve, but Oscar season campaigning on the party circuit has been at fever pitch.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. We’re exhausted. We are out every night it seems and the invitations keep coming,”  one Oscar-winning Academy member told me recently. He was referring to the glut of invites to parties, lunches, screenings with Q&As and everything else for which Oscar season campaigning has come to be known. He pointedly added that none of it has ever influenced his vote but he is not turning down the elaborate food spreads and the chance to mingle with contenders. “Just don’t tell anyone who invites me to these things, but  it doesn’t really have much impact on the way I fill out my ballot,”  he added with a smile.

That won’t stop Oscar strategists from trying and the campaign activity this season seems like it pushed into high gear much earlier than normal and hasn’t let up, even as the Christmas break quickly approaches and the town starts to shut down. Don’t tell that to the relentless Weinstein Company who will still have some of their contenders out on the stump even over this holiday weekend. Quentin Tarantino who, despite seeing his Los Angeles premiere for Django Unchained cancelled Tuesday night out of sensitivity to the Newtown tragedy, was out doing a Q&A and reception for a packed screening at the Academy last night and will be doing the same thing for BAFTA-LA Friday night. There’s a lunch for Quartet director Dustin Hoffman on Friday too, and Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell will not get off the Q&A circuit until at least Christmas Eve, appearing at NY and LA screenings this weekend. It’s called letting no stone go unturned, a specialty of the Weinstein Company which hasn’t won the last two Best Picture Oscars for lack of trying. A recent Silver Linings party at Chateau Marmont was packed to the rafters and drew the likes of Jim Carrey, Jane Fonda, Mel Gibson, Diane Keaton, Quincy Jones and other A-list Academy members who were among those congratulating Russell and stars Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro (he’s RARELY seen on this circuit).

The other factor that has strategists up all night worrying if they have done enough is the uncharted territory caused when the Academy, as part of their shift into the world of electronic voting, moved balloting for Oscar nominations earlier this year by at least ten days (Dec 17 thru January 3rd) with the vote taking place smack in the middle of the Holidays. This has caused panic as most of the big contenders are late Fall releases that must struggle to get seen in time so members have a chance to vote for them. Strategists are trying to figure out any way they can to get to those Academy eyeballs and have been bringing out their contenders to parties, Q&As (too many to count), screenings, lunches and other events in greater numbers than I have ever seen.  Part of the reason has to be the condensed campaign period for phase one and the fact that after nominations are out the Academy has strict restrictions on what can be done campaign-wise including the curtailing of parties and limiting other appearances by nominees. So it is particularly intense in the run-up to nomination day, January 10th when all these efforts hopefully produce results. “The good thing is there’s only a couple of weeks to go and it will all be over,”  one studio marketing head told me about the new condensed period of campaigning.

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Any chance strategists get is used for face time with contenders and voters, and if an actor or director feels that being in the mix for an Oscar nomination is a real grind they could be forgiven. Just this past weekend Universal took strong advantage of having the Les Miserables cast in town moving them from one event to another with little time to spare. Friday night the studio took over Spago for a post-screening supper aimed at a slew of Academy members that included face time with the likes of stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and director Tom Hooper along with Universal honchos like Adam Fogelson and President Ron Meyer who told me he thinks 2012 has become the best year for movies the industry has seen in a long time. The place was packed and enthusiasm was high among potential voters I canvassed. The next day the same Les Mis troupe did Q&As with highly enthusiastic standing ovations after screenings for SAG (members started lining up at 5 AM for a 9:30 AM screening), the Academy (about 2/3 full) and BAFTA. And if that wasn’t enough they all attended a private party at director Walter Hill’s house where they sang for guests which included a large number of Oscar voters. They were also scheduled to sing at the Spago event but that part was dropped due to the Connecticut shootings which had taken place earlier in the day. Sunday morning there was a brunch at Chateau Marmont designed to introduce Redmayne to the industry crowd but also attended by the other stars. If there was any disappointment from Universal to some negative reviews of the film, it was more than tempered by the response the film and its stars got all weekend on the awards circuit. One person close to the film called it “unprecedented”.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Anne Hathaway

Not to be outdone, Warner Bros, feeling they need to re-ignite the mad love for October release Argo, got behind a cocktail reception Sunday night hosted by producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov and drawing Ben Affleck and the cast to mingle with what I am told was over 200 people at the Beverly Hills Hotel including 81 Academy members (yes, they keep tallies of these things). A couple of days earlier friend and partner Matt Damon hosted a lunch for Affleck in which he said heartfelt things about his buddy’s movie. This is nice since Damon is out on the circuit promoting the awards viability of his Oscar hopeful, Promised Land which doesn’t open until December 28th but has been feted at receptions, numerous Q&As and other events Focus can drum up to draw attention to 2012′s final release. Affleck attended one of those at Soho House.

Related: OSCARS Q&A: Ben Affleck

Meanwhile Disney/Dreamworks has not let an opportunity go by for their Lincoln. In addition to sending critics enough coffee table books related to the film to stock Barnes & Noble, they have thrown numerous receptions and very successful Q&As with cast and crew including a recent night where they did an unprecedented two parties back to back moving from the Beverly Hills Hotel to a private Holmby Hills residence and hitting different voter groups at each one. The film has also had high-profile command showings at the White House and yesterday in the U.S. Senate that make their Hollywood parties look small by comparison. Earlier this season Disney was also out in force at the Beverly Hills Hotel pushing awards prospects for their trio of animated contenders, Frankenweenie, Wreck-It Ralph and Brave. It marked the first official appearance of new studio topper Alan Horn.

This week Golden Globe nominee Richard Gere was feted at a lunch in New York hosted by Graydon Carter. Previously he did the same thing in L.A at Pizza Mozza. “It’s a different business now that’s for sure. I never would have done this kind of thing before but I really love the movie. I guess you have to be out there more now,” Gere told me about the world of pressing the flesh that goes with Oscar campaigning as it has evolved. He has never been nominated but won high praise for Arbitrage. This week it was announced he will receive the Chairman’s Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival gala on January 5th. Previously that gala which honors lots of potential nominees had a direct impact during the voting period, but now really only has value to strategists as a vehicle to put out a press release announcing an award for their contender.

Like the Gere afternoon love-ins, lunches for contenders to which Academy members are invited are as prevalent as ever. Summit enlisted host George Christy to invite his Academy pals to an Ivy At The Shore lunch for cast and creatives from The Impossible. Voters from Pierce Brosnan to Dyan Cannon to Mitzi Gaynor were there, nice speeches were made and it was all over in just three hours. The real-life couple played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor were also there for added impact.

Fox had a lunch last Friday honoring Life Of Pi director Ang Lee that drew about 50 acad members to Sunset Towers. More speeches, a big steak was served,  and a book was handed out. This competed with another lunch Universal threw for Jackman just down the street at Soho House. I spotted one producer who managed to shuttle between both, obviously eating well in honor of the two Oscar hopefuls. Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos was at the ‘Pi’ lunch and didn’t have much time between that the annual awards/holiday season party he threw at his home later that same day. Busy time.

Paramount has been particularly aggressive pushing their Oscar prospects, especially their Denzel Washington starrer, Flight. Like Universal they took over Spago for a ”holiday party” hosted by Brad Grey inviting numerous Academy members who were in the room with Washington and other Par stars like Guilt Trip star Barbra Streisand (she told me her proposed Gypsy film is still hung up with rights problems). On one recent Sunday the studio hosted a brunch for Acad voters at the Bel Air Hotel honoring Washington and director Robert Zemeckis. They then shuttled each separately to a combined total of four Q&As that day alone with another the following day. Last weekend they did an “Academy dinner” at Trattoria Mollie following a special Santa Barbara Cinema Society screening of Flight in Montecito that Par claims drew 35 local members. One Paramount source told me they were disappointed they haven’t gotten more Best Picture buzz from critics but aren’t giving up. “We’ve confirmed that we’ve screened for over 3000 AMPAS members on the big screen. That’s the highest number we’ve ever had and our reactions are stellar. I’m going on record now to say that I think we are going to fare much better at the Oscars than we did with critics. The screenings and events indicate something other than what’s going on. I just don’t get it,” the source told me.

Whether this tsunami of screenings and events actually do make a difference is anybody’s guess. But at least Academy members are eating well these days.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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