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AFI Awards, Oscar Longshots, ‘The Whale’ Rises — Notes On The Season

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale spoke a real truth about the money-making Hollywood awards machine as he opened the proceedings for Friday’s annual AFI Awards honoring the year’s best in movies in television as chosen by a distinguished jury. “This is the only event of its kind where you are informed of your honor and then not asked to pay to attend,” he said.

Michelle Yeoh and Ted Sarandos at AFI

Pete Hammond/Deadline

The Top 10 films AFI selected this year include Avatar: The Way of Water, Elvis, Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Fabelmans, Nope, She Said, Tár, Top Gun: Maverick, The Woman King and Women Talking, with an AFI Special Award for The Banshees of Inisherin. On AFI’s top 10 TV list are The Bear, Mo, Pachinko, Severance, Somebody Somewhere, Abbott Elementary, Hacks, Reservation Dogs, Better Call Saul and anthology series The White Lotus.

(L-R) John Landau and Ke Huy Quan

Pete Hammond/Deadline

Stars, creatives and executives connected with each winner at individual tables situated in the the Four Seasons Beverly Hills hotel ballroom. The networking that goes on here is positively palpable, and it was hard for AFI to corral everyone to actually sit down and eat before the presentation, which included an immaculately edited montage we see each year spanning the history of film in 10-year increments ending with a swinging montage of the films and TV shows being honored in 2022.

Richard Frank headed the TV jury, where he said there were 599 scripted English-language shows, and Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday did the honors for movies, as they gave the rationale for each choice and introduced a clip from each.

(L-R) Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy

Pete Hammond/Deadline

In a week that included several groups announcing their nominees — notably PGA and DGA, where not a single one of the films directed by women made the list of their major category — it was swell to be at an event where Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, Maria Schrader’s She Said and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King were among AFI’s top choices. Perhaps it can be wise to make a woman head of the jury as AFI did — which I pointed out to Hornaday for helping to rescue the week after those disappointing snubs.

Ask anyone who has ever been to the AFI gala and they will invariably tell you this is their favorite event of the long season: a private lunch, no TV teleprompters, no speeches you have to give, no losers only winners.

Gazzale proudly pointed out that AFI Conservatory last year was named not once but twice the top film school of them all. He also mentioned that 30 alums had worked in various capacities on this year’s honored crop; that included Tár director Todd Field, who is actually conducting a seminar later tonight for AFI. Steven Spielberg, whose The Fabelmans was among the honored films, employed five AFI alums including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and no less that David Lynch (a graduate on the second AFI class in the early 1970s), who plays director John Ford in a very memorable cameo at the end of the movie.


(L-R) Steven Spielberg, David Zaslav and Quinta Brunson

(L-R) Todd Field and Baz Luhrmann

Pete Hammond/Deadline

Coincidentally, that scene happened to be what I asked Spielberg about as he walked into the room. He pointed out he had to do a lot of convincing to get Lynch to agree, and specifically that he could remain in costume and full Ford look for the week prior to shooting. Spielberg said he felt it was imperative that the role (an actual meeting the young Spielberg had with Ford at the beginning of his career) had to be played by a real director. I also pointed out the music used as a clueless Sammy Fabelman sits in the outer office awestruck when he realizes the film classic posters on the walls were those of Ford. It is a brilliant scene as Spielberg’s camera slowly pans them all to the unmistakable theme music from one of Ford’s greatest, The Searchers.

Spielberg also caught up with Elvis director Baz Luhrmann as he entered, as did other directors like Field. Luhrmann told me, as many did, he shared his grief over the unexpected death of Lisa Marie Presley on Thursday, just days after he was with her at the Golden Globes as well as Sunday night’s lively celebration of Elvis’ 88th birthday at the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood. Luhrmann told me she had been so happy, in such a good place. He used the word “buoyant” to describe her as she was celebrating the reception to Luhrmann’s acclaimed movie about her father.


(L-R) Jerry Bruckheimer and Joseph Kosinski

Pete Hammond/Deadline

At the luncheon I also ran into Top Gun: Maverick’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer and its director Joseph Kosinski, both also celebrating their respective nominations from the PGA and DGA this week. Of his DGA nom, Kosinski said it is always nice to get that kind of approval from your peers.

“Just one more to go,” said Bruckheimer, who didn’t have to explain to me that he was referring to the Oscar nominations in a week and a half. Bruckheimer in his long career has never been nominated, and this was his first invite to an AFI Awards lunch as well. Like many newbies, both he and first-timer Kosinski had heard it was the best event of the season. “Everyone is a winner,” Kosinski laughed.

Lots of top executives attended as well, notably Bob Iger, who spent time talking to James Cameron whose Avatar: The Way of Water has been making a mint for Disney. Among other execs in the room were Dana Walden, Alan Bergman, Mike De Luca, Pam Abdy, David Zaslav, Donna Langley, Ted Sarandos, Focus Features’ Peter Kujawski and Jason Cassidy, Searchlight’s Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum, A24’s David Fenkel, and many more. Those are just the ones I ran into.


Al Pacino

Pete Hammond/Deadline

This also is a place where there is just such goodwill towards one another, it is almost infectious. The program always ends with a benediction by someone chosen by AFI to speak to the crowd. This year the honors went to Al Pacino, who proved an inspired choice as his free-wheeling speech had everyone laughing — particularly during a long, rambling remembrance of his first time at the Oscars in 1974 — or at least the first time he remembered — as he was at first reluctant to go all the way to Hollywood for the ceremony.

“I am a New York guy,” he said, but he went anyway and sat there the whole time praying he wouldn’t win because he didn’t prepare anything to say if he did, and he was sure he wouldn’t win. When they opened the envelope and the name inside was Jack Lemmon, Pacino said he almost jumped out of his chair in happiness and relief it wasn’t him. By the way, though he didn’t say it, the film he was up for was Serpico.


‘The Whale’


Speaking of the Oscars, voting continues for nominations through Tuesday. No one seems to be letting up. Cameron and the Avatar gang are doing several Q&As through the MLK holiday weekend, and so are others. Amazon tells me they had such a crowd — over 700 industryites — for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Q&A with Ron Howard following a screening of Thirteen Lives this week that they had to use both screens at the DGA.

The Whale has one with Brendan Fraser and Darren Aronofsky tonight, and A24 execs are ecstatic by the SAG noms for both Fraser and Hong Chau, and also an unexpected nomination as Best Picture by the PGA. Sources at the indie distributor believe it is the audience’s love for the movie, not critics (the Rotten Tomatoes audience score is 91% versus critics’ 65%) driving the film, which likely hits $10 million this weekend. “It is punching above its budget (about $10 million) and moving people to tears all over the country, not just the coasts. It is actually a people movie, not a critics one,” said one exec close to the film. It didn’t make the AFI list (Everything Everywhere All at Once did for A24), but the PGA nod is now making A24’ers think it just could break into Oscar’s Best Picture club, based also on all its FYC screenings.


Those movies honored at AFI, all of them, have studios and major indie distributors behind them shelling out a lot of cash during Oscar-campaign season. They are essentially the “chosen” few that backers decide are worth the expense of going after the gold. But every now and then along comes a movie and/or a performance that is trying against all odds to get noticed with very little money to help. Can it work like it did once upon a time for actors like Sally Kirkland, who ran her own 1987 campaign for the indie Anna and landed a Golden Globe, Indie Spirit (in just their second year) and L.A. Film Critics award as well as a Best Actress Oscar nomination in the same kind of competitive year this one is for female performances?

British actress Andrea Riseborough is using largely her own money to bring attention to the small, little seen indie To Leslie, which premiered to raves at SXSW last March, and according to IMDb has garnered a worldwide gross of $27,322 since its October release thru Momentum Pictures. She won high praise for her performance as a single West Texas mother who hit it big in the lotto and squandered the money on her drinking and addictions, only to try to claw her way back from the bottom to fulfill a dream of opening her own cafe. The film is the kind of stark, slow-burning, character-driven independently made drama that actors, above all others, respond to, and that is what is so remarkable about the guerilla campaign effort to get Riseborough’s stunning work seen in a race against time now with Oscar voting going on until Tuesday.

Another theatrical screening takes place tonight at the DGA Theater with a Q&A featuring first-time filmmaker Michael Morris, Riseborough and cast members Allison Janney and Marc Maron — both also excellent in the film, which reminds you of the kind of gritty movies we saw more often in the ’70s before studios discovered Marvel and its ilk.

‘To Leslie’

Can an actor still throw a Hail Mary pass with their own money, and actually pull off an Oscar nomination in this day and age? The last time I remember a performance coming out of nowhere to a lead nomination was when Oscar winner Marion Cotillard got another nom in 2014 for the Belgian film Two Days, One Night, without even campaigning at all. To do it obviously the key is word of mouth and getting it seen by fellow actors. Riseborough did land a Lead Performance nomination for the Independent Spirits, and some notice from critics groups who may have seen the film, but the visibility is far lower for her and her film than the large field of contenders for those five slots like Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, Michelle Williams, Michelle Yeoh, Ana de Armas, Margot Robbie… . It used to be easier before Oscar season ran six months, and where by the end only the strong (or well financed) manage to survive.


Andrea Riseborough in ‘To Leslie’

Momentum Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

It is available on the Academy’s digital screening portal, but just to do that takes a chunk of change, generally $20,000, and without being there you simply have zero chance for a movie like To Leslie. I first found the film on my radar through a producer, Steve Jaffe, who with his wife, actress Susan Blakely, discovered the film early and have been actively championing it on the circuit. They aren’t alone though. I got a text from Frances Fisher that read: “I just saw To Leslie. OMG! Andrea Riseborough just went to the top of my list for Best Actress!!!” She’s been telling her fellow Actors Branch Academy members and supporting screenings and receptions for it. The campaign has also gotten some trade coverage, though an ad buy is pretty much out of range. Riseborough’s PR team touts the verbal support of numerous actors including Jane Fonda, Dyan Cannon, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Sally Field, Laura Dern, Amy Adams, Liam Neeson, Kim Basinger, Geena Davis, Minnie Driver, Edward Norton, Demi Moore and on and on.

It’s impressive, but according to the Academy there are 1,302 active voting members of the Actors Branch this year, which means you would reportedly need 218 votes if every single one of those 1,302 actually cast a ballot. Depending on turnout, it obviously could be less.


Other stealth campaigns are going on too. Veteran three-time Oscar nominee, the 87-year-old Diane Ladd, is forging a longshot campaign for a little-seen indie in which she plays a stroke victim, Isle of Hope — a title that might also describe where her head is at in landing an Oscar nomination this year against all that heavyweight competition. But Hope springs eternal this time of year: She has been taking out full-page ads in the trades and urging fellow AMPAS members to check out the film on the Academy portal.


Finally, the longest of long shots, probably ever, would be the pipe dream of first-time Australian filmmaker Jonathan James Williams, who is trying desperately to get noticed by the Academy for his mini-budgeted comedy I Want to Thank the Academy. He tells me it is the first Australian-made film shot in the U.S. since Crocodile Dundee, and it is in that vein as Williams stars as a guy with dreams of making it big in Hollywood as an actor. He stars, directs, writes, produces and gives himself several other credits on the film including editing, sound, foley, etc., etc.

Williams proudly notes the film is in the running. “We qualified for the Academy’s long list for Best Picture and Best Actor. I would assume with the lowest-budgeted feature and most independent movie out of all of them,” he says. Actually over 300 other films have qualified, which basically means they satisfied the requirement of a weeklong theatrical run in whatever theater in L.A. (which he did in December) and, well, is in focus. But hey, you take what you can get.

Unlike even To Leslie and Isle of Hope, Williams couldn’t afford the fee to get on to the AMPAS screening portal, so he started a GoFundMe page to raise money, and he even created an FYC ad (but as you can see misspelled the name of his own movie). He also sent an e-blast to Academy members, and booked a theater for an FYC screening for the Actors Branch — but sadly he says not a single person showed up. “I understand people are busy and so forth and I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of things,” he says. “This is a wonderful movie, one of a kind film that celebrates dream chasing and Hollywood, as well as the Oscar ambition itself. I know we won’t win Best Picture (ed note: you think?), but I know we can get some traction on the Best Actor front.”

Oscar nominations will be announced January 24. Good luck, to all. Keep the dream alive.

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