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AFI’s Feel Good Awards Lunch; Cumberbatch Rocks SBIFF; And Shawn Levy – Deadline


A column chronicling events and conversations on the awards circuit. 

Deadline

The AFI Awards 2021 for movies and television are always on of the highlights of the awards season. While they were take place on January 7 at their usual haunt — the Four Seasons — Omicron got in the way and AFI brass decided to play it safe and move to a March date. Their time finally came today, but at a new venue the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

The lunch, which draws the stars and creatives as well as top executives to an environment where none of them give speeches and everyone is a winner, with all going out on a high, kicked off a crucial weekend, the final one before Oscar balloting begins on March 17. Usually AFI is the Friday before the Globes and was planned for that slot again, but you know what happened with that.

Villeneuve and Branagh at AFI
Pete Hammond/Deadline

Now, however, the event has taken on even more importance, as it puts a timely spotlight on its movie winners, eight out of ten which also match the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture — an even more prescient feat, given they were selected three months ago.

At the pre-lunch reception I chatted with AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale and mentioned the interesting situation where the four groups that anoint ten, rather than five, Best Pictures as it were – AFI, Critics Choice, PGA and the Academy, of course – all lined up with pretty much the same list, no more than two apart in any instance. Gazzale said, without disclosing specifics, that the AFI juried selections were almost all very close in the final count. That confirms my belief that this remains a very fluid year where a few votes can separate several movies at the top.

With Critics Choice also delayed until this weekend, that show is for the first time placed so close to the end of the awards-giving season that it is also likely to give its winners new momentum. It may also perhaps deal those that come up short a setback when they can least afford it.

The Squid Game at AFI
Pete Hammond/Deadline

Add in the all-important DGA awards on Saturday and BAFTA Sunday morning Pacific Time, and the collective results will undoubtedly have impact and perhaps some last-minute influence on Oscar voters.  But at the AFI lunch, a very exclusive room you want to be invited to, it was the same warm vibe as always even as it occurs just two weeks before Oscar night. The tension and final act of this long road to the Dolby is finally here, but it’s been a strange March where all the key indicators of who has the big mo’ are arriving later than usual, with next weekend bringing both PGA and WGA taking place in the middle of Oscar balloting.

At AFI today you wouldn’t know that. It was a laid back time for all involved and a moment to breathe, a friendly port in the eye of a storm.

Andrew Garfield remarked, “Isn’t this just the best? Everyone wins here, no speeches. Such a nice atmosphere.”

As AFI’s Gazzale eloquently said in welcoming the crowd, and referring to the impartial feel of this feel good afternoon, “If you have been with us before you know the game. The game is, there is no game,” he said. He then pointed out the many AFI graduates in the room now connected professionally to the movie and TV selections, all at individual tables identified not by numbers, but by their poster art.

Spielberg and del Toro at AFI
Pete Hammond/Deadline

Before Gazzale spoke came the always-anticipated “March Of Time” reel, superbly edited to encompass film and TV history by decade since 1901 and culminating with this year’s AFI award honor roll. For movies of the year that meant  Coda, Don’t Look Up, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power Of The Dog, tick, tick…BOOM!, The Tragedy Of Macbeth, and West Side Story. 

On the television side that meant Hacks,  Maid, Mare Of Easttown, Reservation Dogs, Schmigadoon!, Succession, Ted Lasso, The Underground Railroad, Wandavision, and The White Lotus.   

Special awards in movies went to Belfast, and Summer Of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), and for TV to Netflix’s South Korean sensation Squid Game  — the three were otherwise not eligible for AFI’s lineup of choices.

Rich Frank (representing the TV jury), and Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday (doing the same for the movie jury) presided over the presentation of the clips for each. As always, there was a benediction at the close with past member of the AFI founding board, as well as 1992 AFI Lifetime Achievement recipient Sidney Poitier. Morgan Freeman came on to salute the late actor and icon, and presented a reel devoted to his career.

Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno at AFI
Pete Hammond/Deadline

This is not like the tight atmosphere of most awards shows, more like friends getting together to pat each other on the back which is why you see “rival” Best Picture Oscar nominees like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro deep in conversation, or Denis Villeneuve and Kenneth Branagh doing the same.

Among the stars in the room were the cast from CODA, Meryl Streep, Bradley Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch (see later in the column for coverage of the SBIFF tribute I hosted for him), Questlove,  Rita Moreno and Ariana DeBose huddling together at the West Side Story  table, directors extraordinaire Paul Thomas Anderson, Barry Jenkins and more, plus the actors from The Squid Game and Succession , all seeming to have a great time in advance of an Emmy season where you can bet both will be major contenders.

And there were so many more, with top studio executives added to the mix including Apple’s Tim Cook who has Coda, The Tragedy Of Macbeth, and Ted Lasso among the choices this year. CODA writer/director Sian Heder told me she was sitting with the CEO at their table and was thinking, “What do you say to Tim Cook?” I replied, “How about trying to get a new iPhone?”

Also spotted among the execs were Warners’ Toby Emmerich, MGM’s Michael DeLuca, Universal’s Donna Langley, FX’s John Landgraf, Fox’s Charlie Collier, Disney’s Alan Bergman, Searchlight’s Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum, A24’s David Fenkel and Daniel Katz, Focus Features’ Peter Kujawski and Jason Cassidy — the latter noting Focus’ 20th anniversary this year — still in search of their first pure Best Picture Oscar win which they hope will be Belfast. The pair sent an email yesterday to Critics Choice members saying in lieu of throwing their after party they are instead donating what it would cost to Unicef relief efforts.

David Rubin and Frank Scherma at AFI
Pete Hammond/Deadline

Also there, and also looking for their first Best Picture Oscar win with nomination-leading The Power Of The Dog were Netflix’s Scott Stuber and Ted Sarandos, who told me he had a dinner earlier this week with, among others, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Costner, “the two cowboys of the moment,” he laughed. Sitting together at a front table were Motion Picture Academy President David Rubin chatting it up with Television Academy Chairman and CEO Frank Scherma, both probably talking about how to bring their respective shows in at 3 hours!

A NEW AWARDS SHOW IS BORN, AND IT ISN’T FOR THE ACTORS

American Cinematheque

Although this weekend is crucial and could potentially upend the race, all week long since last Sunday’s Indie Spirits we have heard from various groups repping Film Editors (ACE), Costume Designers, Art Directors, the Visual Effects Society (VES), the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL), and more. What is increasingly clear, right now at least, is there is no one film running away with it, and winners from the guilds so far have been all over the place. Perhaps this is partly because no event was better-timed than a new influencer in the season: the inaugural American Cinematheque Tribute To The Crafts. The eventcelebrated all the artisans behind the scenes with juried awards in most of the categories the Oscars are aiming to present before the telecast actually begins (and then worked into the show in edited segments).

(L-R) ‘Dune’s’ Tristan Myles, Mark A. Mangini, Ron Bartlett, Theo Green, and Joe Walker attend the American Cinematheque’s Inaugural ‘Tribute To The Crafts’

Following the Oscar Nominees Luncheon earlier in the day, the Tribute To The Crafts was hosted by Stephanie Allain and Paula Wagner with opening remarks by AC Chairman Rick Nicita. In front of a packed audience at the Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, Dune (Sound, Visual Effects, Editing), No Time To Die (Stunts, Song), and The Rescue (Documentary Editing and Cinematography) were multiple winners, while Summer Of Soul, West Side Story, Don’t Look Up, Cruella, Flee , House Of Gucci , Nightmare Alley, and The Power Of The Dog also took a prize. No actors allowed.

This, believe it or not, is not an idea other groups have come up with before at a key juncture of awards season. And with Oscar taking brickbats for what some perceive as slight to the crafts, it comes at a key moment. This was a party (expertly produced with dazzling well-chosen clips placed throughout by MHA Events) for those “below the line” as it is often called. It was so successful and, with a Taco and Tequila afterparty that spilled out onto Montana Avenue, it also felt kind of necessary this year. Dune’s winning film editor, Joe Walker, certainly seemed to think so. He was one of the last to leave.

‘FREE GUY’S’ UNDERDOG OSCAR BID

Ryan Reynolds and director Shawn Levy on the set of ‘Free Guy’
Disney

And speaking of the true stars who toil in the arts and sciences of moviemaking, I hopped on zoom recently with director Shawn Levy to talk about not just his latest film with Ryan Reynolds called The Adam Project which debuts on Netflix globally today, but also their 2021 smash hit Free Guy , which is the dark horse contender for the Best Visual Effects Oscar against such behemoths as Dune, No Time To Die , Shang-Chi: The Legend Of The Ten Rings, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. For my money this clever riff on the video game universe is as deserving as any of them in this most popcorn friendly of all Oscar categories. These are the movies the audience tuning into the Oscars actually saw so let’s hope the telecast’s producer Will Packer gives them a showcase. 

Free Guy was on my top ten list. It’s a movie with real heart, as if Tron was directed by Frank Capra. In fact, right after our conversation, Levy was headed to a panel with his Oscar-nominated Visual Effects team for the film. He was very happy they got recognized.

“Well, you know, Free Guy, it felt fantastic. It felt joyous, because I loved the team that worked on Free Guy and the VFX for Free Guy, but you know why it was particularly gratifying? Our budget on Free Guy, and our VFX budget on the movie is quite literally half of every other nominated movie in our category,” he said. 

“This movie, unlike every other nominated film for VFX, this was a $113-million movie all-in, so VFX wasn’t working with a $50, $60, $70-million departmental budget. They were working with far less, and so as we’ve always said, necessity is the mother of invention. And so with a much more modest budget, I feel like the team was able to provide genuinely original visuals that felt idiosyncratic and organic to that specific story and world, and I’m just so proud of the work that they did.”

20th Century Studios

With Free Guy  and The Adam Project , Levy and Reynolds have developed a real simpatico cinematic relationship.

“Between Ryan and I it was immediate and it’s proven to be quite profound. I should give credit where credit is due. Our mutual friend, Hugh Jackman, has predicted for a decade, since we made Real Steel, Hugh has told me, if you ever work with Ryan, you’ll never stop working with Ryan, and indeed, Hugh Jackman seems to be a prophet in addition to a super talent, because I think it’s a combination of the fact that Ryan and I both like movies that combine high concept with warm heart,” he said.

The Adam Project is an almost Spielbergian sci-fi adventure in which the older version of Adam goes back in time to meet his younger self to help save the world. But as in Free Guy the emphasis is not on the hardware involved but rather the people.

“I’d like to think that a movie can be more than one thing, said Levy. E.T. was an original story that on one level is about an alien landing on Earth, but is ultimately about loneliness and friendship, and I like movies that are about more than one thing. And so Adam Project certainly sets out to be spectacle-filled adventure, but I was very much aspiring to make a movie that would surprise people with its poignance and with the resonance of its theme,” he said while emphasizing he and Reynolds won’t be stopping after two in a row.

“There’s something, to me, about Ryan’s combination of movie star presence with a fundamental goodness, with a sweet, warm heart, not to mention a capacity for humor that is extraordinary, and I’m finding that he and I team up really naturally in stories that are unembarrassed about their warm-hearted center, and certainly, it’s been an inspiring creative brotherhood and one that we are aiming to extend through other projects in the future,” he said. “You know what? I don’t have the ego strength to invoke Capra-Stewart or Scorsese-De Niro, but I can share with you that we’re already developing another three movies to do together in addition to the sequel to Free Guy (plus reportedly negotiating to direct Deadpool 3), and it’s just a very mutually respectful, mutually inspiring brotherhood. I’m literally looking at his building down the block, so we’re never too far from each other.”

CUMBERBITCHES OUT IN FORCE IN SANTA BARBARA

SBIFF

Finally I can say I don’t think I have had a better time interviewing anyone this season than The Power Of The Dog’s Benedict Cumberbatch at his tribute at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which I was honored to host Wednesday night.

SBIFF artistic director Roger Durling, who puts these annual tributes and panels together every year and loads them with Oscar nominees for some key exposure, told me this was the only one of this year’s many tribute evenings (including Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, and more) to sell out. It was packed to the rafters with perhaps the most enthusiastic audience I have ever seen at any of these tributes that I have been coming up north to host for exactly 20 years.

SBIFF

What became very clear is Cumberbatch’s legendary fan base — known by some as “Cumberbitches” — was out in force. As one publicist described it, “This was like a rock concert.”

Indeed, the crowd in the 2,300 seat Arlington Theatre on State Street visibly and audibly reacted to the many clips from Dr. Strange , Star Trek The Hobbit Sherlock Imitation Game Patrick Melrose and many more, including of course The Power Of The Dog for which he has received his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Cumberbatch gave a hint, nothing more, saying “never say never” about having another go with Sherlock some day, and we can only hope so after looking at that performance in the scene we showed.

His work as Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug was enhanced by footage showing him actively moving around in the whole Motion Capture get up, proving this was no mere voice-over gig as far as Cumberbatch was concerned.

He will be heading to the BAFTAs this weekend — after today’s AFI lunch —  to see if he can pick up a prize in his home country as well.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jane Campion

Director Jane Campion, who had just gotten the all-clear after testing positive for Covid a few days back, was charming in her presentation of the Cinema Vanguard Award to Cumberbatch at evening’s end. She pointed out his middle school teacher dubbed him at the time as the “best schoolboy actor I have ever seen,” and she was having a very wry time with the whole Cumberbitch of it all.

For me though the highlight was undoubtedly when I steered the conversation from some of the more serious movies on view to a quote I read in Vulture which called him “the new King of celebrity impressionists”.  Who knew? I had to try it out but wasn’t expecting he would start by adding me (after only about 90 minutes of grilling him on stage) to his gallery of dead-on impressions.

The actor wowed the crowd doing Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken and even his Marvel Universe co-star Tom Holland with uncanny accuracy. Fun stuff, and it was all sponsored by none other than Deadline. Thanks Roger Durling for always inviting me to participate at SBIFF, and thanks to Cumberbatch for a terrific night. Check out those impersonations in the video below.





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