Imagine being locked up overnight with your co-workers. The phones are shut down. You’re not allowed to sleep, you’re not allowed to leave. It sounds like a Freudian nightmare. But for two dozen workers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, it’s an annual ritual.
On Feb. 11, the day before the Oscar nominations are announced, the staffers will follow the usual procedure. The upper floors of the Acad headquarters in BevHills will be hermetically sealed from 9 p.m. until 5:45 a.m.
Delivery people bring food to the lobby. Also in the lobby is a technician, on standby in case of glitches to the photocopier. But if the techie or caterer ventures into the Forbidden Zone upstairs, he or she will have to stay there until 5:45 a.m. If somebody wanders into the quarantine area, “We have to kill him or make him a certified public accountant, which is worse,” says AMPAS exec administrator Ric Robertson quietly.
Robertson is the king of deadpan humor, but he’s usually very serious when he talks about Oscars. As he sits in his seventh-floor office — festooned with books and punctuated with photos of the Oscar statuette, a Moosehead Beer neon sign, a giant poster of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in “Signora di Shanghai” and a clock that sings Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” every hour (“As seen on TV!” he intones with mock excitement) — Robertson gives the rundown of the hard day’s night at the BevHills headquarters of AMPAS.
Most Acad employees have gone home. But a member of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers is already on site with the official list of nominees and has been locked into the massive sixth-floor mailing room, to begin photocopying the list.
“A little before 9 p.m., people start to wander in,” Robertson says. There are about two dozen Acad workers, mostly supervisors who’ve been doing this for a number of years.
PricewaterhouseCoopers staffers wheel out 1,200 copies of the nominations list. PWC partner Greg Garrison arrives and — since everybody in Hollywood loves rituals — makes a presentation of the first copy of the list to AMPAS exec director Bruce Davis.
Then the phones are shut down. Of course, in an era of cell phones, this is a bit of a ritual as well. But if anyone is seen walking around with a cell phone, he or she is told to turn it off.
Academy staffers go into overdrive. On the fourth floor, Margaret Herrick Library director Linda Mehr and others begin collation of 1,200 press kits. It usually takes them three to five hours to put together the PWC tallies, the production notes on the five best pic nominees, bios of the key contenders and photos, which have been submitted by the studios.
On the fifth floor, Davis, director of communications John Pavlik, Acad historian Patrick Stockstill and Robertson meet in Stockstill’s office to come up with fun facts about the nominees.
On the sixth floor, membership administrator Michael Angel begins working on Oscar-night seating: The number of tickets to be allocated to a company based upon the number of noms received; the number of seats to set aside when there are multiple nominees for a single nom (such as sound editing), etc.
In the seventh-floor boardroom, Oscar.com workers (who are ABC employees) prepare the Web pages that will go up as soon as the announcements are made. Douglass M. Stewart Jr., prez of DMS Production Services, prepares slides to be used in the announcement of the nominations.
Publicity coordinator Leslie Unger and publicity logistics coordinator Kim Tamny admit members of the electronic media to the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, up one flight of stairs, to begin setting up.
There is a tech rehearsal for everyone, using last year’s slides and script.
In the ground-floor lobby, about 400 members of the media arrive. There is an open bar; several people avail themselves of the free liquor. Have they been up all night, and this is a nightcap, or is this their breakfast? Like the origin of the nickname “Oscar,” this is one of the Academy’s mysteries that may never be solved.
Academy president Frank Pierson and a star arrive. The star is usually a past Oscar winner, and the two will announce the nominees. Meanwhile, the electronic media are cleared out of the theater, banished to the lobby.
Pierson and the Oscar star will have a dress rehearsal, using the real slides for the first time, and going over the list and pronunciations. (In the past few years, nominees have included Tsai Kuo Jung, Vincenzo Cerami, M. Night Shyamalan and Pieter Jan Brugge.)
Members of print and electronic media are admitted to the Goldwyn Theater. On-air personalities take their places in front of cameras, all cleverly positioned to make it look as if they are the only ones there. Print media members commiserate with publicists and Oscar campaigners about the early hour.
5:38 and 30 seconds
Announcements are timed to the morning chatshows back East.
Robertson says he’s been doing this for 20 years. Any favorite years? “When it’s 6 o’clock and it’s gone off without a hitch — that’s always my favorite year.”