Awards show in film capital grabs the early spotlight

“What better place to have a film festival than the international icon that represents all of our dreams and fantasies about movies?” producer Paula Wagner says of the Hollywood Film Festival, which opened Oct. 18 at the Chinese Theater and runs through Oct. 28 at the ArcLight Cinemas. “There’s a romantic notion there — Hollywood having a festival right in its own backyard,” notes Wagner, the festival’s co-chair.

There’s also a canny awareness of timing: The fest and its Hollywood Awards, which play out tonight at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, come right at the start of awards season — that vast stretch of mass-media face time between the Toronto Film Fest in September (where such likely Oscar items as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Capote” first unspooled) and the Oscar nom announcements in January.

The Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and various crix orgs are among the most noteworthy to tap possible winners that jostle for attention in an increasingly uncertain market. Into this mix the nine-year-old Hollywood Awards provides an additional, possible Oscar bellwether.

“Our mandate is to bridge the gap between established Hollywood and the global creative community,” festival founder Carlos de Abreu says. “We honor unknowns and the major studios in all disciplines of filmmaking.”

That said, de Abreu finally gets to the real significance of his October fete: “Seven of our nominees have gone on to win Academy Awards,” he makes a point to add. De Abreu owes much to the Oscars and its organizers’ decision two years ago to move up the AA calendar. Suddenly, the Hollywood Awards are emerging as the Iowa caucus of the movie landscape.

“The Hollywood Film Festival occurs as word of mouth is beginning to build about movies like to be considered for awards,” says Warners publicist Risa Chapnick.

“With each passing year the Hollywood Awards takes on a greater glow,” says Ziggy Kozlowski of Block-Korenbrot Publicity. “Last year we had ‘Being Julia’ as a client. The Hollywood Awards gave Annette Bening the actress of the year award, and I think that really helped in terms of getting Oscar attention for her. This year they’re giving the breakthrough director of the year award to Paul Haggis (‘Crash’), who’s a client of ours as well, and we couldn’t be happier.”

In 2004, Hollywood Award thesp winners Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Aviator”) and Bening failed to nab the Oscar, but Jamie Foxx, who won the org’s award for breakthrough actor of the year, did. In at least one respect, it was the beginning of the steak losing some of its sizzle.

“If somebody has won every award, like Jamie Foxx did last year, it does detract from the entertainment of the Oscars,” says Damien Bona, co-author of “Inside Oscar,” the definitive history of the awards and, by extension, much of Hollywood history as well.

The Hollywood Awards’ early picks are like spring training for the Oscars, but it remains to be seen if its proclaimed 2005 winners, such as director Sam Mendes (“Jarhead”), Charlize Theron (“North Country”) or Joaquin Phoenix (“Walk the Line”) are this year’s Jamie Foxx.

To play a key awards season role is no mean feat. Stars may be born overnight, but award shows take time, savvy marketing and the right kind of public exposure to have an impact. And that was true of the Golden Globes as well as the Oscars.

“For years the Golden Globes were well known in Hollywood circles,” says Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. secretary Jorge Camara, “but once NBC started airing the telecast in 1995 it really started gaining wider popularity.”

One might also say that prior to that the organization, which presented its first awards in the 20th Century Fox commissary in 1944, gained an immeasurable amount of notoriety 38 years later when Pia Zadora was voted newcomer of the year.

Since then the Globes transformed that quasi-infamy into genuine fame by partnering with Dick Clark and being aired on NBC. But in the end, it was the reality TV aspect of the Globes that made it a must-attend show. “There’s no high-pressure situation like there is with the Academy,” Camara says. “We serve dinner before the show, so everybody has had something to eat and drink and they’re in a good mood.”

In these terms, the Globes had its Big Moment the year Christine Lahti won an award while ensconced in the ladies room. The Globes’ carefree image contrasts with the Oscars, whom critics charge is downright boring, now that designers and stylists dress the stars in immaculate fashion, minimizing the odds of a fashion faux pas.

The Academy Awards actually began on a rather staid note as a showbiz “insider” event at the Roosevelt Hotel, and didn’t truly explode in the public consciousness until World War II when it moved across the street to the much larger Grauman’s Chinese, and 200 servicemen were invited.

“The switch, from it being a banquet to having it held in a theater, was done because of the war,” Bona says. “The Academy felt it wasn’t right for them to be having a lavish celebration.”

For now, the Hollywood Awards and Festival have the right head-start timing with respect to the Oscars. Their fashion sense, however, may take awhile.

“The ArcLight is a really exciting place to go to the movies,” Wagner says of the fest’s principal venue. “The theaters are so comfortable and the lobby area has room for social interaction. It creates a sense of community. It makes going to the movies fun.”

It may not be the fun of Lahti’s mad dash from the powder room, but it’s a start.

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