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Bruce Dern to George Clooney: Q&A Blitz Helps Carry This Year’s Oscar Onslaught

As studios cut back on campaign coin, actors step up for face time

Wherever you go in town this time of year you’re likely to run into a filmmaker. Or an actor. Or at least a producer.

It’s not that normally inaccessible movie stars are suddenly becoming pedestrian friendly. It’s just that in this corridor of time known as awards season, “face time” takes on great import for those who have a shot at a nomination. So they’re out there pitching their wares to prospective voters like salesmen with their fall line.

Face time takes on many different forms — Q&A sessions, cocktail receptions, dinner parties and, of course, the nonstop ritual of hosted screenings. Such figures as Emma Thompson, George Clooney or Tom Hanks become instantly ubiquitous, but this year far more so than in previous campaigns. The reason: Most studios are curtailing their ad budgets and relying much more on promotion to push awards contenders. And the live presence of a star standing before Oscar voters or guild members translates into serious promotion. Plus, as awards pundits continue to point out, this year marks one of the most competitive horse races on record.

During one recent week, there were at least two Q&As a night for films such as “Nebraska,” “August: Osage County” and “Saving Mr. Banks.” The stoic Emma Thompson, who all but ricocheted around town, observed that campaigning had become vastly more frenetic in the 20 years since her last Oscar effort.

The Q&A blitz coincided with the nightly AFI Festival galas celebrating stars like Ben Stiller and Mark Wahlberg. The annual fest is an ideal campaign stop for contenders, and in return, it benefits from star wattage. And the superstar circuit was packed yet again, with the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew McConaughey on hand at the Academy’s Governors Awards (the board of governors, not Oscar voters, picks these winners).

Inevitably there were bumps in the road. One Q&A for “American Hustle” at the Chinese theater rambled on and on despite a dead sound system. The moderator at one session for “Nebraska” surveyed his sleep-deprived panel and blurted, “Let’s just go right to audience questions.” (The mega-loquacious Bruce Dern, who stars in “Nebraska,” usually needed only one question to launch into an anecdotal peroration, and Quentin Tarantino made a point of praising the actor’s improvisational “Dernsies.”)

Clooney, who gets bored easily, tried to joke his way through repetitive questions. His success in persuading Julia Roberts to co-star in “Osage County,” he explained, stemmed from his willingness to “keep offering her more booze.” Tom Hanks acknowledged he delivered an inaccurate portrayal of Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” in that Disney was a chain smoker, and “we’d have lost our PG-13 rating if I’d lit one up.”

However, behind-the-scenes insights into the various productions were few and far between during the myriad Q&As. Though most were moderated by journalists, the unwritten code decreed that questions had to prompt celebrities into delivering their favorite self-promotional anecdotes. This guaranteed that few truly interesting questions were ever advanced.

CEOs and celebrities from Jack Nicholson to Leslie Moonves were recruited to host events, the latter handling the honors at a concert and dinner to promote the Coen Brothers’ CBS Films movie “Inside Llewyn Davis.” But T-Bone Burnett was the true onsite host, producing a spirited music program. For two hours, a brilliant band of toe-tappers including Rhiannon Giddens, Oscar Isaac and even Steve Martin entertained a guest list that featured Barbra Streisand, Ted Danson, John Goodman and producer Scott Rudin as well as media and Oscar voters.

The evening was so entertaining that partygoers briefly forgot that the event, like others crammed into the hectic week, was all in the interest of face time. But does all the campaigning pay off? As a voting member of the Academy, SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, I will make this admission: When I see an old pro like Dern working so hard on his “Dernsies,” I’ll have a tough time ignoring his name on a ballot. I guess I’ve gotten to like his face.

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