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

Bruce Dern Q and A Oscar

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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  1. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    I haven’t seen a motion picture truly worthy of an Oscar since The English Patient in 1996. Awards season has-beens who party on into the sunset are pedestrian friendly because the dream factory has no room for old souls except to celebrate millennial dreck. Meanwhile, a toxic zeitgeist still caters to youth culture with a storm cloudy future due to climate change and economic chaos while 70 million retiring baby boomers with more free time and money to spend are left to vegetate on classic retro media. So today there are only 3 types of movies that get made—snore fest chick flicks, superhero tent poles and dystopian nightmares. When studios are not busy with desperate remakes, we’ll give their robot brain bean counters a pass and call modern cinema alternative. Music wise, alternative is defined as having the gall to be different and still suck. In movie terms, that means segregating oldie taste mature talent to stay on its lawn while you turn new age showbiz into a Twilight Zone reality show.

  2. filmlouvre says:

    Q & A sessions do wonders only for the few celebrities who really make the session really involving. They may not speak in depth about the film but their verve and spirit is what one ends up remembering. I saw August Osage County and wrote more about Meryl in an article about my question (asked through Facebook) to Tracy Letts during audience Q&As. In India, one of the year’s best films Ship of Theseus became a commercial success after its director Anand Gandhi and its cast went to different metros and had interactive sessions with audiences. I asked the director a question at one session and was highly impressed by his response; promoted the film on FB and saw it as soon as it released. Also, I believe these sessions help to offset some of the criticism against the movie itself; there was this documentary I saw about Indian director Sudheer Mishra which was a massive bore and yet I didn’t feel like giving it below two stars in my review after I interacted with the director. Had he been absent from the event, I’d have walked out midway out of sheer boredom.

  3. AlanaSmithee says:

    Hey Peter, how about the fact that Bruce Dern’s party at AFI Fest was hosted by SAG-AFTRA?! Doesn’t that smack of favoritism for a union that has an awards show and lots of union members in the Awards Race?

  4. GKN says:

    That last comment may well be, Mr. Bart, but is it a good enough reason? I like is face as well and have nothing bad to say about his acting, but still haven’t quite gotten over Cannes where everyone was convinced that Damon and Douglas were shoo-ins for Best Actor. Everyone but the judges apparently, But then again, Cannes judges love to play Mary, Mary, quite contrary.

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