A hometown extravaganza

As Leonardo DiCaprio walked on stage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel last October to accept the Hollywood Film Festival's actor of the year award for his portrayal as Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," the audience burst into applause.

Ironically, few people in attendance that evening had even seen the Martin Scorsese film because the studio still had it under wraps in preparation for its December release. But as he took his bows and gave his acceptance speech, DiCaprio's campaign for an Academy Award nomination was shifting into high gear.

Since its inception nine years ago, the Hollywood Film Festival has emerged as one of the signature events in the Oscar award season. It wasn't completely by chance: Carlos de Abreu, the festival's founder and executive director, positioned the festival — this year it will run Tuesday through Oct. 24 — so that it would be held near the start of the campaigning for the awards season, which gets its unofficial start just after Labor Day. The Hollywood awards dinner got a boost, though, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to move up the Oscars by a month, adding new intensity to the abbreviated awards season.

"I estimate that out of 1,200 people at our gala awards, probably 500 people are academy voters," said De Abreu, who noted that last year his festival handed out 10 awards to recipients who went on to either win or be nominated for the Oscar. (DiCaprio would eventually be nominated for an Oscar but lose to Jamie Foxx, who also was at the Hollywood Film Festival that night in October accepting the festival's "breakthrough actor of the year" award for his role as singer Ray Charles in "Ray.")

"We're not saying we make Oscars happen," De Abreu said, "but our track record shows that our selection of honorees and films have often been picked up at the Academy Awards."

Maxim magazine film critic Pete Hammond said that clout has helped turn the Hollywood Film Festival into a star-studded event, even by industry standards. Past attendees include Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman and Harrison Ford.

That said, it isn't really the award that the stars covet, it's the attendant publicity and the chance to be honored in front of potential Oscar voters that counts.

"To have somebody accepting an award and to be seen by academy members ... translates into awards cache, and that's what it is all about," Hammond said.

Film festivals, long accustomed to showcasing low-budget, cutting-edge independent and foreign films as well as documentaries, have in recent years become launching pads in the Oscar wars.

At the Toronto Film Festival in September, the studios and various art-house distributors descended on the Canadian city with a bushel of Oscar hopefuls: 20th Century Fox brought "Walk the Line," Focus Features had "Brokeback Mountain," Warner Bros. had "North Country," Sony Pictures Classics had "Capote,"; Fox Searchlight had "Thank You for Smoking," Paramount Pictures had "Elizabethtown," and Disney had "Casanova."

Come November, the Los Angeles-based AFI Fest 2005 will feature four galas: "Walk the Line" on opening night Nov. 3, followed by two centerpiece galas — the U.S. premieres of "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and "The World's Fastest Indian" directed by Roger Donaldson — and the closing-night U.S. premiere on Nov. 13 of Lasse Hallström's "Casanova."

AFI Fest "used to just have an opening and closing night," Hammond said, "but now they have an opening night, a centerpiece, another centerpiece, and a closing night. Four red-carpet events. They'll also be doing a tribute to Johnny Depp and showing his movie "The Libertine." That is perfectly placed because his handlers want attention for the awards season."

And sandwiched between those two events this year is the ninth annual Hollywood Film Festival. The opening-night gala will feature a screening of Shane Black's new film, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang." There will be daily public screenings ($11 per ticket) at the ArcLight Theaters in Hollywood. And the festival will close Oct. 24 with a black-tie awards dinner at the Beverly Hilton that is already sold out.

This year's honorees include Charlize Theron for actress of the year for her performance in "North Country," Joaquin Phoenix as actor of the year for "Walk the Line," Matthew Broderick as supporting actor for "The Producers," and Susan Sarandon as supporting actress for "Elizabethtown." Sam Mendes has been named director of the year for "Jarhead" while Jake Gyllenhaal, who appears in "Proof," "Jarhead," and "Brokeback Mountain," and Rachel McAdams, soon to be seen in "The Family Stone," will be feted that night as the festival's "breakthrough" actors of the year. Diane Keaton, who also stars in "The Family Stone," will receive a life achievement award. Akiva Goldsman ("Cinderella Man") will be honored as screenwriter of the year. Paul Haggis will be honored as director of the year for "Crash," while Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, whose upcoming films include "Jarhead" and "Memoirs of a Geisha," have been selected as producers of the year.

And that doesn't include the celebrity presenters the festival lures to the ballroom each year.

"We have people like Sandra Bullock as a presenter, Jodie Foster as a presenter, Jennifer Aniston as a presenter, [director] Rob Marshall as a presenter ... ," De Abreu says, rattling off the names. "It's like the Golden Globes — without the TV broadcast."

Like DiCaprio in "The Aviator," many of these films have not been screened widely, and some won't even be released until weeks after the festivals close.

"Last year, you saw Leonardo DiCaprio accept an award for a film that practically no one had seen yet," said one Oscar consultant, who asked not to be identified. "Not even the studio had screened it widely. This year, no one has seen 'Jarhead.' You have to rely on the studio to have submitted a film that is good enough to merit awards."

De Abreu said members of his selection committee arrange for private screenings of films being honored, adding, "We have a group of people from industry producers, directors, agents and others advise us."

Paula Wagner, Tom Cruise's longtime producing partner who has co-chaired the festival the last three years, said it is important for Hollywood to have its own film festival.

"People in Hollywood travel all over the world almost every week of the year to one film festival or another," she said, "so to have one right in our own backyard is exciting and has a lot of potential."

She said that in addition to being a great way to honor people for their contributions to film, the festival — which is not televised — also has turned into a fun and relaxing party.

The festival came about after De Abreu said he discovered that no one had ever trademarked the name "Hollywood." So he went to the state of California and registered the "Hollywood" trademark, then launched a film festival. Each year, the festival draws tens of thousands of spectators to its mix of industry panel discussions, public screenings and the closing awards gala.

Publicist Simon Halls, who represents festival honorees Broderick and Mendes, said film festivals are the "perfect venues" for the awards season campaigns because the world's media is in attendance and it doesn't cost much to screen a film compared with the typical advertising campaign aimed to attract academy voters.

He noted that Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the former co-chairmen of Miramax Films, became a powerhouse each year at Oscar time in part because they knew how to exploit their films at film festivals.

Halls said that both "Jarhead" and "The Producers" can only be helped by the publicity they receive off the Hollywood Film Festival because each film contains "challenging" subject matters.

"Jarhead," he explained, is "a very dark comedy based on [former Marine] Tony Swofford's [2003 bestselling] memoir of the 1991 Persian Gulf War that is not just a slam dunk in terms of selling a film. 'The Producers' was a huge hit on Broadway, but a musical — who knows how people are going to respond to that genre? Any kind of major city festival is going to generate publicity, and what publicity does in its most basic form is it brings awareness of a producer to the general public."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times