In a surreal scene for a city famous for shutting down between midnight and 6 a.m., hundreds of men and women in glamorous garb — toting expensive cameras, computers and Blackberrys — gathered in Beverly Hills in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday to cover an event that lasted five minutes.
The all-business presentation by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Frank Pierson and actress Sigourney Weaver of the nominations in 10 key Oscar categories started at 5:30 a.m., launching an Oscar sprint that will continue until the awards are handed out Feb. 29.
By 4:30 a.m., almost every seat at tables set up in the lobby of the academy's Wilshire Boulevard office was taken and languages from Japanese to Spanish to French were overheard as members of the press from 25 countries ate, mingled and filed their initial reports.
There may have been a primary election in New Hampshire and a continuing war in Iraq that other journalists covered Tuesday. These were not those journalists. To truly appreciate the feeding frenzy that is modern celebrity journalism, one need look no further than the abundant buffet presented, consisting of bagels, French toast sticks, hash browns, orange juice and lattes for the 400 journalists and publicists.
British cameraman Helmut Schleppi, with his camera trained on the buffet, couldn't believe what he was seeing. Covering the nominations for the first time, and with 13 1/2 hours before his deadline, Schleppi took the time to photograph the black plastic plates and utensils and the scrambled eggs in shiny silver trays.
"It's funny that people can eat at 4 a.m.," said Schleppi, who works for London's "Good Morning Television." "In America, you can eat everywhere, even at 4 a.m. But to see the press and the circus, it's typical Hollywood. If there isn't anything to do, they just generate it."
He had a point. In the 20-plus years since "Entertainment Tonight" first went on the air — and certainly since 1986, when the academy decided to boost excitement about the Oscars by moving the nominations announcement to the early morning, timed to the East Coast morning news shows — the entertainment media machine has cranked at full speed. The Oscar nominations ceremony, as the kickoff for the centerpiece of the movie year, is certainly no time to play it quiet.
"This is our Super Bowl," "Access Hollywood" executive producer Rob Silverstein said Monday as he was finalizing coverage plans for his global team.
"Once the nominations are announced, then we scramble," said Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of the syndicated "Entertainment Tonight." "Chaos ensues."
Getting a celebrity to stand by is not as easy as it may sound. "Certain artists are really superstitious," said Shelly Ross, executive producer of ABC's "Good Morning America." "They feel if they have prearranged to call in, or have a camera standing by, that will jinx their chances."
On this morning, jobs range from celebrity wrangling to that of Daisy Nguyen of Associated Press, who couldn't fathom eating a big meal before fulfilling her simple but important task of transmitting the list of nominees on the wire as soon as Pierson began the presentation. "They give us a diskette a few minutes before, but we are not allowed to press 'send' until the announcements actually begin," she said. "The way this is all set up is fascinating to me. It's very organized. This is by far the nicest spread for journalists I see all year, but I feel guilty eating."
At 5 a.m., with OutKast's "Hey Ya!" playing in the background, clips of previous Academy Award telecasts were shown on a television set in the lobby of the academy's headquarters, and doors to the upstairs auditorium opened. Print and broadcast journalists rushed up the stairs, jockeying for the best seats and, for television correspondents, an opportunity to tape a quick feed in front of the gold Oscar statues.
"I am really enjoying this," said first-time reporter Antonio Gimenez of plus.es, an Internet news and entertainment site in Spain. "I have the most horrible jet lag in the world but I'm fascinated by all of this. I'm going to stay for the month to cover the awards. I have covered several film festivals but nothing as big as this. I think it's the experience of a lifetime."
As always with the nominations announcement, certain choices prompted cheers and applause from the foreign press: Ken Watanabe of Japan, Keisha Castle-Hughes of New Zealand, "Lost in Translation," "The Last Samurai" and Japan's "The Twilight Samurai" all generated reactions.
As soon as the announcements concluded, publicists dashed from the room to call agencies and clients on their cellphones, while local TV personalities and the rest of the press began stand-ups.
Ten minutes before he went on air at 6 a.m., Akira Maki, the L.A. bureau chief for Tokyo Broadcast System, waited for his opportunity to interview veteran entertainment reporter Jeanne Wolf. Already, there was a line of reporters with the same request. "We sat next to her at the Golden Globes and she was very articulate and easy to understand," said Maki's cameraman Hiroki Takiguchi. "She makes a very good interview."
That scene replayed itself with more reporters interviewing each other, particularly foreign journalists who were looking for insights from local entertainment TV personalities. While some reporters preoccupied themselves with the significance of the best actress nomination of 13-year-old Castle-Hughes — the part-Maori actress of New Zealand's "Whale Rider" — others like Sumire Kunieda, the L.A. bureau chief of the Mainichi Newspapers in Japan, had different angles in mind: "Do you think Ken Watanabe is sexy?" she asked other reporters.
Downstairs in the lobby, a publicist for New Line Cinema was ecstatic over the studio's 12 nominations. After faxing copies of the list to his office, he was on his way to Du-Par's for his favorite hotcakes. The spread supplied by the academy did not meet his culinary standards.
"I'm very fussy about what I put in my stomach," he said, smiling and sipping his coffee.
Dawn's early rite
In the city that does sleep, the academy announcements cause a unique early morning media frenzy each year.
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