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Inside the Oscar nominees luncheon, where Hollywood’s elite paid tribute to Kobe Bryant

Taika Waititi and Bong Joon Ho
Directors Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”), left, and Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”) mingle at the Academy Awards Nominees luncheon Monday at the Hollywood & Highland.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Quentin Tarantino breezed through the star-packed crowd, taking daytime formal into uncharted territory in a black-and-orange bowling shirt. Greta Gerwig chatted with Cynthia Erivo. Charlize Theron sat between her proudly beaming mother on one side and Taika Waititi on the other.

In all, 162 of this year’s Oscar contenders gathered on Monday afternoon at the annual nominees luncheon to celebrate their achievements — and smile for what is perhaps Hollywood’s most exclusive group photo.

With this year’s compressed awards season hurtling toward its climax at the Academy Awards on Feb. 9, the luncheon at the Hollywood & Highland’s Dolby Ballroom — one of the only stops on the Oscars calendar at which a majority of the nominees are actually in the same room — offered the chance for those who might otherwise never cross paths to rub elbows and chat. There, just days before the Oscar voting period begins on Thursday, Marc du Pontavice, nominated for the animated feature “I Lost My Body,” could geek out over “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho and “Jojo Rabbit” costume designer Mayes Rubeo could surreptitiously snap a photo of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” star Leonardo DiCaprio, seated with his father at the next table.

Oscars luncheon
Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo, left, meets with her competition, Renee Zellweger, as the Academy Awards nominees gather for the annual luncheon at the Hollywood and Highland complex.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Despite the otherwise festive atmosphere, the event began on a somber note as Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President David Rubin asked attendees to observe a moment of silence in memory of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others who died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas on Sunday. Just two years ago, Rubin noted, Bryant had attended the luncheon as a nominee for producing and writing the animated short film “Dear Basketball,” posing for selfies with starstruck fans like Steven Spielberg and Timothée Chalamet. Bryant’s film went on to win the Oscar.

“With all his mega-success on the court, he was possibly the most excited person in the room to be a nominee,” Rubin recalled. “I know we all send his family our deepest heartfelt condolences.”

With the 92nd Academy Awards coming earlier than ever, this year’s campaign circuit has been unusually hectic and dizzying, with events stacked practically on top of one another. Perhaps owing to that relentless schedule, a handful of prominent contenders, including Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”), Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”), “The Irishman” director Martin Scorsese and “Marriage Story” stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, were no-shows.

Hot off Saturday’s Directors Guild Awards when Sam Mendes won the feature film prize for “1917,” a number of nominees will fly to England for the BAFTAs later this week while others will attend the Writers Guild Awards before turning right around to go to the Oscars the following weekend.

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Oscar nominees luncheon
Oscar nominee Brad Pitt visits with fellow nominee and sound mixer Mark Ulano, nominated for “Ad Astra” and “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” at the Academy Awards nominees luncheon.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the divorce drama “Marriage Story,” said he would actually be going to both back-to-back. “We fly to New York for the Writers Guild Awards and then go straight to the BAFTAs,” he said with a slight note of weariness. Asked if he was feeling burned out from the endless screening Q&As, red carpets and cocktail parties, he paused a beat. “Yes,” he said. “But, I mean, at the same time, this has all been amazing.”

As much as the nominees have been heeding a sometimes punishing schedule, the producers of this year’s Oscar telecast, Stephanie Allain and Lynette Howell Taylor, are facing their own time pressures. For the second year in a row, the academy has pledged to keep the show, which has struggled with declining ratings and frequent criticisms of being bloated and dull, to a strict three-hour time limit. With the ceremony set to proceed for the second consecutive year without a formal host, they noted, the spotlight will be that much brighter on the awards themselves.

To keep things moving, Allain and Howell Taylor urged nominees, should they find themselves onstage as winners, to be prepared and keep their acceptance speeches short and sweet. “Get to the stage quickly,” Howell Taylor said. “You have one minute from the time your name is called to complete your speech. When you have 45 seconds remaining, you will see a countdown, and we don’t want to play you off.”

“No pressure, but millions of people will be watching and it’s an entertainment show,” Allain said.

Oscars luncheon
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, center, with his father George DiCaprio, right, visit with Oscar-nominated writer Steven Zaillian while at the Academy Awards nominees luncheon at the Hollywood and Highland complex.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

As the nominees were called to arrange themselves on risers for the annual group photo, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos  whose streaming giant easily outpaced the competition with 24 total nominations — snapped photos on his phone of the talent from his company’s releases like a proud dad.

For one of those Netflix nominees, Steven Bognar, who co-directed the documentary feature “American Factory” with his partner Julia Reichert, the luncheon was just the latest in a series of pinch-me experiences.

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“It’s been an intense few months but it’s been great to get to know a lot of the nominees,” said Bognar, who was thrilled to have met “1917" cinematographer Roger Deakins that afternoon. “Leonardo DiCaprio just told me, ‘I love your movie, man.’ That was sweet.”


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