While an Academy Award is considered the top prize for achievement in filmmaking, scoring an invitation to Charles Finch and Chanel’s dinner party the night before the Oscars might just be a close second.
Saturday’s dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge will be another gathering of old friends and colleagues who have connections to Finch and Chanel. Since its 2009 inception, the party’s guest list has remained limited to 150 seats.
Once inside, you might find Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lupita Nyong’o, Jessica Chastain, David O. Russell, Sofia Coppola and Michael Keaton mingling with Mick Jagger, Julian Schnabel, André Balazs, Rupert Murdoch, Jerry Hall and Jeff Bezos. Media access is limited, with just a few outlets — if any — invited to the party, making this star-studded gathering a very private affair during an otherwise showy week.
So how does one score a coveted invitation? “There’s an old saying in Hollywood,” Finch said during a mid-January phone interview. “‘What’s the easiest way to win an Academy Award?’ And the answer is, ‘When you’ve won one already.’”
The 57-year-old British filmmaker-turned-entrepreneur said he and the French fashion house approach their guest list with this idea in mind, meaning the best way to be invited is to have already attended. It’s a fitting explanation for an industry built on such conundrums.
Finch said the guest list rationale is simple. “I don’t want to be in a room full of people where I’m introducing myself,” he said, naming Alejandro González Iñárritu, Al Ruddy, Jim Berkus, Ben Silverman, Danny Huston and Peter Morton as being among the friends he looks forward to seeing at the annual dinner.
“I’m pretty careful about who I invite,” Finch said. “Every year I sit down and say to myself, ‘Who are the most powerful people on the planet who are going to fund all of my movies and fund my brands?’ And that list lasts about 30 seconds. That never works out. I tend to go back to the same people, year after year, who I adore.”
Chanel has its own circle of devotees who loyally show up to the pre-Oscars dinner clad in the label’s latest designs. (Last month, the luxury brand showed its spring-summer 2020 haute couture collection in Paris, its second haute couture collection from Virginie Viard, who took the helm after designer Karl Lagerfeld died last February.) Robbie, Kristen Stewart, Pharrell Williams, Julianne Moore, Naomi Watts, Diane Kruger, Keira Knightley and Leslie Mann are among the party’s perennial Chanel-adorned attendees.
The fashion house’s connection to cinema runs deeper than dressing A-list actresses for red carpet events. In 1931, United Artists President Samuel Goldwyn brought Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel to Hollywood to design costumes for three feature films: “Palmy Days” (1931), “Tonight or Never” (1931) and “The Greeks Had a Word for Them” (1932). Shortly after, Chanel returned home to Paris, where she collaborated with Oscar-nominated French directors including Jean Renoir and Louis Malle, as well as Roger Vadim and Alain Resnais.
Finch has his own Hollywood history. His father was the late Oscar-winning actor Peter Finch and his mother was actress Yolande Turner. “I came to L.A. for the first time when I was quite young after my father died,” said Finch, who grew up splitting time between Jamaica and Europe. “I came back [to Los Angeles] when I was 19 — coming from New York with a script under my arm like everybody else. ... Being the son of a famous person is a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that it usually can get you in the door to meet people. The bad thing is that it’s a lot to measure up to. … It can be really brutal; even more brutal for the kids who come into town and don’t know anyone — and can suffer at the hands of the industry. It’s tough, but I loved it. … I have a great affection for the town.”
Finch lived at the beach and off Laurel Canyon Boulevard, often crashing on friends’ couches. He wrote 20 scripts and directed his first movie, “Priceless Beauty” with Diane Lane, in 1988. He went on to complete his third and final film as a writer-director-actor with 1996’s “Never Ever,” and the critical response proved crippling. “It really broke my heart and pushed me to never make a film again,” he said.
In 1997, he moved to London to become head of international operations for William Morris Agency’s office in Europe, and by 2005, he launched his own brand, the development firm Finch + Partners. (Chanel is among his clients, although he was quick to point out that he does not profit from the dinner.) “There certainly wasn’t the big endorsement business [that exists today],” he said, discussing how the Hollywood paradigm has evolved since his time in town.
He said his approach to luxury and filmmaking go hand in hand. “I never saw too much difference in storytelling,” he said, “whether it be movies or building a brand. I always felt it was aligned to taste and the quality in stories.”
Last year, Finch turned his attention back to production with the launch of Standalone Films, which has 25 projects in development as well as a deal with Paramount Pictures. The company’s first film, “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” a documentary about the late Leonard Cohen’s relationship with Marianne Ihlen, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year.
Beyond their Hollywood histories, Finch and Chanel’s pre-Oscars dinner came about because of their shared affinity for hosting parties. According to a representative for the fashion house, Coco Chanel enjoyed entertaining artists and creative individuals at her apartment in Paris, and the annual L.A. dinner was put together in the same spirit.
Yara Shahidi said she was introduced to the pre-Oscars soiree after becoming a Chanel ambassador in 2018. “What I love is that not only is it a moment to form new friendships, but you’re seeing familiar faces,” said the 19-year-old “Grown-ish” actress. “I remember seeing everyone from my TV mama [Tracee Ellis Ross] to Daniel Kaluuya. It’s such a beautiful group of humans that you’ve got to stand in awe of the group that they’ve curated.”
She cited the Finch/Chanel party’s size as setting it apart from other Oscars gatherings. “It is a really intimate setting,” she said, “and it is a moment of actually being able to be in conversation with people and celebrate art.”
Chanel’s legacy and support of the arts, which includes a 15-year partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival, is what drew Shahidi to the label. Shahidi was an advisor for last year’s “Through Her Lens: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program,” a mentorship workshop with the Tribeca Film Institute that provides production grants to U.S.-based female filmmakers.
“It’s a beautiful moment in which cross-industry there’s such a sense of support,” Shahidi said of the program, which is going into its fifth year. “Being that television and movies are so influential, it’s really fun to be a part of a brand that supports voices that go overlooked and intentionally celebrates them.”
For 10 years, West Hollywood’s Madeo was the spot for Finch and Chanel’s event, but the dinner was moved to the Polo Lounge last year.
Beyond its iconic Hollywood history — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. were once among the restaurant’s regulars — the location has an unfortunate personal connection for Finch, whose 60-year-old father suffered a fatal heart attack in the lobby in 1977 while waiting with his “Network” director Sidney Lumet to promote the film. Despite the association, Finch said, “It has an old Hollywood history that I cherish. ... I feel safe there.”
Last year, the party bucked its traditional mariachi band (a nod to Finch’s friendship with the late British entrepreneur Jimmy Goldsmith) out of respect for Lagerfeld’s passing. Although the menu has also changed to reflect each venue’s signature dishes, one thing that will remain constant is the flow of red wine from Château Rauzan-Ségla, which is owned by Chanel.
Before partnering with Chanel, Finch said he threw his own solo pre-Oscars soirees 30 years ago at Mr. Chow’s in Beverly Hills. “Michael Chow actually gave me his restaurant to try and feed me when I was a starving, young writer-director,” he said, adding that Al Pacino and Bill Murray were in attendance. “It became this wild night at Mr. Chow’s, and after we destroyed the place, Michael Chow said, ‘That’s one too many. Next time you can either pay or find someone else to do it.’”
Having hosted a pre-British Academy Film Awards dinner with Chanel for many years, Finch later collaborated with the label for their joint pre-Oscars event. “It happened completely organically, but it was a long time in the making,” Finch said, explaining he had a previous history with the fashion house having met Lagerfeld on a plane. “He sat in the row in front of me, and I started talking to him. I was making my second film. … I said to him … ‘Karl, would you give me some clothes?’ And he had some beautiful girls show up a few weeks later with some fantastic clothes, which Sharon Stone wears in [the 1991 thriller] ‘Where Sleeping Dogs Lie.’”
Finch said he appreciates that Lagerfeld was “a cinephile and fantastic guy, an amazing man” and that he values Chanel’s “history and legacy” and that “what Lagerfeld did was he made the [fashion] house really relevant and young with the appreciation of the history of the brand.”
Despite being a well-oiled machine, the annual party still stresses out Finch each year. “Most of the time, I’m so terrified by my own party that I’m nearly always incoherent. It’s really the worst night to have a chat with me,” he said, explaining he calms his nerves with a martini. “It’s pretty terrifying, to be honest with you. You’re worried about offending people. You only have 150 seats. There are people that you find out really hate you because you never invited them to this thing. … So it’s tricky.”
Finch said it’s the dinner’s crowd that keeps guests coming back. “It’s a very small party that just happens to pack a big guest list,” Finch said, noting that, although he has “met most movie stars,” there are two people who remain on his wish list. “I’d like to meet Mr. and Mrs. Obama,” he said of the former president and his wife Michelle. “Can you help?”
The thought isn’t too much of a stretch, considering the Obamas’ production company did back this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “American Factory,” which Finch said was one of his favorite films of the season. “We have a real mixture of people,” Finch said of the dinner. “We can at any one time have a politician, a duke, a movie star, an interesting writer, a painter.”
But how long does Finch plan to keep this party going? “I remember Swifty Lazar’s party in Hollywood,” he said, “which, of course, I never could get into and thinking, ‘He died, and it ended.’ ... So I’m going to do this until I die.”