Oscar Nominees Luncheon Finds Academy Grappling With Change and Loss

The annual event is a celebratory one, but the death of Kobe Bryant and the pressures of a shortened awards season were on the minds of nominees who gathered on Monday

The annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon began in sadness and ended in celebration, but the common theme running through the event at the Ray Dolby Ballroom on Monday afternoon was change.

For the first time, an event that began in the early 1980s to celebrate the Oscar nominees at an event devoid of competition took place in January, not February or March. For the first time, it didn’t take place at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the luncheon had become an annual ritual. For the first time, it happened less than two weeks before the Oscars themselves, which this year take place on their earliest-ever date, Feb. 9.

This was a refashioned Nominees Luncheon, with a bigger location, an enlarged platform for the annual “class photo” of nominees and a different seating arrangement that put the 162 nominees who attended at a couple dozen long tables rather a series of round ones.

And it was a Nominees Luncheon at which Academy President David Rubin proclaimed that the organization is devoted to change, too. “We are successfully evolving into a new Academy, a diverse global community,” he said of the organization that has dramatically expanded its membership over the last four years and brought in record numbers of women, nonwhite members and foreign filmmaking professionals.

But he made that statement only after the most somber opening of any Nominees Luncheon in memory. “We all heard some terrible news yesterday,” he said when he took the stage, and then asked for a moment of silence for Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday and had been the life of the party at the luncheon in 2018, just before he won an Oscar for his short film “Dear Basketball.”

At that luncheon, Bryant stood out because he was the tallest person in the world, but also because he was the most excited to be there, and the one that every other star at the event wanted to meet or get a selfie with.

On Monday, Kobe was a memory that made this a sadder Oscar Nominees Luncheon than usual – though you can’t put more than 150 Oscar nominees in a room for an event at which none of them will go home a loser without eventually focusing on happier things.

And so many of the familiar rituals from past luncheons were played out again at the Ray Dolby Ballroom, adjacent to the Dolby Theatre where the Oscar production team is already at work. Stars attracted crowds, with the “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” trio of Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio being particularly popular. “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho and his team drew their usual hefty quota of well-wishers. Partners Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach attended on behalf of “Little Women” and “Marriage Story,” respectively – and because the Academy mixes the seating arrangement so nominees aren’t put with people from their movie or their category, they could sit closer together than usual for awards-season events.

Another change: Laura Dern, a governor from the Academy’s Actors Branch, has in recent years been enlisted to read the names of all the nominees as they come to a huge riser for the annual “class photo” – but this year, Dern was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Marriage Story.” So instead of having her call out her own name, the Academy gave Dern’s usual job to actress Illeana Douglas.

“I’m so sorry I can’t do it this year, because I love it,” Dern told TheWrap before the luncheon began. “But it’s a nice reason to not be able to do it.”

(Not that this provides much solid evidence to predict Oscar wins, but the people receiving the most applause when they took the stage included Pitt, DiCaprio, Bong, Gerwig, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Renee Zellweger and cinematographer Roger Deakins.)

The reconfigured luncheon drew mixed reviews: Nominees preferred the more spacious multi-level risers to the cramped version that was used at the Beverly Hilton, but one returning nominee dismissed the long tables as “not as friendly” as the old setup.

But the main topic of conversation both before and after the lunch wasn’t the reconfigured lunch but the reconfigured awards season, with everything taking place earlier than usual and voters having less time to see the nominated films. (Final voting begins on Thursday and lasts for only five days.)

The consensus, a member of the AMPAS Board of Governors admitted, has not been positive about the earlier date, which will not be used in 2021 or 2022.

Shaking his head over the lack of time to see and consider a strong and deep batch of films, one executive at the lunch joked, “Maybe they should do the whole thing in four days. Do it in Palm Springs and call it Oscar-chella.”

See the 2020 oscar class photo below.

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