The pre-Oscar Hollywood awards season may have been plunged into chaos by the Motion Picture Academy's ban on video viewing, but there are also grave repercussions for members of the Manhattan buzzocracy.
The city has at least a dozen A-list screening rooms -- plush little mini-theaters tucked away in corporate suites or nondescript Times Square office buildings, where you can savor a movie in a tykes'n'teens-free zone with no crunching Twix bars and no high-fives after scenes of sex and violence. Thanks to the movie industry's longtime Washington lobbyist Jack Valenti, every single one of them is booked solid through January. My husband and I have been getting an unusually large number of calls from frantic entertainment functionaries, each of whom needs a bold-face name to host a "celebrity screening."
I'm sitting in a pleasant reverie at my desk when the phone explodes with a call from Peggy Siegal, New York's publicity diva, who's flacking Peter Weir's new movie, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," based on the Patrick O'Brian seafaring series.
"Tina!" she yells. "I need your name! NO! Wait a minute! Harry's name!" (Harry is my husband.) "'Master and Commander!' Russell Crowe! Shot in the same tank as 'Titanic'! I've got all these boat guys hosting! Writers! William F. Buckley! Bartle Bull! Peter Matthiessen! Harry'll love it! Could he do it on the 9th? Or he could do it on the 3rd? Or the 6th? Or he could just show up at the Yacht Club on the 1st with Walter Cronkite?!"
Other P.R.'s come on with a subtler approach. The one that begins, "There's this wonderful little Irish movie we're very worried will get overlooked." I'm a sucker for creative sob stories, so before I know it I have spent an hour combing my Rolodex for brand-name leprechauns or historians of the potato famine who might be willing to stoke the word of mouth.
The "screener" ban, which Valenti mandated in an attempt to foil DVD piracy, has ended up being torture for him. But his belated attempt at a truce will only create him more aggravation. All he's done has created a new caste system. If 6,000 Academy voters are allowed to receive the screeners but not the other creative shops, then the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Critics Circle and that louche fraternity known as the Hollywood Foreign Press have in effect been told they're not to be trusted. In the new scheme of things they are just rabble, outlaws, garlic-breathed Pirates of the Caribbean.
It was always such a great opportunity for lordly condescension among movie execs to be able to send out beribboned boxes of the latest Christmas movies to 500 of their closest Botox artists, dog walkers and Kabbalah gurus. And for otherwise perkless recipients it was a nod that you were an insider. You might be a miserable entertainment scribe eating Chinese takeout in a socklike apartment, but a box of Oscar screeners arriving by FedEx told you you were cool. These guys know they'll never get back on the list.
The P.R. amazons like Siegal whose task it now is to get these grumpy buzzocrats out of their TV chairs into a theater are not helped by the fact that this year's movie crop is so heavy on downers. It's a tough sell to ask a bunch of friends over for a drink and a look at, say, "Elephant," Gus Van Sant's grim real-time reconstruction of the hours before a Columbine-style school massacre. After viewing five impending releases on five straight days the only laugh in the theater all week was during "Sylvia," when Gwyneth Paltrow, playing Sylvia Plath, brightens the mood of a romantic rowboat excursion with the poet Ted Hughes by suddenly intoning in her flat "literary" voice, "I tried to drown myself once."
Academy members themselves can't be solicited to host screenings. That's why the hunt is on for any other genre of person with a Rolodex to host a preview that might fan the hype. Writers are in particular demand because they add credibility. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein may have been the first moviemaker cum marketing genius to come up with this method of collecting interest on borrowed intellectual capital. When we were in business together at Talk magazine, I always sensed that he was wondering why the hell I couldn't produce J.D. Salinger for an opening. Now the practice of writer-hosted screenings is so rampant I expect any day to get an invitation from Gabriel Garcéa Marquéz and Thomas Pynchon inviting me to a preview of "Elf."
The trouble with approaching "real writers," as Hollywood likes to call them (meaning, I suppose, writers who write books, not "pages"), to host these promotional events is that the more seriously talented they are, the weirder they tend to be. Real writers also are prone to having real opinions. And they become "difficult" when required to suppress them.
The writers you see at parties are not usually the "real" ones. Real writers are usually sitting in a chaotic farmhouse somewhere with a five-day growth of beard and a stained T-shirt in an onanistic trance at their computers, or else trying to kill themselves like Sylvia Plath. They don't like to be disturbed.
If the DVD ban gets repealed, though, it will be because of the most powerful lobbying group of all: not filmmakers or executives, but their kids. They've all been in meltdown about being deprived of having friends over to view their big-shot dad's Oscar screeners. Hollywood is full of New Age fathers who are happy to blow off corporate lawyers and each other but will never say no to their kids.