N.Y. awards scene a party of 2

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NEW YORK -- It's awards season in New York, which means one thing: Harvey Weinstein is throwing a downtown party.

In this instance, it's a splashy event at a Chelsea screening room and then at the trendy Bowery Hotel for Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan biopic "I'm Not There." Richard Gere is rubbing shoulders with Lauren Bacall, while Elle Macpherson stands toe-to-toe (well, sort of) with Adrian Grenier.

But something stands out from past such affairs -- or, maybe it's that something doesn't stand out. The event isn't being run by the longtime doyenne of kudos publicity and frequent Weinstein awards-enabler Peggy Siegal.

Instead, it's overseen by Andrew Saffir, a dapper forty¬something with an easygoing manner who in less than two years has managed to shake up the sometimes invisible but hugely influential world of New York film-event planners.

The Weinstein Co., like most studios seeking a publicity splash, still works with Siegal. But increasingly they're wrapping in another player. In a velvet jacket and with his perpetual wide smile, the former Ralph Lauren exec Saffir on Tuesday presses the flesh with models, New York indie film powerbrokers like John Sloss and young Hollywood actors like Heath Ledger.

Awards-season publicity takes different shapes on each coast.

In Los Angeles, where a critical mass of guild members and Academy voters reside, broader tools like trade ads and TV spots can be used to target voters and put movies on their radar screens.

The New York world is different. Academy and guild voters in the city are a smaller, more slippery lot, and it's both possible and necessary to know many of them firsthand.

Siegal's vast Rolodex, her penchant for strategic table-seating, a preternatural ability to know the latest projects of everyone from a real-estate mogul to a documentary filmmaker have turned her into an institution of New York film events.

"There's a reason she continues to have more work than God," one awards-season publicist said.

This year, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, "Lions for Lambs" and "Lars and the Real Girl" are among those movies which have gotten the Siegal treatment; many more will continue to as the season heats up.

But as head of the startup Cinema Society, which grew out of a gig he had with the Hamptons International Film Festival, Saffir has managed to carve out a surprisingly large slice of the market. He has brought in celebrities -- everyone from Howard Stern to Halle Berry -- who like that his events are low-key (but just scene-y enough).

Saffir's ability to draw that crowd is a big part of how he has gone from an unknown to a fixture in such a short time. But just as central to his success is a business model so devilishly simple you almost wonder why others haven't tried it.

Studios often pay between $15,000-$20,000 for a Siegal event; Saffir charges the studios nothing. (They usually share only logistical costs like theater rental).

Instead, he convinces such high-end sponsors as Calvin Klein or handbag label Hogan to pick up the tab, often collecting as much as $20,000 himself from them. The studios get a lot of free publicity, the sponsors get a high-end captive audience and the Cinema Society brings in a chunk of change. (The name, incidentally, gives the impression of a large group. It's not, just Saffir and a staff of two.)

Unlike the realm of awards publicity -- in Los Angeles overseen by such longtime players as Melody Korenbrot, Tony Angelotti and Michelle Robertson and in New York by 42West's Cynthia Swartz and Amanda Lundberg -- the film-events world is a different animal.

The world of party planners can also be, for all the champagne-sipping niceties, cutthroat.

Academy rules prohibit members from supporting a movie and also ban events aimed primarily at Oscar voters. Siegal and Saffir both creatively use non-Academy members to headline and host; that gets voters in the door but keep the events on the right side of Oscar bylaws.

That hasn't stopped rival studios from sending in spies to events to take head counts on the number of voters, according to several studio execs who say they've seen the practice in action.

(A third player, Bryan Bantry, also holds screenings, though these tend to be focused more on large numbers than on narrowly defined audiences, and also don't often come with a glitzy event.)

Awards campaigners say Saffir and Siegal are good at putting on very different kinds of events with very different sorts of guests -- celebrities and scenesters for Saffir and media columnists, society types and older Academy members for Siegal.

"I didn't want to come in and be Peggy Number Two," Saffir said. "I made a conscious effort to create something different, and the feedback I got is that there was a need for something that felt a little younger and more geared toward celebrity."

But in a New York film world as crowded as it is exclusive, there's bound to be overlap.

Saffir is now drawing awards voters and gossip columnists, two Siegal staples, not so much because he's actively courting them but because the changing dynamic of celebrity news is bringing them to him.

"It used to be that outlets like the New York Times and New York Magazine would write about Brooke Astor and the Upper East Side when they wrote gossip," one studio publicist said. "But the gossip columns are now about a younger crowd; look at who even older established media like Lloyd Grove and Cindy Adams are covering. That's why the focus and attention is moving to Andrew."

Saffir is also doing his part to go Oscar. It's no accident that Focus Features has chosen Saffir to throw the party next month for its awards contender "Atonement."

On the other side, Siegal has adjusted her own approach as a result of Saffir's success. She now brings in plenty of young names -- Gawker fixture Amy Larocca and celeb chef Rocco DiSpirito were recent guests at a "Lions for Lambs" event. Facing Saffir's low-cost model, she has also begun to solicit more sponsors so she can keep prices lower for studios.

How much either Siegal or Saffir matters in the scheme of awards is up for debate.

Several awards experts said that their events are good at getting a movie an initial push or for keeping it in the conversation, but never both at once. And even when these events do their jobs, the best they can do is get people to see and think about the movie, and sometimes not even that.

After all, some of the best Oscar publicity isn't an event at all -- it's a nomination for another award.

Still, untold amount of dollars will be spent on events this season and thousands of hands shaken by Siegal and Saffir -- a job that studios have delegated to them not only because they're good at it.

"Who wants to spend so much time calling all these people to come to events?" one veteran film publicist said. "Thank God Peggy and Andrew are willing to do it so I don't have to."
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