Oscar Season Kicks Off in Hollywood With 'Birdman' and 'Chef' Events

Jon Favreau, Tom Ortenberg, Michael Keaton and John Lesher dish about their contenders with THR on a busy night in Hollywood
Scott Feinberg

If Tuesday evening's Hollywood Reporter awards season kickoff party wasn't proof enough that the Oscar race has now made its way from Telluride and Toronto to Hollywood (en route to New York, where the New York Film Festival gets underway on Friday), then a flurry of other awards-related gatherings held simultaneously across town — including an Open Road Films party celebrating the DVD/Blu-ray release of Chef and a Fox Searchlight special screening of Birdman — certainly should be.

The event for Chef — a $13 million dramedy that hit theaters in May, received rave reviews and became the indie hit of the summer, with worldwide grosses now totaling $46 million — took place in the Terrace Room of the Sunset Tower Hotel. There, writer-director-producer-star Jon Favreau, in keeping with his character in the film (and his new offscreen passion), cooked up Cubano sandwiches for attendees (under the watchful eye of his culinary mentor Roy Choi, the Los Angeles chef), who also received copies of the film's DVD/Blu-ray, which will hit stores on Sept. 30.

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"We've had films that have grossed more at the box-office," Tom Ortenberg, the CEO of the three-year-old company, told me at the event, "but I don't know that we've had films that have had a more satisfying theatrical run." (For the record, the higher grossers were The Nut Job, The Grey, End of Watch, A Haunted House and Side Effects.) Indeed, five months after debuting, and one month after debuting on airlines, the film is still screening at 125 locations! "It's certainly been among the most gratifying," he said.

Ortenberg, whose decision to send screeners of Crash (2005) to every member of SAG back when he was at Lionsgate helped to propel that film to a best picture Oscar upset, said he still believes that the key to awards season success is simply getting a film seen: "If we get the right people to see it — whether they are guild members, critics, Academy members — everything else pretty much takes care of itself."

To that end, SAG nominating-committee members will receive the retail version of the Chef DVD, whereas Oscar voters will receive specially made screeners, as required by Academy rules, starting in early October. And it does seem like the sort of screener that voters will be excited to pop in — perhaps with family over Thanksgiving — being a funny and feel-good pic with an ensemble cast that also includes the likes of Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr., all fan favorites.

While the film will be pushed for the Oscars and Golden Globes in several categories including picture, director and actor, the general consensus is that its screenplay represents its best bet of landing a nom. "It's a very special movie, but the screenplay kind of rises above all. Chef, in its totality, is a singular amazing achievement by Jon Favreau as a four-multiple-hyphenate. But is the screenplay getting a little bit more attention than everything else? Sure, it's a pretty amazing achievement." 

Favreau, for his part, told me he's taking the awards buzz all in stride. "I always love awards season because I get to catch up with old friends as a part of the community, but I've never been involved with it as anything other than a cheerleader or a spectator so it's very hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that I might be on the other end of it," the 47-year-old said. "But to me, everything from this point on is gravy. The film has affected my lift in the way that I hoped it would — to do something small but ambitious that is creatively fulfilling is, at this point in my life, all that I could have asked for. So anything from here on would be wonderful, but by no means something that I'm counting on or would even be disappointed if it didn't happen." He added, "I loved working on it, I'm very proud of how it came out, and you don't get opportunities like this every time."

Meanwhile, across town on the Fox lot in Century City, Fox Searchlight screened Birdman for a crowd of industry tastemakers, part of a quick blitz of screenings of the film — also including showings for the SAG nom-com on Monday night and the PGA on Tuesday night — which hasn't been seen since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this film.

The rush was necessitated by the commitment of the film's star, comeback kid/best actor Oscar hopeful Michael Keaton, to Tom McCarthy's next film, Spotlight, for which he will be leaving town on Thursday and reporting to set on Monday. Because of the film's shooting schedule, Keaton — who participated in a Q&A following the PGA screening and mingled with reporters at a reception after the screening on the Fox lot — is expected to be off the campaign circuit until Nov. 21. (He may, however, be able to return to town to attend the Academy's Governors Awards, a popular stop for wannabe-nominees, on Saturday, Nov. 8.)

Birdman's producer John Lesher was also at the Fox reception and told me that he is looking forward to the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film's limited release in four theaters, two on each coast, on Oct. 17 — the same day, coincidentally, that the other 2014 film on which he's a producer, David Ayer's Fury, will be released nationwide by Sony. Lesher and Inarritu (who was unable to attend Tuesday night's festivities) have a long and varied history together: "I was his agent for many, many years, and then I was at Paramount Vantage when we did Babel, and now I've produced a movie with him, so this is my third different type of work with him. I guess the third time's the charm, because it's been great."

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As the film continues to generate major buzz in the picture, director, actor, supporting actor (Edward Norton), supporting actress (Emma Stone), original screenplay, cinematography (last year's Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki) and production design categories, Lesher says, "If it makes people go see the movie, then great. I just can't wait for everyone to see Michael and all of these great actors and the movie." The next people who will have that chance are attendees at the New York Film Festival, which gets underway on Friday, and which Birdman will close on Oct. 12.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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