Working at the Oscars: A Behind-the-Scenes Look
As an entertainment journalist, I've interviewed many famous faces in Hollywood -- Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Gere, to name a few. On the red carpet, I made Brad Pitt laugh out loud and got an on-camera apology from Angelina Jolie for not being able to speak to me. I even had the audacity to ask two-time Oscar winner Hanks to get Kate Hudson to come over and talk to me. Replied the ultra-cool Mr. Hanks, "Why would she listen to me?"
A rare opportunity
The point is, I'm not star-struck. (Well, there was that time when my knees buckled as Sean Connery put his arms around me for a picture. But, I was young and just starting out. Who am I kidding? This was SEAN CONNERY, Mr. Bond -- James Bond!) Over the years, though, covering the red carpet, premieres and award shows became routine -- although my admiration for the collective talent remained high. However, the day I arrived at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel and Spa in Hollywood, Calif., to pick up my 2007 Oscar credentials, I have to admit I had chills running up and down my spine.
For most actors, getting an Oscar is the Holy Grail. For entertainment journalists, working the Oscars has the same effect. That's because there is fierce competition to report on Hollywood's most famous award ceremony. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) estimates that at least 1 billion people -- that's billion with a "B" -- watch the ceremonies annually around the world. Of the 1,000 or so media outlets that apply for credentials, less than 300 will receive them. Interest is so strong that three years ago, the Academy, along with MTV, established a contest whereby college journalists can compete to have a chance to cover the awards ceremony.
Who gets a credential is a well-kept secret. My employer, a cable entertainment channel, was new to the Hollywood scene, so unlike established outlets like 'Entertainment Tonight' or 'E! Television,' we had to earn our stripes. And that's where my being giddy comes in. We had been invited to the party ... with a catch. We could only cover the "preparations" for the ceremonies; not the actual ceremony itself. Did that bother us? Yes and no. Being asked, just like being nominated, is an honor in itself. Of course, we would have liked to win by being invited for the night as well -- but hey, we had arrived!
After showing my government-sanctioned ID, I was given a press pass to be worn at all times. As I pinched myself, I looked down at the pass, which said, "valid until 11AM 2/25/07. Does that mean they'll kick me by that time on that day? Oh, yes, it turns out. When it comes to the Oscars, security is everything.
A magical transformation
Preparation for the event is as transforming as any special magic that movies bring to the screen. Outside a massive mall at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, a very ordinary half a block is closed to traffic and morphs from an asphalt street into the RED CARPET. Bleachers are set up for those lucky enough to have won the Oscar lottery; a huge tent is erected at the beginning where the famous will leave their limos and pass through before hitting the red carpet; and yes, thousands of yards of red carpet are laid out in the street before being covered in plastic until the big day.
These festivities start a week before the event, so each day my camera crew and I passed through all the checkpoints happily flashing our badges before going to note each step. It looks chaotic, with dozens of workers bringing out trees in planters, others way up above the street in a cherry-picker hanging banners and signage. Still others are putting finishing touches on the giant Oscar statuettes before wheeling them out, covered in plastic, and placing them at the entrance and all along the red carpet.
All around the area were scores of journalists from around the world meticulously and blushingly covering the same things we were. You only had to look at their awed faces as they did their stand-ups to know they were pinching themselves at being there. As the work continued around us, there would be briefings on what to expect from Academy President Sid Ganis and the producers of the telecast. These were as dry as you might expect; still, we had to cover them as a "thank you" for allowing us to be present.
A gourmet feast
Three days before the ceremony, we were told chef/restaurateur Wolfgang Puck would be presenting the menu for the Governors' Ball (for the 14th time ... amazing). This is the lavish party that follows the ceremony. About a decade earlier, I worked on Marilu Henner's talk show, 'Marilu,' and Puck was our guest for a Thanksgiving show. We got on well, so I looked forward to seeing him again.
Not having done this before, I had no idea how much energy and craziness would accompany him as he marched down the carpet carrying a tray with his signature gold-covered, chocolate Oscars and samples of his dishes. (Sometime later I found a photo on the Internet showing just Puck and myself as I struggled to keep up with him; it was shot by a professional who owns the rights.) He was accompanied by an army of chef assistants, dessert chef -- and oh, the food. As we got in the tent, there was a smorgasbord of the most delectable dishes ever. Puck gave us the rundown of what he was preparing ..."This year," he said, " the Oscar goes organic!" Everything would be organic, sustainably harvested and as local as possible. There would be enough food to feed 1650 guests; he rattled off, 3,200 Kobe cheeseburgers, 4,600 gold chocolate statuettes, sushi, seafood, etc. He graciously granted some one-on-one interviews, but who could get in, among the crush of reporters and photographers? (The next year, I knew the ropes and got my one-on-one interview.)
After the food came the wines. Puck oversees the creation of a special vintage prepared just for Oscar night, which he happily sampled for us. I noticed people walking around with plates of food, but I thought they were special guests. It wasn't until the following year, when I returned to cover the festivities again, that a fellow reporter shared with me that we were supposed to eat the food AND drink the wine. Needless to say, I went to town on the Oscar statuettes made of smoked salmon with caviar and creme fraiche, moved on to spicy tuna in sesame miso then to lemon bars and who-knows-what-other-desserts. Why don't I remember? Because I partook of the wine! Note to self: Do not drink when you still have a story to write and edit for air in the next few hours. I don't remember how that story got written, but I did enjoy the special Red Carpet Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
A glimpse of what's to come
Later on, the event producer introduced us to the theme of the Governors' Ball. In 2007, it was fashioned after the Tuscan countryside. Inside the ballroom, guests would walk through a wrought iron archway and there would be pergolas lined with canopies of flowers and ivies. She had sample boards of the linens and fabrics for the tablecloths, silverware and wine goblets, schematic drawings of the decor -- reporters and photographers went mad taking stills and video of everything. The next year, 2008, she was back and this time the theme was taken from the RED carpet and the GOLD Oscar statuette. Fabrics, glassware, linens, decor ... all were red, gold with touches of black ( black probably had to do with Puck's Black Truffle Macaroni and Cheese that year, which guests raved over.)
On the last day before the event comes the march of the Oscars. This was notable because the Academy reached out to Inner City Filmmakers, a hands-on filmmaking program aimed at disadvantaged youths in Los Angeles. These graduates and students, many of whom went on to work in the industry, came out of the white tent bearing an Oscar in their hands. These were the same ones that would be given out the following night. They marched down the red carpet, grinning and giddy, and up the stairs and into the Kodak Theatre. It was a heartwarming moment when it became apparent just how much movies affect all of our lives.
We may scoff at awards ceremonies,(and yes, there are too many of them), but this granddaddy of them all still can give you thrills ... and chills. Not the good kind because, like Cinderella, the clock ticked past my allotted time and I had to say goodbye to the Red Carpet. Like most everyone else, I would be watching the actual ceremony on the television screen. Unlike everyone else, I would have to be in the newsroom at the crack of dawn the next day, to write numerous packages on the event.
That's when you know the party's over -- until the next year.
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