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Inside the AFI Awards Lunch, TCM’s Bid to Stay Alive, and Top Studio Universal’s Celebration

The annual AFI Awards lunch at the Four Seasons was the same as it ever was: time, station, place in the awards calendar. This celebration of the top 10 jury-voted lists for film and television is always a big draw for talent and their studio chiefs: no one has to make a speech, and mingling freely are the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook (“Killers of the Flower Moon,” “The Morning Show”), Disney’s Bob Iger (Searchlight’s “Poor Things,” Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” FX’s “The Bear” and “Reservation Dogs,” ABC’s “Abbott Elementary”), Netflix’s Ted Sarandos (“Maestro,” “Beef,” and “May December”), Warner Bros.’ David Zaslav (“Barbie,” HBO’s “The Last of Us” and “Succession”), Universal’s Donna Langley (“Oppenheimer,” Focus Features’ “The Holdovers,” Peacock’s “Poker Face”), MGM/Amazon’s Jennifer Salke (“American Fiction,” “Jury Duty”), and Sony’s Tom Rothman (“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”).

During the annual benediction, Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) said, “I’m very happy to be here, because of this idea of honoring 10 movies and 10 television shows, and just leaving it at that, not having five people nominated, invited to a big gala event, one person wins and four losers: I’ve been at both ends of that stick and it’s not fun. This is much better.”

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On the way in, though, Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group co-CEO Michael DeLuca was poring over index cards for his speech at the event to follow, also at the Four Seasons, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies (TCM). More on that later.

As usual, the Oscar contenders did the rounds at the AFI lunch. Bradley Cooper (“Maestro”) hung out with fellow Actors Studio veteran Burstyn, as well as Steven Spielberg, who told me how Cooper chased him down after he decided to direct “West Side Story,” and showed him “A Star is Born.” Spielberg instantly gave him the “Maestro” directing reins. “It’s his movie,” he said. “Very personal.”

“The Holdovers” director Alexander Payne waved to me across the room. He was sitting with Golden Globe winner Paul Giamatti, who is being credited with a brilliant Oscar campaign move for his viral photo taken at In-N-Out Burger after the Globes. With his SAG nomination in hand, he seems guaranteed an Oscar nomination, along with his costar Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

Producers Christine Vachon and Pam Hoffler were representing two movies, Celine Song’s “Past Lives” (A 24) and Todd Haynes’ “May December.” If one gets nominated for Best Picture, it will mark Killer Films’ first BP slot. Haynes conferred with “The Last of Us” star Pedro Pascal, wearing vivid royal blue, while “May December” breakout Charles Melton talked to Golden Globe-winner Emma Stone (“Poor Things”). Searchlight co-chief David Greenbaum (who gained celebrity from sitting next to Taylor Swift at the Globes) will broaden “Poor Things” from some 700 screens to go wide after the nominations drop on January 23. Will it play in the middle of the country? Not likely. But a raft of nominations will help make it a must-see.

That’s the game being played by Oscar contenders, although a boost at the box office is no longer what it once was, and many of the contenders are already streaming, including “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

After five Globe wins and a SAG Ensemble nod, also looking strong is the “Oppenheimer” team led by Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey, Jr., and Emily Blunt, most of whom turned up later that night at Langley’s Universal Studios film and TV celebration at the Sunset Tower, which gathered everyone with a studio deal at the studio, real or imagined, from Snoop Dogg and The Rock to Jason Blum, Colman Domingo, and the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” gang. Langley’s 2023 strategy for the studio’s market share win? Release more movies than anyone else, she told me after the Globes. And she landed “Oppenheimer,” a decision she made instantly in the room after reading Nolan’s script. What was the worst that could happen? “Dunkirk.” As it nears $1 billion worldwide, “Oppenheimer” looks to double that figure.

UniversalNBC Studio Group chairman Donna Langley with “Oppenheimer” writer-director Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey, Jr. and producer Emma Thomas at the Universal celebration at the Sunset Tower.
UniversalNBC Studio Group chairman Donna Langley with “Oppenheimer” writer-director Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey, Jr. and producer Emma Thomas at the Universal celebration at the Sunset Tower.

After the AFI, many in the room walked over to the next event, including the Warners contingent led by CEO David Zaslav and his “Barbie” auteur Greta Gerwig and producer-star Margot Robbie, who could get employment as a production manager if she quit her day job, said Gerwig. DeLuca and his co-chair Pamela Abdy warmly praised the value of the Turner Classic Movies channel, which is turning 30. “It’s safe to say if you are in this room, you recognize that TCM is more than just a channel,” said DeLuca. “It’s a dream. It’s a dream that’s kept alive by the fans of the channel, by fans of cinema itself, by all of you. It’s a repository of cinematic culture, of culture in general. It means so much to everyone for so many different reasons.”

The executives on hand avoided discussing the embarrassing backstory of how Warner’s CEO Zaslav, who had gained positive PR from appearing with Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Spielberg in support of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation at April’s TCM Classic Film Festival, then laid off many of TCM’s senior key executives in June. Under pressure from the filmmaker trio, Zaslav reinstated some of the senior TCM team, such as programmer Charlie Tabesh and TCM Classic Film Festival head Genevieve McGillicuddy. The new news: the filmmakers, who have dug into much of the upcoming programming, have renewed their TCM deal for another year, until the end of 2024.

“Barbie” auteur Greta Gerwig and producer-star Margot Robbie at the TCM 30th Anniversary party.
“Barbie” auteur Greta Gerwig and producer-star Margot Robbie at the TCM 30th Anniversary party.

On Friday, TCM announced their upcoming “Talking Pictures: A Movie Memories” (January 16, 2024) Max podcast hosted by Ben Mankiewicz with guests including Mel Brooks and Nancy Meyers. There’s tons of upcoming 2024 programming, and a new TCM studio tour of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.

Heading into the 15th annual TCM Classic Film Festival in April, the network will honor film historian Jeanine Basinger with the Robert Osborne Award and pay tribute to actor Billy Dee Williams and makeup artist Lois Burwell. And returning for its fifth season: “The Plot Thickens,” TCM’s official podcast about movies and the people who make them.

In April, TCM will introduce a new franchise, “Two for One,” with filmmakers co-hosting a double-feature of their choice each Saturday night. Special guests will include Scorsese, Spielberg, Anderson, and Spike Lee, Patty Jenkins, Olivia Wilde, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Ethan Hawke, Todd Haynes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and more.

Warners co-chief Michael DeLuca, TCM’s Charlie Tabesh, and Steven Spielberg at the TCM 30th Anniversary event.
Warners co-chief Michael DeLuca, TCM’s Charlie Tabesh, and Steven Spielberg at the TCM 30th Anniversary event.

This fall, TCM will partner with The New Republic to highlight films from their list, the 100 Most Significant Political Films of All Time. Guests from the journalism, political, and film worlds will come together to co-host a different film from the list.

And something to eagerly anticipate: “Made in London,” a documentary executive produced by Scorsese about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, will make its U.S. television premiere on TCM later this year.

The reason this trio of filmmakers came aboard TCM was a sense that the channel beloved by cinephiles was in possible danger. Over the long haul, clever maneuvering will be required to keep TCM afloat.

TCM hosts Dave Karger, Alicia Malone, and Jacqueline Stewart, president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
TCM hosts Dave Karger, Alicia Malone, and Jacqueline Stewart, president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

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