So is this just another Hollywood glitterfest in the offing?
Hardly. The big question hovering over the movie industry is not who will get nominated for what – we can expect the usual mix of predictability, occasional off-beat choices and perplexing omissions – but rather whether there will be an Academy Awards ceremony at all because of the 11-week-old writers' strike.
How do writers close down the Oscars?
Simple. They don't show up. They don't write any of the banter. And they persuade the Screen Actors Guild, representing all the glittering stars who usually adorn the red carpet, not to cross their picket lines. That's what they did at last weekend's Golden Globes, which turned into such a washout that the striking writers didn't even bother to show up – the only thing to picket would have been a dull news conference reeling off the names of the winners.
What's the Academy doing about it?
Two things – praying the strike will be over by Oscars night on 24 February and making contingency plans in case it's not. There has been movement on both fronts in the past few days, largely thanks to one man. Gil Cates is producer of the Oscars broadcast and also happens to be a key negotiator with the industry on behalf of the Directors Guild of America. Wearing one hat, Cates told a bunch of industry publicists last week that he was planning two different shows, both involving ceremonial aspects, custom-built sets and so on. In other words, there will be more than just a news conference, whatever happens. Wearing the other hat, Cates helped the DGA reach its own contract deal with the studio chiefs – after just six days of formal negotiations. Many now hope this can provide a template for the writers, too.
If it was so easy for the directors, how come it's so hard for the writers?
That's the key question. The directors made progress on all the issues that prompted the writers to put down their pens – most notably, on compensation for material distributed over the internet and new media more generally. We don't know yet if the terms are generous enough for the writers, who depend on residuals – extra payments for repeat showings of shows and films – more than directors do. The Writers Guild leadership is still studying the fine print. It may yet conclude that the deal with the directors was a shoddy way of trying to drive a wedge between its members and force an end to the strike on the studios' own terms. But many people – George Clooney and Oliver Stone among them, so far – have expressed the hope that the industry can get back to work sooner rather than later.
What's really at stake, beyond the gold statuettes?
Plenty. The Academy Awards themselves generate huge business for the Los Angeles economy – think of all the dress designers, limo drivers, hair and make-up artists who rely on the event for a significant chunk of their livelihood. The slowdown in television and film production has had a similar effect on technicians and specialist trade people all round – lousy timing, given the collapse of the housing market and the already keen threat of recession. Some economists believe a prolonged strike in Hollywood could actually act as an economic catalyst and make a bad situation significantly worse.
So who did you say is likely to get nominated?
Whoops, easy to overlook. Atonement, Sweeney Todd and No Country for Old Men look good for best picture. Julie Christie for best actress. Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor. Sean Penn will probably get snubbed for Into the Wild. Sound familiar? It's been the pattern of just about every awards list to date.