Oliver Stone Launches Oscar Season

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The date: Tuesday night. The place: Morton's restaurant in West Hollywood, site of the annual Vanity Fair Oscar party. The event: a Paramount Pictures bash honoring Oliver Stone, named Director of the Year at the 10th annual Hollywood Film Festival.

Nearly everyone at the event knew that the real reason for the fete was not to honor Stone's award from his hometown film festival, but to help launch Paramount's bid to snag Oscar nominations for his recent 9/11 movie World Trade Center. And to launch Hollywood's annual effort to get around Academy rules that try to limit the increasingly aggressive studio campaigns for Oscars.

In reaction against these campaigns, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2003 changed its "guidelines" to "regulations" on what is allowed. Among the rules: "Receptions, lunches, dinners or other events to which Academy members are invited that are specifically designed to promote a film or achievement for Academy Awards consideration are expressly forbidden." To get around that rule, studios sponsor parties disguised as events; academic-like "symposiums" with the cast and crew and "lectures" from stars and directors. Thus, Tuesday night's event was intended to honor Stone for the Hollywood Film Festival. Wink, wink.

"Jeez, doesn't this have 'Oscar, please, Oscar' written all over it?" snickered one partygoer at the Stone event. All the elements were there: an armada of Paramount publicists, reporters from the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter and Variety, as well as members of other award-giving groups such as the Hollywood Foreign Press (who give out the Golden Globes) and the British Academy of Film & Television Arts (the BAFTAs).

Paramount chairman Brad Grey introduced Stone, who took to a small stage and good-naturedly thanked his producers, screenwriter, actors and others involved with the film. So far, the $63 million-budgeted World Trade Center has made $70 million in the U.S. and about the same amount overseas — hardly a blockbuster. But it garnered enough critical praise to make it a potential Oscar contender.

After Stone spoke, he turned the platform over to Craig Armstrong, composer of the original score for the film. The crowd seemed attentive and somber as Armstrong performed the elegiac theme to WTC, but the moment was short-lived. As soon as Armstrong launched into his second number, the restaurant returned to its previous state of noisy reverie. An encore was unnecessary. Everyone in attendance heard the message loud and clear: The Race is On.