"Up in the Air" supporting actress nominee Anna Kendrick faces… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
With "Avatar" continuing to break global box-office records, James Cameron has the Hollywood clout to get just about any actor interested in his next film. But even the visionary director found himself a little wide-eyed when confronted with the star wattage at Monday's annual Oscar nominee luncheon at the Beverly Hilton hotel.
"It's always been my fantasy to work with Meryl, or with Clooney," Cameron said, looking around the crowded room where those stars (and dozens of others) circulated and commingled, and also received a preview of what to expect come Oscar night on March 7.
An annual February stop on the awards circuit, the Oscar-nominee luncheon is a peculiar mix of Hollywood glitz and high-school graduation ceremony. There are enough A-listers to keep a pack of paparazzi busy for weeks -- "Up in the Air" costars George Clooney and Anna Kendrick catching up between courses, or "The Blind Side" star Sandra Bullock sarcastically assuring "Precious" director Lee Daniels that she's a good salsa dancer -- as nominees are thrown together at tables by random selection.
But there's also a moment where each nominee is called up to the podium, in reverse alphabetical order, to receive a diploma -- er, nomination certificate. And in a moment evocative of senior year, the popularity of the nominees (121 out of 197 turned out this year) can be gauged by the volume of the assembled hoot and holler after each name is called. (Gabourey Sidibe, Jason Reitman, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and Cameron proved to be some of the more popular kids.)
At Monday's event, there was a particular school-days vibe. In a bit that would make any hard-nosed principal proud, producer-director Adam Shankman and Hollywood veteran Bill Mechanic, who are producing this year's Academy Awards telecast, admonished the stars to keep their acceptance speeches short and limit the people on their thank-you lists.
"We want you to think about [the speeches] more seriously than you have in the past," Mechanic told the audience, advising them to save the laundry listing for a dedicated, backstage "thank-you cam," which will record footage to be posted later on the Oscar website.
The gratuitous use of names "isn't just boring," Mechanic said. "It's the single most hated thing on the show."
"If you need help preparing a speech, ask a writer you know or call us," Shankman added, also sounding every bit like the helpful guidance counselor.
The producers -- who pick up where the innovation-minded producing pair of Bill Condon and Laurence Mark left off last year -- face a particular challenge as the presence at this year's Oscars of two hosts ( Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin) and 10 best-picture nominees layer on even more elements to an already packed ABC telecast.
Ratings expectations are also high for the telecast this year, with the inclusion of blockbuster crowd pleasers "Avatar," "The Blind Side" and "District 9" among the best-picture nominees.
At the luncheon, Shankman and Mechanic tipped that the Oscar telecast would kick off with a segment in which past winners would reflect on the experience of winning a statuette. "If last year was about how movies are made, I'm really interested in the internal meaning of [the Oscars]," Mechanic said in an interview.
He also said that some of the changes instituted last year likely wouldn't be in place this time around, including the use of five past nominees to present a single acting award. Mark and Condon "did a lot of things well and moved the show forward in a lot of ways, but we're not going to do the same show," Mechanic said.
At Monday's event, meanwhile, the purpose was for nominees to schmooze, both with each other and voters. It's an event that, like the Golden Globes, is relaxed and wine-fueled -- but unlike the Globes sits outside the glare of broadcast television cameras.
Cameron, for his part, said that he was glad to back for the first time since 1998, when his "Titanic" took home a boatload of Oscars. "It's only my second time, so it's kind of a trip for me. There are people who've been here eight or nine times. [Composer] James Horner, I think, has been here 10 times."
The luncheon this year felt perhaps even more informal than usual because a number of the races have distinct front runners and underdogs. "I suppose there'd be jitters if I thought I was going to win," said supporting actor nominee Woody Harrelson ( "The Messenger") backstage. "But seeing as how I'm certain that I won't. . . ." his voice trailed off. "I'm just treating it the way I should, which is as a good party."
At a table with George Clooney, "Blind Side" producer Broderick Johnson -- facing daunting odds to win the best picture prize -- also didn't seem to be sweating the competitive aspects all that much.
But if all of that star power made for a more glamorous afternoon, it also made it a little harder for Oscar organizers to corral the room.
Mechanic said that he realized it wasn't going to be easy to get winners to give up their Oscar-evening shout-outs -- especially when those winners were some of most famous people on the planet.
But he said he was trying to remain optimistic most would heed the call. "If a third of the people listen, we'll cut the show down by 30%," he said.
Staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.