At 4.30pm, on a crisp Sunday afternoon, the posh Grosvenor House Hotel in London was soused in whiskey — Jameson to be precise. Every variation of the popular Irish brand, including a ginger ale cocktail, was being consumed by several hundred people — a mix of boldface film names, celebrities, journalists and corporate mavens who gathered last week for the 18th Jameson Empire Awards.
Empire is the largest selling film magazine in the world with editions in Australia, Turkey, Russia and Portugal. It is widely considered the fanboy Bible — Empire’s 20th anniversary issue was edited by Steven Spielberg who described himself as ‘an ardent admirer and avid reader.’ When filmmakers like Peter Jackson or Christopher Nolan open up their sets, it’s usually to an Empire journalist. What makes the Jameson Empire Awards special is that the winners, in all 16 categories, are decided by voting bythe magazine’s readers. A fact remarked upon by at least a few of the winners, including Gary Oldman who picked up the Jameson Best Actor award for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. “It’s a real treat to get this from people who love movies, he said, “because it isn’t political. There is no agenda.”
What struck me most was the informality in the room. The guests were A-list — heavyweights like Oldman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Ron Howard, Danny DeVito, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter. The clothes were red-carpet stylish — the actresses, which included the Tron: Legacy leading lady Olivia Wilde and new Bond girl BéréniceMarlohe, all teetered on five-inch heels. The seating was ceremonial with round tables and place cards but the attitude was sheer irreverence. The evening was hosted by radio and television host Lauren Laverne and Empire’s news editor Chris Hewitt who started by saying, “I’m here only because quite frankly I’m cheaper than anyone else.”
Hewitt wasn’t the only one willing to mock himself. The ceremony, which lasted less than two hours, was filled with impromptu one-liners. When action-man Dolph Lundgren was called on stage to present the best film award, he gave a lengthy introduction to the nominees and then said: “That was more dialogue than my last five movies.” Lundgren pulled up the microphone to suit his towering height, which became somewhat problematic for the next presenter, the diminutive Danny DeVito. Looking up at the microphone, which loomed a foot over his head, DeVito remarked: This is cruel.
DeVito, who gave the Empire Icon award to Tim Burton, then proceeded to tell a story about shooting with a monkey for Burton’s Batman Returns. DeVito played the arch-villain Penguin and at one point in the shoot, the monkey apparently lunged for DeVito’s private parts. After which, DeVito said, he’s had great reverence for the said parts, which mercifully survived the monkey attack. Since the event isn’t televised, four letter words and bawdy jokes made a frequent appearance — the fun-fuelled, no doubt, by the ample alcohol sitting in huge ice buckets on every table.
Incredibly, the big-ticket names didn’t abandon ship when the ceremony ended. Many of them stayed to have dinner and chat. At which point, Anurag duly went around the room and took pictures with Oldman, Burton and DeVito. His pitch — I’m a filmmaker from India and you wouldn’t have seen any of my films. Can I take a picture with you?
“This is what film awards should be,” Anurag said, the next morning over breakfast. ‘People vote and there is an incredible transparency to it. It’s all very normal. It’s not a televised show that goes on and on. It’s short and fun and that’s the magic of it.” An entry from Kazakhstan, which cleverly spoofed Black Swan, won the Done in 60 Seconds contest. The two Indian entries, on Fight Club and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, didn’t make it but Empire editor Mark Dinning remarked that just getting shortlisted in the first year was in itself ‘a huge achievement.’
Hopefully, the initiative won’t end with the Empire Awards night. Earlier this year, Anurag hosted the first Jameson Cult Film Club in Mumbai — a gathering for movie lovers. He has ambitions for the club and wants to eventually establish a platform for cinephiles that will, in his words, “create a cultural connect with cinema and the new generation”. And from there perhaps, some winners will emerge.