Has Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party Lost Its Luster?

Has Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party Lost Its Luster?

With a guest list bloated by corporate sponsorships and competition from Jay-Z and others, a legend is in question.

The Vanity Fair Oscar party, once an exclusive post-show happening, is now the finale of a week of lucrative branded events.CreditCreditEmma McIntyre/WireImage, via Getty Images

By Katherine Rosman and Brooks Barnes

Lady Gaga is invited. So is Mahershala Ali. But the screaming fans outside Vanity Fair’s Oscar party in Beverly Hills this Sunday night may have a hard time recognizing everyone — like the two civilians who secured invitations in an online auction, bidding with customer-loyalty points from Marriott.

“Our team really went deep into discussion with Condé Nast about this specific event,” said Karin Timpone, the global marketing officer of Marriott, a sponsor of the party. Ms. Timpone will be attending — along with executives from L’Oréal Paris, Giorgio Armani Beauty, Johnnie Walker, Hennessy X.O., Verizon and other “brand partners” of the magazine.

Genesis, an advertiser, will be providing cars and drivers to ferry the stars that night: the capstone on a week of branded events that will generate more than $10 million of revenue for Vanity Fair, according to Chris Mitchell, the chief business officer of Vanity Fair and other Condé Nast titles.

“It’s not that we’re slapping logos on the wall,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We’re finding additional media opportunities we can monetize that come out of the party.”

Sounds like a wild night, right?

For the insecure A-listers of the film business, an invitation to the Vanity Fair Oscar party used to be a status symbol rivaled only by winning an Oscar itself. Lakers courtside seats? A permanent booth at Dan Tana’s? Who cares: Where are my Vanity Fair tickets? Pity the publicist who couldn’t secure a pair.

Hosted by the magazine’s current editor, Radhika Jones, the party remains a big to-do. Stars still care about being photographed as they walk in. But the hysterical frenzy that once surrounded the event has been fading for some time, at least among top celebrities, three longtime publicists said in interviews.

“When invitations went out this year, one of my big clients asked me, ‘Is Vanity Fair still a hot invite?,’ which tells you everything you need to know,” said a partner at a top publicity firm. She would speak only on the condition of anonymity, saying that she did not want to offend Anna Wintour, who oversees Vanity Fair as the artistic director of Condé Nast and organizes the Met Gala, the yearly New York benefit.

“The Met Gala is basically the new Vanity Fair party,” the publicist said.

For many years, the Vanity Fair party was associated with the magazine’s longtime editor Graydon Carter, who spent nearly a quarter-century styling himself not just as a chronicler of Hollywood’s movie stars and moguls, but also as a part of their inner circle, before retiring last year.

Radhika Jones, the editor of Vanity Fair, at the magazine’s Oscar party in 2018.CreditAxel Koester for The New York Times

He was replaced by Ms. Jones, a former editorial director of The New York Times’s books department, who seems less driven to make herself the centerpiece of this signature annual event and remains unknown to many on the Left Coast.

But a number of forces besides a lower-profile host have shaped the perception that the party is, if not over, at least past its prime.

“The party has been stretched and stretched,” said Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the University of Southern California and a former studio executive. “It used to be a special insider event. Now it’s a weeklong corporate branding-palooza.”

A spokeswoman for the magazine said that the notion that the Vanity Fair party is less in demand “couldn’t be further from the truth.” The question, perhaps, is: Who is demanding?

The party started in 1994, but its roots really extend to the 1960s, when Irving Paul Lazar — the superagent known as Swifty, a nickname bestowed by Humphrey Bogart — began hosting Oscar gatherings for the crème de la crème of Hollywood.

The affairs bounced around before landing in 1985 at Spago, where the diminutive Swifty (always in bug-eyed glasses) held court on Oscar night until his death in 1993. Mr. Carter, who had taken over Vanity Fair in 1992 from Tina Brown, teamed with the producer Steve Tisch to fill the vacuum, at Mortons. Voilà! The A-list had a new rendezvous point.


Wolfgang Puck, top, with Irving Paul Lazar, left, and Dudley Moore at Mr. Puck’s restaurant Spago, where Mr. Lazar’s star-studded Oscar-night party took place for some years.CreditGeorge Rose/Getty Images

The ’90s were the last decade when movie stars — Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks — truly dominated the culture, before franchise filmmaking took over Hollywood and the internet began its rapid fragmentation of media in general. Absent smartphones and social media, the party was a place where such celebrities could let their hair down.

“There was a time when stars could relax and be themselves at the Vanity Fair party,” said Richard Rushfield, a former contributor to Vanity Fair who is now editor of The Ankler, an irreverent Hollywood newsletter. “If someone pulled out a Nikon camera, they would have been tackled and buried before they made it two steps. Stars could feel uninhibited.”

The big night at Mortons became such a desirable invitation that the magazine began meting out arrival times to lower-status guests, including a smattering of journalists, later in the evening.


Tom Cruise arriving at Spago on Oscar night.CreditRon Galella/WireImage

Bruce Feirstein, a screenwriter and Vanity Fair contributing editor, has attended the party regularly since its inception. Generally, he said, he has arrived at his appointed 11 p.m. time and prepares to run the gantlet of hundreds of cameras.

“Suddenly you hear a hush and then someone says, ‘Oh, that’s no one,’ and then you walk through,” Mr. Feirstein said. Once in the party, “you look across the room and see Taylor Swift talking with Don Rickles, Tim Tebow, Mick Jagger, Monica Lewinsky and Buzz Aldrin and you can’t quite process it. There is nowhere that you will see so many famous people in one room.”

In 2000, wanting to capitalize on the party’s success, Vanity Fair began what it called “Campaign Hollywood,” a schedule of events sponsored by advertisers in the days before Oscar night. Advertisers have been oozing into the party itself since at least 2002.

But the magazine’s (quite literal) catering to business interests only became really apparent after the 2008 financial crisis. By then the party had moved to the Sunset Tower Hotel. Still more advertisers got invited, and the hotel’s relatively compact party space (made larger by covering the pool) turned into something out of the movie “The Day of the Locust.” People were packed elbow to elbow, forming a “sweaty mob,” in the words of one 2013 attendee.

So Mr. Carter’s party lumbered to a parking lot down the street. That caused its own problems, starting with the optics — a parking lot? Vanity Fair erected an elaborate glass-walled shelter, but attendees noticed that it lacked the clubby atmosphere of the Sunset Tower. “Much less exclusive,” Sacha Baron Cohen told a New York Times party reporter at the time. Some guests complained that the tent felt like an airplane hangar. (Vanity Fair called it an “aerie.”)

After that hapless year, the party moved much farther west, to the anodyne Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, where last year attendees included young stars (Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet), new Oscar winners (Jordan Peele, Frances McDormand), a flotilla of nominees (Margot Robbie, Kumail Nanjiani), models and musicians (Naomi Campbell, Drake) and lots of moguls (Lachlan Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, Robert Iger). Ms. McDormand walked around with a bucket of fried chicken, while Greta Gerwig hit the Apple-sponsored dance floor.

But the royals — Angelina, Denzel, Leo, Reese — were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they were off shooting films in Europe. Maybe they weren’t invited. Or maybe they had decided to head straight to the ultraexclusive, no-grubby-journalists-allowed parties held by celebrities.

“If we could get invited to Beyoncé or Madonna’s party, that would be amazing,” the Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu told The Hollywood Reporter as she roamed the Vanity Fair event.

Madonna has hosted her party, with Guy Oseary, since 2008. Photography is not encouraged. Jay-Z is newer on the scene. In a repurposed garage of the Chateau Marmont, he will host an Oscar-night event called the “Gold Party,” as he did last year, when some invitations did not even go out until the day of the Oscars. Only 200 people got them, reportedly. There were no red carpets, reporters or photographers.

Smartphones, on the other hand, abound at the Vanity Fair party. “Now, every single person in there is a paparazzo,” Mr. Rushfield pointed out, or a marketer amplifying a brand.

“Maybe next, it’ll be like e-sports,” Mr. Kaplan said. “They’ll hold the party on the field in an arena and charge thousands of people to watch a Twitch stream of the festivities from the stands.”

Well, not Twitch. But viewers at home can in fact livestream the Vanity Fair red carpet from Twitter and the magazine’s website, thanks to the sponsorship of Verizon and two other companies.

Tellingly, though, Instagram, the social network preferred by the beautiful people, will not have an official presence at the 2019 Vanity Fair party. The company sponsored a portrait studio there for the past five years but has pulled out to focus on video products like IGTV, a spokeswoman said.

Condé Nast and other magazine publishers have struggled as advertisers, readers and even top print editors (like Eva Chen, formerly of Lucky and Teen Vogue and now at Instagram) have drifted to an array of online competitors, with swipeable screens capturing the attention that glossy-paper pages once did. A newer breed of Condé editors, like Ms. Jones, has been left to cut costs through layoffs and retrenchments.

Newsstand sales for Vanity Fair dropped 14 percent in the first six months of 2018, to an average of 101,834 copies per issue, compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the most recent data available from the Alliance for Audited Media. Total subscriptions increased 2 percent, to 1.13 million, despite a decline in digital subscribers.

To raise revenue and to try to maintain cultural relevance, nearly every print publication now produces a slate of events each year (like Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit, held since 2014), each detracting from the specialness of the next.

“Lanyard fatigue,” as one war horse called it, is felt especially keenly in Hollywood during Oscar week, where the social and professional calendar is increasingly packed, with at least 50 significant parties in play. The three major agencies will host bashes on Friday night: WME at a rented house in Beverly Hills, UTA at the Sunset Tower hotel, and CAA at the San Vicente Bungalows, a new private club.

On the night of the awards, there is the Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit and viewing party, now in its 27th year: a seated five-course dinner for 996 people in 50,000 square feet of tent in a West Hollywood Park. Tables start at $55,000, and the Killers will perform. The party was once co-hosted by InStyle magazine; now IMDb, the movie internet database, is the primary sponsor.

Warner Bros., the studio behind “A Star Is Born,” will take over at the Bungalows.

Over at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Byron Allen, the comedian turned media entrepreneur, will host a fund-raiser to benefit Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; Jamie Foxx will be the M.C. and John Legend is scheduled to perform. “We have a lot of people on Oscar night all dressed up with no place to go,” Mr. Allen said. “We thought this is a great opportunity to continue the evening and do it for a great cause.”

All the activity and do-goodery can’t mask that the Academy Awards are losing power. In the late 1990s, when the Vanity Fair party was at its peak (some 15,000 people requested invitations in 1999, according to reports at the time), the Oscars telecast attracted more than 40 million viewers. More than 55 million people tuned in for the 1998 ceremony, when “Titanic” won best picture.

Last year, however, the show drew 26.5 million viewers, the lowest in five decades. This year it won’t even have a host, after the invited one, the comedian Kevin Hart, stepped down amid renewed scrutiny on his past anti-gay ramblings on Twitter.

Hollywood is a serious place these days. At last year’s Vanity Fair party, much of the chatter focused on “inclusion riders,” or contract stipulations that may require a cast and crew to, for example, be 50 percent female, 40 percent underrepresented ethnic groups, 20 percent people with disabilities and 5 percent L.G.B.T. people.

It was not so long ago that the party had “cigarette girls” wandering around, part of the magazine’s ethos of Old Hollywood glamour. But celebrating Old Hollywood — lily-white, often misogynistic — has abruptly fallen out of fashion over the last two years, since the #MeToo movement rocked the culture.

Ms. Jones has made the magazine much more inclusive, putting Lena Waithe on the cover and giving the interior pages a sober redesign. On Thursday night, the magazine’s Campaign Hollywood will produce a “Women in Hollywood” party hosted by Ms. Jones, the director Ava DuVernay and Zendaya, to benefit Times Up, the organization focused on workplace sexual harassment that was created as the #MeToo movement gained momentum.

That event is hosted by Lancôme. It is the sixth year the company has sponsored a Campaign Hollywood event, and it also advertises in the magazine.

In a digital age, said Doreen Arbel, the senior vice president of marketing at Lancôme, a key company strategy is to create real-life experiences that can have a second life as content shared on social media.

“It’s about providing an experience where Vanity Fair and the Lancôme brands are best portrayed,” Ms. Arbel said. “An experience for consumers, publishers, influencers and A-listers, that’s how we all win together.”

With some 17 company executives, she too will attend the Vanity Fair party on Sunday.

Brooks Barnes is a media and entertainment reporter, covering all things Hollywood. He joined The Times in 2007 as a business reporter focused primarily on The Walt Disney Company. He previously worked for The Wall Street Journal. @brooksbarnesNYT


Published at Thu, 21 Feb 2019 10:00:11 +0000