Simon Chinn is sweet on Oscars

By Brigit Grant, February 24, 2014
Getting the balance right: Simon Chinn (second right) with Bill Maher, James Marsh and Man on Wire star Philippe Petit at the 2009 Academy Awards (Photo: shutterstock)

Getting the balance right: Simon Chinn (second right) with Bill Maher, James Marsh and Man on Wire star Philippe Petit at the 2009 Academy Awards (Photo: shutterstock)

This time last year, Simon Chinn almost considered going into hiding. His phone kept ringing, begging notes were pushed under his office door and anyone who had ever met him wanted to be his friend. Okay, I’m exaggerating a tad, but the truth is that from the moment the Oscar nomination was announced for Chinn’s documentary film Searching for Sugar Man, everyone who was connected to the project — no matter how remotely — thought they had dibs on Academy Awards tickets. And it was up to him to supply them.

“People lose their minds when it comes to the Oscars and, as a nominee, you become the most wanted ticket tout in the world,” says Chinn who, as the producer of some of the most successful documentary features in recent years, is the holder of not one, but two Oscars.

The first was for Man on Wire in 2009, about Frenchman Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Centre towers in 1974, which earned more than $5million globally.

This year, instead of Hollywood Boulevard, he will be at JW3 on the Finchley Road. While this may sound like a bit of a come-down, JW3’s Oscar Night promises to be a glitzy affair in its own right with cocktails, photo ops, a real statuette and a panel of industry experts sharing their experiences of the awards and predicting the 2014 winners.

It will also feature a screening of Searching for Sugar Man, the story of talented Detroit singer Sixto Rodriguez, who spent years in obscurity but now, in his 70s, is performing in the sort of venues he could once only have dreamt about.

As the “facilitator” of the Rodriguez renaissance, Chinn remains charmingly self-effacing. “All you can do as a producer is follow your instincts. I got involved with Sugar Man because I met the director, Malik Bendjelloul, and thought he was a lovely guy. He had never made a film before and was struggling to pursue his vision and raise the money to get it finished.

“Unlike Man on Wire, which was very much my baby, Sugar Man was all Malik. Did I think we were going to end up winning an Academy Award? Absolutely not. Music docs don’t have a great history theatrically. But by the time the nominations came round we were one of the box office documentary hits of the year and our distributors had mounted a campaign that got us noticed.”

Sixto Rodriguez, subject of Searching for Sugar Man (Photo: AP)

Sixto Rodriguez, subject of Searching for Sugar Man (Photo: AP)

A campaign — for those not in the business — is crucial in the lead-up to the nominations. At that time, a proliferation of billboards covers Hollywood pushing the likely contenders, and industry papers such as Variety are filled with ads marked “For Your Consideration”. It was after that Chinn got the call.

“It’s a surreal and weird thing,” says the man who started out as a runner on early ’90s sitcom Sean’s Show. “Granted I was better prepared the second time around, but you never get used to going to the awards — and if you do, you shouldn’t.”

Elaborating, Chinn adds: “It is like joining an incredibly elite club for one night only where you are suddenly at close proximity to creatures who feel like they are from another planet. Going down the red carpet we spent most of the time walking behind actress Jessica Chastain and it has to be said that the waiting press were more interested in her than us. What I can’t forget about last year was brushing past a gaggle of women as I tried to find my seat. The women were Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway. To me they looked like waxwork models — these unbelievable, unattainable figures.

“Tickets are hard to come by and as a nominee you can lobby for them. But suddenly people who put £2.50 into the film were demanding tickets and that was annoying. We got tickets for Rodriguez and his family but he didn’t want to come. He had done all the pre-publicity and was very gracious, but in the end he felt he had done his bit for the film. The Oscars weren’t really him and he doesn’t gravitate towards the limelight.”

Chinn’s wife Lara accompanied him but his parents, Sir Trevor and Lady Susan Chinn, did not. “I would have fought tooth and nail to get them tickets, but they didn’t ask. They are wonderful and dignified and the Oscars is not their cup of tea at all. To fly to LA is a big shlep and it’s a bun fight when you get there.”

And so from the comfort of their sofa in London, the Chinns watched their beaming son stride to the stage with Bendjelloul to give the winner’s acceptance speech.

“Malik and I had talked about who we would thank if we won, but in the end his speech went on longer than he intended and so when I spoke I ended up being cut off by the Jaws theme music that they play to get you off the stage. Luckily I had pretty much finished what I wanted to say, but though Malik was very apologetic, I had always felt it was his film and one of the great pleasures of the night was watching his joy at winning.”

The legendary Oscar night parties went by in a whirl, with the Sugar Man team first attending the governor’s ball. “When you win you have got a bit of gold in your hand to wave around which makes you part of an even more rarefied group and celebrities come up to you and you have permission to talk to whoever you like. You can also get anyone you like into the Vanity Fair party and en route we picked up my friend, film critic Jason Solomons, who had never been to the Oscars, let alone the most sought after party of the night. ”

Post-Oscars, things only got better financially. “The Oscar is really helpful for business and after Man on Wire, getting money for director James Marsh’s next film was extremely easy and swift. I did feel some pressure, but that’s not a bad thing. Winning is a wonderful, thrilling thing, but it can also be extremely unsettling and I have spoken to people who have won and been destabilised by the experience. There are also others who haven’t worked again. I suppose what I am saying is that the second time round, the process was demystified.”

With an Oscar in his office at Red Box Films and another on the shelf in his living room, Chinn still has the space for more little gold men and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that others will come. He is, after all, just back from the Sundance Film Festival where his latest film The Green Prince won the audience award, which bodes well.

“The film will certainly interest the JC as it is the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of one of the Hamas founders who was recruited by Shin Bet and became one of Israel’s most valuable spies. I have always been reticent about making films about the Middle East and didn’t want to do anything political because it is a very charged subject. But with this story there is such a great narrative, it sort of transcends the politics and reflects the complexity of life.”

It was directed by Israeli-born Nadav Schirman and Chinn says they strove to avoid political bias. “It’s told from a human perspective, but if we get complaints from both sides we have done it right.” All the evidence suggests he seldom does it wrong.

Oscar night is at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Road NW3, on March 2.

Last updated: 1:53pm, August 28 2014