By the time the limos arrive at Hollywood's Kodak Theater for the 78th annual Academy Awards on March 5, Leslie Unger might be able to lose herself - if for an instant - in the glamour.
"There's a moment during the guest arrivals when I look around and think, 'I'm at the Academy Awards,'" says Unger, publicity coordinator at the Beverly Hills, CA-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. That feeling, she says, "lasts for about
a minute. And then the walkie-talkie rings, and reality returns."
Preparations for Oscar night constitute only a part of Unger's year-round role. For 14 years, the LA native has worked with Academy director of communications John Pavlik, leading a now seven-person staff to promote the 6,000-member organization's appreciation and preservation of motion-picture heritage.
"I always wanted to work in PR, but [not] in entertainment," says Unger, an original member of the Academy's in-house communications team. She joined when it was launched in 1992, transitioning from its previous outside firm, Ruder Finn. But the Academy "isn't just about what the public sees as entertainment," she notes. "It's more a cultural institution."
Much of Unger's job entails promoting the Academy Film Archive and Margaret Herrick Library, for example, which collect and preserve films and their history. The Academy also conducts programs including film retrospectives, media literacy outreach, and the nationwide Student Academy Awards. Another significant project, a proposed Hollywood Motion Picture Museum, is currently in the works.
November through March, however, are all about Oscar: The publicity staff is boosted to 12, and press releases swell from two a week to two a day.
Unger's work begins when the requests for Oscar night media credentials start to pour in - hundreds from around the world, fewer than half of which can be honored. Her team goes through each application, she says, relying on extensive media research to determine what kind of coverage is best for the year's Awards. This year, the Academy received more than 550 requests, from traditional outlets to bloggers.
"What's changed is the media itself," Unger notes. "The red carpet doesn't get longer, the interview room doesn't get bigger."
At the same time, Unger oversees the logistical issues of Oscar night, from ABC's pre-show broadcast - this year, extended from 30 minutes to an hour -to photographer and journalist placement. From January until the day of the show, she meets frequently with fire, security, and even art directors, "so the press rooms look good on TV.
"We have an army of people," Unger says, citing the Academy's in-house marketing department, ABC's publicity team, and Dobbin/Bolgla Associates, an outside firm tapped to assist with PR efforts in New York.
Even with advance planning, difficulties arise. An especially challenging year, Unger recalls, was "when we opted not to do the red carpet when the Iraq War launched. We couldn't pretend it didn't happen." Unger's team was up all night reorganizing, she says; they ended up utilizing a Hollywood Boulevard-spanning bridge as a scaled-down press area.
Even tougher than show day itself can be the day after, Unger admits. "There's still plenty to do, [but no] build-up to keep you going. It's the day after the Awards when the calls come in: 'What was that instrument Sting played? What was that noise?'"
After the Awards, Unger says, she'll return to "normal activities" - until November. But Unger says she'd love her job, even without that Oscar night thrill.
"It's very rewarding," she says. "Certain things are probably unique to it ... and sometimes, it's tremendously glamorous." It is Hollywood, after all.
So what's Unger's pick for best film? "I haven't seen one in months," she laughs. " I ran out of time." n