CSUN alumni pull strings at the Oscars

Rafael Cornejo

Originally Published February 21, 2007

She kept the pace of a person whose days are measured in minutes, pointing out rooms in the bowels of the theater seldom seen by those without name placards on the doors. “This will be the green room,” she said, walking into little more than a partitioned space at the side of the stage, then quickly walking down the long plastic-lined corridor floor, casually noting the first door on the left to be Ellen DeGeneres’ dressing room.

At the end of the hall is Laura Ziskin. “She produced the ‘Spiderman’ movies,” said Toni Thompson, a CSUN alumna and show publicist at the 79th Academy Awards.

Thompson, along with two other CSUN alumni – Jennifer Stanley and Hassan Elzein – will walk the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on “Oscar Sunday.”

“There’s nothing like the red carpet,” Thompson said. “It’s surreal. There’s no other way to describe it. You’ve got the biggest stars in the world. It’s beautiful. It’s red. There’s cameras, photographers, fans.”

Thompson began working behind the scenes seven weeks ago and moved her Beverly Hills office to the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel next to the Kodak Theatre.

“As a publicist, it’s my job to make sure that lots of people know about the show, whether it’s television or print or radio or online – that they know about it and they want to watch the show on Sunday,” said Thompson, sitting in a plush red theater seat overlooking the unfinished Kodak stage. “And the way I accomplish that is by setting up interviews with the producer, the director, whoever I can get to participate.”

Conversely, equilibrium must be struck with the media to ensure that the show’s surprises are not spoiled.

“I am charged with secrecy,” Thompson said. “I have to make sure that no secrets get out, no press shooting anything they are not supposed to shoot, that they don’t talk to someone they are not supposed to talk to. In other words, there’s a fine balance between what we want out there and what we want to hold and save until the night of the show.”

Stanley, who is an Oscars script supervisor, received her CTVA degree, like Thompson, when the college was known as one of Radio, Television and Film. Stanley works directly with the Oscars’ producer, director and writers, distilling cues, staging and blocking into a script shell, which is later filled by the writers and passed on to the host, presenters and announcers.

“It’s like a big puzzle. When all the pieces of the puzzle are finally put together, it’s a rare thing,” Stanley said. “You actually have a start, middle and end. So when it’s actually all finalized and put together, you think of how hard it was to put all those pieces together.”

Before starting at CSUN, Stanley was already working with the host of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

“Jay Leno’s manager at the time had some show horses and she asked me to ride them for her,” Stanley said. “So I started riding them and she asked me if I wanted a job (at the ‘Tonight Show’). I just thought it was a regular everyday job until I went to college, which was the first time I realized it wasn’t a normal job.”

Elzein, a 2004 CTVA graduate, works with Oscars.org. He updates the Web site with the latest Academy information, posts press releases written by Thompson and issues press kits.

“There’s a lot of technical information you need to know about (my job) and school is definitely the place to learn it,” Elzein said.

Elzein is content with being behind the scenes, quietly learning, yet sympathizes with the difficulty of being in the spotlight. Still, she said she graciously accepts a bit of the celebrity.

“It’s funny, my mom told me her favorite thing of all time was being on the red carpet. That’s the sole reason why she wants to go again this year,” Elzein said.

Thompson pauses and introduces the Oscars’ director and assistant director perusing the theater walkways, talking about the politics of seating clients. They sit down close by and talk with Thompson of alma maters and of the years working on the show.