I have always been that annoying kid to brag about his dad’s cool side gig and all the perks that go along with it. And I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Thanks to the fact that my father, Noel Manning, has been a member of the Critics’ Choice Association for more than two decades, I received the opportunity to attend the 25th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards recently in Santa Monica, California. In the week preceding this main event, we also took the time to absorb all the sight and sounds of the Hollywood experience.
One of the reasons this trip was so special to me is rooted in my passion for film analysis. A college course I took in my first semester at Gardner-Webb University opened my eyes to the wide world of film criticism and evaluation. Now, whenever I watch a movie, I examine things from a much more focused perspective. I am not simply there to be entertained. Rather, I am prepared to dig into the minutiae of every little element of filmmaking that resulted in the final product on screen. My knowledge has continued to expand, and I have been privileged with many wonderful opportunities to broaden my skillset. Currently, I am a contributing writer to Elements of Madness, an online film publication based in Matthews, North Carolina, managed by Critics Choice Association member Douglas Davidson. Additionally, I am a recurring guest on the C19 TV program called “Meet me at the Movies,” hosted by my dad, Noel Manning, and produced by Greg Tillman and Tim Foster at Cleveland Community College. Honestly, I’m shocked that all parties involved still care what I have to say about movies, but I am tremendously thankful for their confidence nonetheless. Hopefully all of this serves as a bit of expositional material as to why I so thoroughly enjoyed my trip to California. It would be practically impossible to touch on every little detail and experience from our trip, but I’ll do my best to provide a snapshot of some highlights.
1. Our first day was devoted to exploring Hollywood Boulevard, strolling along the Walk of Fame, and attending a live recording of Jimmy Kimmel Live. Literally walking in the footsteps of legends was an awesome sneak peak of some of the famous encounters to follow later in the week. It was also pretty cool to see the behind-the-scenes of a major network talk show production. I was surprised to learn that the locale was much smaller and more intimate compared to my preconceived notions. There were only about 200 audience members, so being that close to the magic was truly incredible.
2. As a full-fledged Star Wars fanatic (or freak, take your pick), spending a day at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland was a dream come true. This completely immersive world created at Disney Parks has astounding attention to detail that I could never have thought possible. Sure, I might be 20 years old, but flying a simulation of the Millennium Falcon made me feel like a kid again. Well, depending on who you ask, I kind of act like a kid every day of the week anyway, so that statement might have been meaningless.
3. Another afternoon was spent on a private VIP tour of the Paramount Studios lot. We had a fantastic guide who basically tailored the tour to our interests. One of the standout moments was catching a glimpse of the late great Alfred Hitchcock’s office space, as well as the sound stage where he filmed “Rear Window” (1954). This is not even to mention hanging out on the famous bus stop bench from “Forrest Gump” (1994), or walking by the sound stage where the legendary Orson Welles filmed arguably the most influential film of all time, “Citizen Kane” (1941).
4. One Friday evening, we attended a showing of the film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a movie directed by Quentin Tarantino, at the New Beverly Cinema, a theater owned and operated by Tarantino himself. This movie is actually set in Hollywood 1969, and was nominated for 12 Critics’ Choice Awards. I guess the kids would call this experience “meta.” Additionally, there was a bonus Q & A session after the show with frequent Tarantino collaborator Michael Madsen, who has starred in films like “Reservoir Dogs,” “Kill Bill,” “The Hateful Eight,” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” He was a remarkably personable and down-to-earth gentleman, and a fantastic storyteller. The best quote from the night was actually a piece of advice given to him from a colleague years earlier: “Never buy anything from someone who is out of breath.” Listen, I don’t have a clue what that means either, but when Madsen – the man with most gravelly voice in all of Hollywood – says anything, it sounds cool.
5. The entire Critics’ Choice Awards event on Sunday night was absolutely unforgettable. We interacted with some of the biggest names and faces in Hollywood, including Quentin Tarantino, Adam Sandler, Taika Waititi, Olivia Wilde, Seth Meyers, and Keegan-Michael Key. My dad almost caused a wardrobe malfunction when he accidentally stepped on Awkwafina’s dress, and he even had a backstage conversation with Critics Choice Best Actress winner Renee Zellweger (Judy) about her longtime friendship with Harry Connick Jr. One of my favorite filmmakers, Rian Johnson (Knives Out) even complimented my dad on his Millennium Falcon tie clip. This only scratches the surface of all the film and TV stars we bumped into, and to call it surreal would be an understatement. Hey, a few people even thought I was a celebrity. And of course, I played along. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that someone thinks they had a photo taken with Freddie Highmore at the afterparty. (It was indeed NOT Freddie Highmore).
I also got to take a moment to speak with a few of my favorite film critics and journalists. The ReelBlend Podcast crew, headed by Sean O’Connell, Jake Hamilton, and Kevin McCarthy, were so incredibly kind and considerate to take the time for a group photo. Also, I briefly caught up with Scott “Movie” Mantz (Rotten Tomatoes/Collider) and Perri Nemiroff (Collider), two more people in the entertainment journalism industry whom I admire a great deal. Hey, maybe one day I’ll be doing what they do for a living.
To paraphrase what the classic rock band Journey once said, I’ve always been a small town (boy), living in a relatively quiet world. Boiling Springs, North Carolina has been home for my entire life, and I am currently in the midst of my fourth semester as a full-time student at Gardner-Webb University. So, spending a week in one of the largest, most eclectic cities in the United States, basking in the glorious history of film, entertainment, and America with each passing day, was a wild ride. And I loved every single minute of it. I will carry these memories with me for the rest of my life. And I will also be insufferable company for months to follow, because I will never stop reminding people about that time I got to be Freddie Highmore for five minutes.