The maligned Foreign Press awards kick off awards season

“Shine” star Geoffrey Rush huddled with marketing and publicity experts at Fine Line Features to watch the announcement of this year’s Golden Globe nominees.

His quip to the staff: “Keep a bottle of champagne and a bottle of arsenic handy.”

“We were all just sweating,” says New Line/Fine Line’s Elizabeth Manne, of watching the morning announcement on NBC’s “Today.” “I ate four bagels just out of pure nerves.”

They opened the champagne.

In a year considered much more wide open than in the recent past, there were many raw nerves as the nominations were read for this year’s Golden Globes.

A large field of contenders had studio and indie marketing machines working overtime, all in hopes that their videotape, their screening, their press conference or cocktail party would distinguish it from the others’.

It is a marketing frenzy that has now become the norm for the Golden Globes, which a little more than a decade ago was struggling just to get televised. Now it is on NBC and in primetime.

Without the cachet of the Oscars or the highbrow prestige of the critics’ honors, the Golden Globes have nevertheless become the pre-Oscar event. Studios and PR firms expend greater energy on the Globes than on other pre-Oscar awards.

But why? The membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has been much maligned, including a lengthy profile in the Washington Post, but the TV rights to their annual fete command in the upper six figures each year. And even the notion of Globe-as-precursor-to-Oscar is not entirely true. Last year’s best drama? “Sense and Sensibility” instead of “Braveheart.” An internal squabble among the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has even led to the rival Golden Satellites.

But with the press increasingly pumping up its coverage of the entertainment business, and the Globes positioned before many other pre-Oscar honors, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has capitalized on the attention.

Says one marketing chief: “This is a pre-Academy endorsement you can’t get anywhere else. And the tastes often are in line with the Academy’s.”

Awards “are a great promotional thing for the industry,” says Rush of “Shine.” “They are basically a celebration on the village level, where all the participants get to party on and peer groups throw a few bouquets around. It’s a way of looking back, archivally, to say ‘This is the way people were thinking at the time.’ “

And the Golden Globes fit perfectly. With near-unanimous turnout from stars, slews of news crews turn out at the Beverly Hilton, with the clips of celebrity entrances shown and repeated year-round on everything from celebrity news shows to fashion roundups. The exposure translates into a boon for movie publicity.

“They have done a couple of smart things,” says the marketing chief. “They have timed themselves perfectly. And they are fun. Hands down, it is the awards that the stars attend.”

For studios, the smaller size of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s membership makes it easier to appeal to them. With 5,000-plus members of the Academy, they have a much harder time. And they can be almost assured that the members of the HFPA will have seen their movies. It’s part of the job.

An HFPA rule requires that their members be given access to a press conference with the major stars and makers of a project within two weeks of a picture’s release.

But studios also shower members with videotapes and tchotchkes, all in the hopes of breaking through the pack. (An Academy rule prohibits anything but videotapes from going out to members).

Gramercy sent out a “Fargo” snow globe, depicting the scene in which Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) investigates a highway homicide. The distrib also held screenings and cocktail parties for the pic, as well as events for another release, “Secrets & Lies.”

“The main thing that we try to do is be clever,” says Steven Raphael, vice president of publicity-west for Gramercy Pictures. “”You have got to break through somehow.”

This year also saw the “Surviving Picasso” calculator, the “Michael Collins” ceramic Irish coffee cup, a “Preacher’s Wife” muffler, a “Big Night” apron and a “That Thing You Do!” guitar watch. Universal sent out a “Nutty Professor” glass laboratory flask filled with M&Ms. The studio sent a refill several weeks later.

“Do we lobby? Sure,” says Manne, executive vice president of marketing for New Line/Fine Line. “But you lobby in a very intelligent way.”

Their means: “A couple of stiff shots of tequila and a good hot meal.” She’s kidding.

Seriously, though. Fine Line sent out a “Shine” walkman, featuring the film’s soundtrack. They held a screening and press conference for the HFPA on Nov. 19, shortly before the film’s premiere in Los Angeles.

“Nobody can accuse a $25 walkman of being serious graft,” Manne says. “It is really about a sense of humor. These are members of the press. They are going to make up their own minds.”

But Manne and other marketing officials say that to bypass the members of the HFPA would be a mistake. “In a studio’s incredible push for Oscar gold, every aspect is a precursor to the Oscar race. No one wants to leave a stone unturned.”

But what happens when a campaign doesn’t translate into nominations?

The Golden Globes do have the distinction of being a good precursor to the Oscars, but a shutout doesn’t necessar-ily spell doom for a pic’s Academy Award chances. Last year, much of the momentum behind “Il Postino” hadn’t even started when the Golden Globe nominations were announced. It was skunked in the nods, but went on to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.

“I do feel that in categories such as actor and supporting actor, it helps the Academy narrow their choices,” says Jim Fredrick, marketing president of Castle Rock. “A lot of people have trouble making up their minds.”

Their two contenders are “Ghosts of Mississippi,” which earned a nod for James Woods, and “Lone Star,” which earned a nomination for John Sayles’ screenplay. Their “Hamlet” was shut out. None is in the running for best dramatic picture.

“We make the tapes and screenings and stars available to the foreign press,” Fredrick says. “But we don’t go out of our way and do what certain other companies do, which is basically wine and dine the heck out of them. We try to make the movie speak for itself. It shouldn’t be affected by a T-shirt.”

But Frederick says they will keep gunning for an Oscar no matter what. A film’s Golden Globe fate “does not affect us at all that way,” he says.

This year, in fact, even members of the HFPA are pointing to the years when they didn’t pick the same winners as the Oscars. “Scent of a Woman” won for motion picture drama in 1993, when “Unforgiven” took the Oscar.

“There are only 85 voting members, and when you think about it, 21 of them could have found it to be a very good movie and it would be the winner,” HFPA President Philip Berk says.

So why don’t they open up the membership to more journalists? This year saw the HFPA come under fire from a Washington Post article, which took aim at its dearth of members and stringent entrance requirements.

To be considered for membership, a journalist has to have written six articles on film and be accredited by the Mo-tion Picture Assn. of America. Then they have to be nominated by an active HFPA member, and only two to five new members are allowed in each year. Initiation costs about $300 to $350, then $15 a year.

But HFPA officials say that the rules come down to practicality. “I don’t know if it would be counterproductive,” Berk says. “If we got these huge press conferences, it is just unwieldy.”

The association’s budget, primarily from the TV rights, goes to fly members to film festivals, fund scholarships, pay for Lexis/Nexis service for members and assist charities.

Says Berk: “Even if they don’t respect us because of a certain amount of professional envy, they haven’t been able to attack us for the quality of our awards.”

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