Org first to announce winners, has clout

Ask any publicist to name at least five of its members or what their connection is to the industry and you’ll probably just get a blank stare. But despite the fact that no one can point them out in a lineup, they never fail to receive Hollywood’s undivided attention around this time of year.

Studios trip over each other trying to show them major new movies (sometimes in unfinished form, if necessary), while top filmmakers and stars with names like Spielberg, Scorsese and Streep stop by after the unspooling to chat.

So what gives the New York-based National Board of Review, which proudly proclaims it has no commercial ties to the movie business, all this clout?

The organization is the first stop on the movie awards season express, this year jumping the gun on everyone else by announcing its winners Dec. 4, followed by the annual banquet Jan. 14.

“Because they go early, they get ink,” says one veteran Oscar campaign strategist. “But they are still a bigger mystery than the Ku Klux Klan.”

Formed in 1909, originally as a censorship organization, the NBR has been giving kudos to the industry even longer than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. But since 1932, when it started singling out one picture from the annual 10 best list with “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” the org has agreed with the Academy only 18 times on the best pic prize. The org’s track record has improved recently, with five of its top choices in the ’90s going on to claim Oscar’s top prize as well.

The NBR is composed of approximately 150 members who have the opportunity to see nearly 300 films a year (only in a theater setting — no screeners) and then vote for their favorites in several categories. Final determination of the winners then is made by an uber-committee of 12.

According to NBR director Lois Ballon, whose uncle, a film fan, got her into the group more than 20 years ago, potential members are interviewed and then invited to some screenings to see how they “function amongst the group,” which could best be described as a film society.

If selected, they pay an annual fee, which according to Ballon “fluctuates”; reportedly it’s around $350.

So exactly who are these people on Hollywood’s speed-dial list? Other than the names of the board of directors, Ballon won’t provide a list, even to studios and publicists. She says members come from all walks of life (even retirement) and include educators, doctors, lawyers, film students, historians and even a couple “who have been in films, not acting, but on the production end.”

When asked what qualifies her group to be arbiters of movie quality, Ballon jumps to their defense.

“What makes one a critic?” she asks. “You don’t really go to school to become a critic, so what makes us less able to judge a film than a critic?”

Certainly the Hollywood awards machine that parks itself on the NBR’s doorstep the first week of every December doesn’t seem to care, especially if there is something in it for them.

“If you win, it’s fantastic,” shrugs an independent marketer with several contenders this year. “If not, it’s so early, you just go on to the next one.”

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