Fest winners: Sight unseen

Committee selects pix before they've been viewed

A correction was made to this article on Nov. 1, 2005.

A clarificatioin was made to this article on Nov. 10, 2005.

Accepting his award for director of the year at the Hollywood Film Festival earlier this week, “Jarhead” helmer Sam Mendes said: “I’m very fond of giving awards to movies you’ve never seen. To those of you who’ve seen the movie, thank you very much. To those of you who haven’t — it’s perfect.”

Although “Jarhead” had been screened, Mendes’ words meant a lot more when applied to some of the other winners, as several other films were honored sight unseen.

“The Producers,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “King Kong” were honored, despite the fact that the festival selection committee hadn’t viewed the films, which will not be released until December.

There is a certain accepted cynicism in Hollywood when it comes to the ubiquitous kudofests that lead up to the Academy Awards in February. It’s all about publicity and trotting stars out onto the red carpet as well as into the consciousness of Academy voters; the awards themselves are mostly meaningless; yada, yada.

There’s also a certain frivolity involved: It’s a festival, after all — why take it so seriously?

In this light, the notion of uncompleted films racking up awards isn’t all that mind-blowing.

Yet the news this week that the National Board of Review, another pre-Oscar award bestower, is being taken to task by ex-members for having an “illegal and improper executive board” and for not complying with “reasonable bylaws and not-for-profit requirements,” suggests kudofests are a more serious business than Hollywood would like to think, and make-’em-up-as-you-go rules may have serious repercussions. The ex-NBRers have taken their case to the New York state attorney general.

L.A. Film Critics Assn. president Henry Sheehan calls the NBR flareup a “good thing.”

“These groups and organizations need to establish their bona fides. This habit of everyone giving out awards, and the studios proclaiming this or that movie an award winner. … The last thing on anybody’s mind seems to be film excellence.”

Not to lump the HFF and the NBR in the same category — the HFF has not been accused of any wrongdoing. However, festivals at large may be brought under increased scrutiny depending on the outcome of the NBR brouhaha, particularly those whose inner workings are somewhat mysterious.

Many say this is true of the HFF, perhaps in part because its flamboyant founder, Carlos de Abreu — who before he was organizing festivals served in the Portuguese Air Force, was marketing director for Cartier and studied film at UCLA — is a breezy charmer who prefers not to get bogged down in specifics.

The fest’s 15-member selection committee comprises “industry insiders,” he said.

Meaning? “Everyone who advises us is established and reputable in the industry,” de Abreu said. “Producers, agents, film critics, publicists …”

The fest’s advisory board, or the people making the final decisions on which films are honored, is a small group: de Abreu, his wife and fest co-founder Janice Pennington, co-chair Paula Wagner and five others, whom de Abreu would not name.

When asked how films such as “Producers” and “Geisha” were deemed winners, considering they were unfinished at the time of voting, de Abreu said his committee had received “intelligence” from people who had seen footage of the films as they were being edited.

“The footage of ‘Geisha’ seen by some of our people through the editing process was unbelievable,” he said.

“Geisha” won for costume design; its producers Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick, who also produced “Jarhead,” were given the Producers of the Year award.

In the case of “King Kong,” that film was one of a list of suggestions submitted by the Art Directors Guild. The pic won for production design.

(The HFF is one of the few fests that honors below-the-line talent.)

The guilds, along with the studios and legions of publicists, all give de Abreu & Co. their two cents about what films and individuals they deem award-worthy.

Studios also arrange for private screenings. This year, Fox held screenings of “Walk the Line” and “The Family Stone” and Warner Bros. showed “North Country” for fest consideration, all films that reaped awards at Monday’s gala.

Wagner, who became a fest co-chair three years ago — giving the event some industry heft as well as access to her extensive Rolodex — said the HFF awards are less about one specific film or performance than a collection of work, thus diminishing the issue of whether one film in that mix is complete.

“It’s about awarding bodies of work,” she told Daily Variety. “The festival is really about honoring people’s work that they’ve done. They have films out during the year, but it’s about saying, you know, look at the work you’ve done even beyond that.

“If you look at a costume designer,” she continued, “you look at the many, many films they’ve done; you don’t just look at one film. You look at the whole spectrum. That’s to me what it’s about.”

Besides the addition of Wagner, the HFF, which is in its ninth year, became more prominent on the kudo scene when the Oscars were moved up a month to February, making the fest a more direct precursor to the Academy Awards. This correlation was first apparent in 2001, when the HFF anointed “Moulin Rouge!” movie of the year. At the time the pic was seen as a dark horse. A few months later it was nominated for a slew of Oscars.

The relationship between kudofests and the studios is, of course, symbiotic, seeing as fests provide free publicity during the critical weeks and months leading up to the Oscars. Or almost free: In return for having their stars touted, studios are expected to show up at lavish awards ceremonies, such as the HFF’s, held Monday at the Beverly Hilton, where tables went for $10,000 a pop.

Some say this mutuality can have dubious effects. Because the HFF wants happy, and returning, customers, one studio insider said, “Every studio is represented with every award. We all get played equal so that every year we’ll buy tables.”

It’s also said that which stars win has a lot to do with who is available to show up that night.

Not that anyone’s complaining. “The publicity value we get out of it is tremendous,” the source said.

Then again, considering that this year, for the first time, every award at the gala was presented to a studio film (even though the actual festival screens mostly indie and foreign pics), the odds of each major getting represented were pretty good.

The discrepancy between the festival and the gala is another point of curiosity. Although the HFF’s gala dinner was attended by more than 1,200 guests, including a bevy of A-listers such as Quentin Tarantino, Charlize Theron, Diane Keaton, Matthew Broderick and even George Lucas (his “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” received the Hollywood Movie of the Year award), a second screening earlier in the week of “Three Extremes,” a Japanese-Chinese series of shorts by directors Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan and Park Chan-Wook, played to a near-empty theater.

As a sign of how bifurcated (and Hollywood-centric) the fest is becoming, this year the festival films were honored at a separate, much more modest event, held at the ArcLight on Sunday evening. The Swedish-South African film “The Chef” took home feature honors.

“What we’re trying to do is separate the two awards,” de Abreu said. “The intent is to develop the Hollywood Discovery Awards (i.e., festival awards) as a separate event, but as part of the festival.”

He then resorts to one of his sweeping mantras: “Bridging the gap between Hollywood and the independent world, that’s what we’re doing here.”

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