Long memories have helped early film releases

As the end-of-year skies clear and kudo givers attempt to distinguish genuine supernovae from puny white dwarfs, does the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s telescope boast a slightly longer focal length than anyone else’s?

You probably won’t get much argument from the producers of “Bend It Like Beckham,” “About a Boy,” “Thank You for Smoking” or “The Devil Wears Prada,” all of which opened in Q1 or Q2 but by December were resurrected to be named among their years’ finest by the 80-odd members of the Golden Globes-giving org.

Award watchers marveled at last year’s performance of “In Bruges,” a violent, funny little U.K. import from all the way back in February that ended up nabbing three Globe nods, including one in the top category. Did the outcome directly influence the film’s coveted Oscar nom for original screenplay? Guesses HFPA president Philip Berk: “Almost certainly.”

These phenomena are undeniably cheering to the likes of Peter Saraf, producer of this year’s well-received March release “Sunshine Cleaning,” which must depend on long memories to gain nominators’ attention. “When you come to the end of the year with an original screenplay and two extraordinary performances that are among the year’s best, you start to find ways to remind people this is a movie they loved in a quieter time.” As veteran campaign consultant Tony Angellotti puts it, “It’s usually necessary to transport voters in the way-back machine concerning the comedy category.”

The Globes nominators don’t have to go quite as way-back as other groups, due to a combination of factors including the most obvious — the Globes’ separation of dramas from comedies and musicals.

Berk denies that his colleagues have longer memories than others, but Angellotti points out, “Oftentimes the year-end comedies are not the type or style of comedy they prefer, and therefore we have to look back to the first part of the year to flush out the field” with tuners like “Mamma Mia!” and “Hairspray” or last year’s winner, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

A survey of past early-release HPFA contenders reveals mostly lighter fare, but dramas have been nominated in recent years — “Wonder Boys” (February); “The Horse Whisperer” (May); “The Bridges of Madison County” and “The Truman Show” (both in June) — none of which found their way into the Academy’s top five.

A subtler contributor is the obligation of the foreign scribes to keep up with virtually everything as it comes out. Berk notes, “We not only have to see the film for Golden Globe consideration, but to write our interviews and make a living as journalists.” Their attention, then, is as keen in spring as in deep midwinter, whereas working pros in the Academy and guilds likely don’t see many more films in the course of a year than an avid civilian.

According to one awards consultant, “Opening early is better; the challenges at the end of the year are almost overwhelming.” A feature managing to stay in the critical and public eye after an early opening — 2005’s best picture “Crash,” for example, or “The Hurt Locker” this year — takes on a sense of inevitability as “the little pic that could.” (“Little Miss Sunshine” producer Saraf notes the July release “was still in theaters at Christmas; we had to pull it out to get the DVDs into voters’ stockings.”)

By contrast, WB prexy of domestic distribution Dan Fellman likes Clint Eastwood at Christmastime. After parlaying late-year releases “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Million Dollar Baby” into major award glory, WB has high hopes for Dec. 11’s “Invictus.” He notes that the week from Christmas through New Year’s is the year’s biggest in terms of movie attendance, “and you want to have one of your bigger guns in there.”

But some think Warners waited too long to open “Gran Torino,” which didn’t connect with audiences until the week Oscar nomination ballots were due. Years earlier, however, an August release may have actually helped “Unforgiven,” giving it time to mature in voters’ minds. “Like (early May’s) ‘Gladiator,’ it crossed over from what was expected to be a male audience to a general one, propelled by women and all ages. It was a phenomenon,” Fellman observes.

Given their professional obligation to stay abreast of new releases year-round, the foreign press have a jump on other voting orgs who depend on a glut of screeners arriving each December. As one Academy member opines, “You get 50, 60 DVDs, and you say, ‘God, I haven’t seen these 20 or whatever.’ We have to make choices. How many DVDs can a working person watch in a week? Two?”

For the HFPA, screeners are merely opportunities to spot-check a fondly remembered pic or performance. As Berk himself offers, “If there’s anything in the borderlines, I’ll go to the trouble of seeing the DVD again.”

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