Comedy has rarely been taken as seriously as it will be in this season’s kudofests. For the first time in December, the 26th European Film Awards will present a European comedy category. And a large crop of comedy-tinged dramas and drama-tinged comedies could add to the Golden Globes’ sometimes specious history of placing films, lead actors and lead actresses in debatable musical/comedy slots.
Several that walk a fine line between comedy and drama but are being submitted as comedies include “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Before Midnight,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Her” and “August: Osage County.” Others with a mix of laughs and tears submitted as dramas include “Blue Jasmine” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”
But a studio’s category submission by the Nov. 1 deadline isn’t a final decision, and a few nominees may change categories by the time Globes noms are announced Dec. 12. As most publicists will tell you, submitting non-musical films to pitch as comedy or drama is a chess game, first played amongst the talent and studio. Various factors come into play:
» Given the competition, does a film, actor or actress have a better shot among the five musical-comedy noms than the five drama noms? More often than not, pragmatism wins. One personal publicist is quite happy an acting client won a musical/comedy Globe, despite admitting that everyone felt the film was a drama. And the same year Helen Mirren won lead actress in a drama for “The Queen,” Renee Zellweger received a comedy/musical nom for “Miss Potter,” another biopic that was arguably just as dramatic.
» Should someone be bumped up to nab one of 10 lead actor slots vs. one of five total supporting slots? This applies to drama as well: Kate Winslet won Globes for actress (2008’s “Revolutionary Road”) and supporting actress (2008’s “The Reader”), then a lead actress Oscar for “The Reader.”
» Can a studio submit one film as a comedy and another as a drama to avoid competing with itself and maximize noms? Sure, but as one Oscar flack notes, “Pretty often the filmmaker decides what category it will be in.”
The next move is campaigning, which often begins in force at the HFPA section of a film’s junket. One publicist says entering a film as a comedy or drama “is about how you want people to perceive the film. With dark comedies, you really want people to consider them a comedy,” and another vet agrees, noting seemingly arbitrary category differences between a dark, violent film with some big laughs, and lightly comic/dramatic period pieces. Others say this is secondary to maximizing a film’s chances for noms or awards, since “Best Motion Picture” or “Best Performance by an Actor” stand out in an ad.
The first formal play is filing paperwork with the Globes’ eligibility committee, which Marlene von Arx has headed for the past nine years. All HFPA members may join, but von Arx says only about 20 volunteer each year.
Von Arx, who’s the point person between the committee and each film’s rep, notes that it’s the studios that choose categories for each nominee. “If we unanimously feel a film is in the wrong category, we’ll enter into a conversation with the studio,” she says. “Every year there are one or two, and we only make changes when we unanimously feel it’s completely wrong.”
Hypothetically, a rep could break unanimity by convincing just one member to change his mind, but von Arx (who jokingly calls this “the ‘12 Angry Men’ scenario”) says, “that doesn’t happen all that much anymore. It was more of a problem when we would decide by majority — we would have votes that were very tight, only two or so apart.” This would prompt a call to the film’s rep, often leading to distribs entering an “appeal process” with the committee, where a few members could be swayed.
Three years ago, the majority was changed to a unanimous vote, reducing the frequency of appeals. “We felt that one really needed to feel strongly about going against the whole studio strategy on how they want to market and promote their film,” von Arx says. “It’s also a much higher hurdle for the studio to climb if we say ‘Look, everybody felt this is in the wrong category.’ Then they usually understand, and there’s not as much back-and-forth when people don’t have [much] time at that late stage.”
She recalled only one majority vote when a unanimous decision was made: when Rebecca Miller’s 2009 “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” submitted as a comedy but changed to drama. Despite its star-packed cast, film got no noms.