Sony Corp. (6758)’s “American Hustle,” a film about a corruption sting set in the 1970s, racked up seven Golden Globe nominations last week, including best comedy, instantly becoming a top contender this awards season.
That was after the studio submitted the movie as a drama, according to people with knowledge of the situation. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which sponsors the Golden Globes, changed the designation because its nominations panel unanimously saw it as a comedy, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions were private.
The switch is part of the annual jockeying that ensures Hollywood’s highest-profile talent gets a shot at a televised acceptance speech in January. As a comedy, “Hustle” has a better chance to win because it won’t compete with dramas such as “12 Years a Slave,” an Oscar favorite, according to researcher GoldDerby.com. While studios gain a greater likelihood of awards from the category swapping, the Golden Globes benefit from having more big stars on the red carpet, in the audience and onstage -- even if filmgoers are perplexed.
“I saw ‘American Hustle,’” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrack Corp. “There are some funny moments, but I would never come out of the theater and tell a friend, ‘You have to see this comedy.’”
The movie, a fictional account of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Abscam sting, boasts an ensemble cast led by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who were nominated for comedic performances.
It’s listed as a drama by researchers Imdb.com, RottenTomatoes.com and Box Office Mojo, though film trailers depict humorous scenes, including from the character played by Jennifer Lawrence. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan called it a “screwball farce.”
Charles Sipkins, a spokesman for Sony Pictures Entertainment in Culver City, California, declined to comment. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association declined to comment, said Michael Samonte, a publicist with Sunshine Sachs who represents the organization, whose members are entertainment correspondents for overseas publications.
Awards season is important to Hollywood studios because the publicity packs in fans and drives box-office sales. This month, theaters are brimming with contenders timed to capitalize on nominations.
Other movies that combine drama with humor also wound up as comedies at the Globes, including the black-and-white “Nebraska” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” both from Viacom Inc. (VIAB:US)’s Paramount Pictures; “Inside Llewyn Davis,” from CBS Films; and “August: Osage County,” from Weinstein Co.
In past years, “Silver Linings Playbook,” 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn,” and “The Tourist,” an Angelina Jolie thriller released in 2010, also were classified musical-or-comedies.
“American Hustle,” which opened in limited release over the weekend and gains wider distribution on Dec. 20, is poised to cash in with nominations so close to its release, said Phil Contrino, chief analyst for researcher BoxOffice.com. The firm projects $95 million in total U.S. and Canadian ticket sales.
“It’s incredibly valuable publicity,” Contrino said.
Unlike the Oscars, the Golden Globes honor best picture, actor and actress separately for drama and for comedy or musical. While studios choose the category for submissions, the Press Association’s nominating committee can switch them -- though only if the panel is unanimous, said a person with knowledge of the process.
Studios don’t complain about category swapping because they can benefit from the publicity, and they strategize over entries too: “The Wolf of Wall Street,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was submitted as a comedy by Paramount, said people familiar with the matter.
“What makes this year so curious is the placement of movies,” said Tom O’Neil, founder of GoldDerby.com. “Many of these films have been chosen for a strategic reason -- to win.”
“The Wolf of Wall Street,” which opens Dec. 25, follows the rise and fall of penny stock broker Jordan Belfort, who founded 1990s firm Stratton Oakmont Inc. and spent 22 months in prison for securities fraud. Members of the Globes nominating panel were assured by Scorsese that it was a comedy, and agreed after screening the film, according to one of the people.
Michelle Benson, Scorsese’s publicist at 42West, didn’t return messages seeking comment from the director, whose credits include “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and Oscar best-picture winner “The Departed.” An outside spokesman for Paramount didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Winners of the 71st Golden Globes will be announced Jan. 12 in a ceremony broadcast on Comcast Corp. (CMCSA:US)’s NBC. Oscar nominations take place on Jan. 16, followed by the 86th Academy Awards on Walt Disney Co. (DIS:US)’s ABC on March 2.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has given out the awards since 1944, and derived most of its $10.2 million in fiscal 2012 revenue from the televised event, according to tax documents posted online. The show is produced by Guggenheim Partners LLC’s Dick Clark Productions.
With a journalist membership that has little overlap with Oscar voters who work on films, the Press Association has had limited success predicting the eventual Oscar best-picture winner -- even with two chances each year. In the past 10 years, a Golden Globe best drama or best comedy/musical has matched the eventual Oscar winner only four times.
The Directors’ Guild of America, by contrast, has nailed the selection nine of 10 times, while the Producers Guild of America picked seven of 10.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has taken a different approach to getting bigger names at the Oscars. In 2009, the academy doubled to 10 the number of possible best-picture nominees, creating more opportunity for small films as well as big-budget tentpoles.
The moves make both awards more friendly to big-name movies, and may account for why the top Globe picks for the last two years, “Argo” and “The Artist,” went on to win Oscars, said O’Neil of GoldDerby.com.
While the comedy label worked out for a number of Globe best-comedy nominees, including “American Hustle,” “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Nebraska,” some plans backfired, said O’Neil.
“The strategy didn’t work out too well for ‘August: Osage County,’ which dubiously declared itself a comedy,” O’Neil said.
Emmy Chang, a spokeswoman for distributor Weinstein Co., didn’t return messages seeking comment.
The film, the story of a dysfunctional family adapted from the stage play, missed the finals in the best musical or comedy category. A consolation is Meryl Streep’s comedy-acting nomination, where she’ll vie with Adams. In drama, all five nominees are Oscar best-actress winners: Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet.
“It’s not clear Meryl Streep would have been nominated on the drama side, given the diminished enthusiasm for the film at the Globes,” O’Neil said.
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