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HFPA event is unofficial kickoff to awards season

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Camara conversation: The awards season gets off to an unofficial start tomorrow with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s annual luncheon to present financial grants and install its newly elected officers.

Over the years the event has come to symbolize the kickoff to the awards season because gathered around these power tables in the Beverly Hills Hotel's Rodeo Ballroom are the Hollywood marketers who will compete in the coming months for Golden Globes nominations and wins as they pursue the ultimate Oscar gold. Not surprisingly, the luncheon's buzz is invariably about the pictures people think could be contenders for Globes and Oscars.

With so many marketers on hand for the HFPA event and with most of their films still unseen, there typically are many titles being talked about throughout lunch. At this point, in fact, almost any film that hasn't opened yet is a possible candidate. Moreover, those attending tomorrow's event aren't shy about advancing the prospects of the pictures they're working on. All it takes to get into the pack of titles the media will soon be focusing on as likely contenders is a distributor who believes enough in a picture to bankroll an awards campaign. Of course, once these early contenders start to be screened and shown at festivals their prospects will rise and fall and some will emerge as best bets.

Over the years, the HFPA luncheon has evolved into almost a mini-Globes with its own red carpet arrivals and a roster of high profile stars showing up to accept not statuettes but sizable checks from the HFPA on behalf of a wide range of fortunate film schools, film preservation groups and charities. As these contributions are handed out, a phalanx of TV news crews set up across the back of the ballroom will capture the celebrities in action and a few hours later the results will be seen all over the media.

This time around the HFPA plans to hand out a record $1.2 million in grants to 28 non-profit organizations and film schools. Among the celebrities attending the event to announce grants by the HFPA are (alphabetically): Marc Anthony, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez and Hilary Swank. Acceptance remarks are to be made by (alphabetically): Josh Brolin (for FilmAid International), Kate Del Castillo (for Inner-City Arts), Peter Falk (for Columbia University School of the Arts), Christine Lahti (for Sundance Institute), Masi Oka (for American Cinematheque) and Charlize Theron (for The Film Foundation, Inc.). It's giving-back on a large scale that's uncommon in Hollywood and the HFPA deserves applause for its generosity.

The luncheon will also see the HFPA install its officers and board of directors for 2007-08. I was happy to be able to catch up recently with newly elected president Jorge Camara to talk about the challenges he sees ahead as he starts what will be his fifth term heading the HFPA over the past 20-odd years. Camara covers Hollywood for magazines in Mexico and Latin America and also reviews films for L'Opinion, the Los Angeles daily Spanish language newspaper. He was a movie reviewer and interviewer for the Spanish language TV network Univision for the roughly 15 years between his last HFPA presidency and the current one.

"I served two terms and then two terms in the '70s and '80s, so it's been some time," he told me. "There are a lot of changes from every point of view. When I was president before we were in a small office on Sunset Blvd. (the HFPA now has its own headquarters building in West Hollywood) and we were the staff. The president and the secretary and the treasurer did all the work. Now we're fortunate to have a staff that really helps because the work has grown. That is one of the big changes. Also, I think, the importance that the Golden Globes have acquired through the years (is another major change). You know, we're the second oldest (awards) after the Academy Awards and now it's a big event (compared to) twenty-some years ago."

Indeed, the upcoming Globes will be an even bigger event than usual because it will mark the 65th time the HFPA has made these awards. The timetable calls for nomination ballots to be mailed to members Nov. 30 and nominations to be announced Thurs., Dec. 13 at 5:00 a.m., PST. The Globes will be telecast on NBC live from the Beverly Hilton Hotel Sun., Jan. 13, 2008 from 8-11 p.m., EST.

Tomorrow's financial grants, Camara noted, "are important to us and to all the grantees that receive our donations. It's very gratifying to be able to help schools, to give scholarships to students, and we always get these wonderful thank you letters from them appreciating our help. (Making such contributions is) one of the charters of the Hollywood Foreign Press as a non-profit organization. We're giving 28 financial grants this year that go from (large organizations like) the American Film Institute and The Film Foundation to smaller groups like Inner-City Filmmakers, Inner-City Arts and Ghetto Film School that are really appreciative."

Looking ahead to the challenges he'll face over the coming year as president of the HFPA, Camara observed, "I see it mainly as our work and the way that the industry is changing and releasing their films and the way, also, that the media is changing. You know, our work is as journalists. We cover Hollywood for all over the world. With the Internet some very drastic changes are taking place. (In the past) you could do an interview and claim an exclusive (but) it's very difficult these days with the way that news is instantly all over the world. That is one challenge that we're facing as journalists."

How do they cope with that challenge? "I think we have to go with it," he replied. "There's no way to fight it. We have to embrace it and have it in a way that is beneficial to us. But things are changing so fast that we still don't know exactly how it's going to work."

Besides that, there are other challenges and issues that Camara will be dealing with. "I wouldn't call this a challenge, but DCP, which is Dick Clark Productions and is our partner in producing the Golden Globes, has just been sold to Red Zone, a new company. (In June Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder's Red Zone Capital Fund purchased DCP reportedly for $175 million from Mosaic Media Group and Peter Goober's Mandalay Entertainment.) We don't know how that's going to work. I'm sure it will be fine. We met with the new owners and we had a very pleasant meeting, but you know changes will be there so that is something that we'll have to work on."

As reporters covering the Hollywood beat, HFPA members do numerous interviews with filmmakers and stars about their upcoming movies. The timing of these interviews is another issue on Camara's plate. "One thing that we're hoping to work with (the studios on) is long leads," he explained. "Long leads are interviews that are done for magazines that need about three months to publish a story. So right now they will be doing interviews for films that are coming out three months from now. Some select press is invited to those interviews. What happens is that when the film comes out three months from now and everybody gets their interview some (journalists) cannot sell it because it's already been done by the long leads. That is one thing that I'm hearing a lot about (from HFPA members) so we have to find a way to work that out."

The growth of the Globes as an awards event that's second only to the Oscars has been a major success in recent years for the HFPA. "I think what has helped the Golden Globes is that it's a party that everybody enjoys," Camara said. "They don't have the pressure that they get at the Oscars. It's a fun evening where you have dinner and you're relaxed and people enjoy seeing each other, mingling with other stars and (the awards cover) television and movies at the same time. That is a big attraction for the industry."

With the movie marketplace so crowded these days, I asked Camara if he and his HFPA colleagues are having trouble finding enough good movies to focus on? "Well, the big studios are producing films for kids so it is a little difficult to find good movies, especially during the summer. But as the summer ends some more serious movies approach. There's always good work that can be rewarded -- fortunately."

Not surprisingly, between covering the Hollywood beat and looking for films worthy of Globes recognition, Camara spends lots of time sitting in screening rooms. "You have to," he pointed out. "It's part of the work. Friends who are not in the business envy your job, but sometimes it's not a very enviable job. There are screenings practically every day and sometimes there are days where you have two screenings -- one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Sometimes there are morning screenings. So there's a lot of time devoted to that. You cannot make everything because otherwise you wouldn't have time for anything else. But a good chunk of time is devoted to watching films." On top of that, HFPA members also attend hundreds of press conferences a year with filmmakers and stars.

Of course, in his new role as HFPA president Camara will need to carve out additional hours to handle that workload, as well, with an eye on serving the group's membership. "Our priority is the work of the members and to help and assist the members on their work -- on their livelihood, which is writing and reporting on Hollywood," he said. "That is really our priority. Everything else -- the Golden Globes and all the other events -- are just geared to that. So we have to look at the ways that the industry is changing and how the members can benefit from that or cannot be hurt from that."

Looking at the HFPA and how it fits into the industry, Camara observed, "I think the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as a group -- not only as Golden Globe voters but as journalists -- are making an impact with our work in Hollywood because, as you know, income (to Hollywood) from other countries sometimes is higher than what the movies make here in this country. And there are some movies that may flop here, but they make money in other parts of the world. So that is something that we should be recognized for. (We reach) a tremendous audience from all over the world. Just our board of directors right now (represents a wide range of countries). I'm from Mexico and cover Latin America. Our Vice President (Mike Goodridge) is from England. Our Executive Secretary (Serge Rakhlin) is from Russia. Our Treasurer (Meher Tatna) is from India. And on the Board of Directors we have two Germans (Anke Hofmann, Erkki Kanto), an Italian (Armando Gallo), a Spaniard (Paz Mata) and an Egyptian (chairman Mahfouz Doss). We really project Hollywood all over the world."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 29, 1989's column: "There is a somewhat cynical lesson about film libraries to be learned from Sony's $3.4 billion purchase of Columbia Pictures Enterprises. The lesson is that when it comes to selling libraries, quantity is preferable to quality.

"Now before my phone starts ringing with reminders about all the classic films in Columbia's library, let me acknowledge that they're there. What I'm talking about is the Columbia and Tri-Star product added to that library in more recent years. Without embarrassing anyone by listing titles here, I think you know what I mean.

"'Victor's strategy is to stockpile negatives,' one observer told me months ago when we were considering the dubious boxoffice prospects for some then-upcoming Columbia and Tri-Star releases. He went on to explain that, in his view, Columbia chairman Victor Kaufman's approach was to make as many films as possible in an effort to create the largest possible film library. That philosophy, he added, was one that by definition put less emphasis on quality than on quantity.

"It's hard to applaud the notion that it doesn't matter if the movies you make are good as long as you make a lot of them, but in the real world that appears to be the case. Moreover, Kaufman's spectacular success in pulling off this deal with Sony proves he knew what he was doing.

"In an era in which television, cable, pay TV and satellite services are enjoying explosive worldwide growth, it's clear that if you're programming a new channel in, say, the United Kingdom and you need a movie to fill the hours from 2-4 a.m. you aren't going to lose sleep over whether it's a great film. You just want to know you've got something to cover you then.

"A library with some 3,000 feature titles and 2,600 television shows is attractive because of its size, not because of its quality. Did a team of Sony scouts move into a screening room at Columbia before doing this deal so as to look at each of those films and write reviews of them for Sony president Norio Ohga to consider?...The questions that probably were posed were: Are the home video and pay TV rights to any of these titles tied up and, if so, for how long a period?...

"When Sony ultimately puts the library into home video distribution on the new miniature cassettes that play on its 8mm video system, it will have achieved what it set out to do. It will be offering software that will help sell Sony hardware. Sony will not be handicapped by a lack of available software as it was with its ill-fated but technically superior Beta format video system a few years ago."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com