Analysis

More sophisticated Golden Globes a growing force in awards season

Now that quality trumps star power at the Golden Globes, studios are taking them a lot more seriously

Indie darlings "Birdman" and "Boyhood" are in there. Angelina Jolie's big-budget epic "Unbroken" failed to make the cut. If anything, the Golden Globe nominations announced Thursday show the increasingly sophisticated tastes of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., a group long known for valuing movie stars far above the quality of their films.

It's one reason why the Globes are taken more seriously than ever, with studios devoting an inordinate amount of time, money and energy to secure the love of the HFPA's 82 voting members.

"This is a boost, and very important for our movies as we roll them out," Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker says of the Golden Globe nominations. His studio found itself well represented, with such titles as "Foxcatcher," "Still Alice" and "Whiplash" receiving nods, recognition Barker hopes will translate into lifting the films' commercial prospects in the coming weeks.

Not that long ago, it wasn't hard to earn a Golden Globe nomination. You just needed to be a movie star willing to shake a few hands, pose for some photos and make sure your studio ponied up for a lavish press junket. The idea was to fill the ballroom with as many stars as possible, not necessarily recognize the best work.

Stars and studios still follow those rules. But in the last two years, under new President Theo Kingma, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has attempted to chart a course toward respectability, one that has the group mirroring the choices of the critical mainstream and the film academy.

GOLDEN GLOBES 2015: Top nominees | List | Snubs/Surprises | Reactions | Announcement | Full coverage

Take the cases of Jolie and Johnny Depp. Four years ago, both found themselves nominees for the critically panned romantic thriller "The Tourist," a movie so bad that Globe host Ricky Gervais slammed it in his opening monologue. ("It seems like everything this year was three dimensional — except the characters in 'The Tourist.'")

This year, Depp and Jolie were ignored, despite having far more deserving work in the mix. Jolie directed and produced the World War II picture "Unbroken" and starred in the hit "Maleficent." Depp has a short, but memorable turn as the Big Bad Wolf in "Into the Woods."

They weren't alone among A-listers. Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood won't be at the Globes next month for their contemporary war movie "American Sniper." Ben Affleck ("Gone Girl") and Shailene Woodley ("The Fault in Our Stars") have the evening free too.

"You look over the nominees this year, and you see a diversity that might not have been there in the past," Barker says. "It really seems to be more about the movies now."

For the movies nominated — "Birdman" led the field with seven nods, with "Boyhood" and "The Imitation Game" each receiving five — the Globes provide what "Into the Woods" producer Marc Platt calls "brand recognition" in their marketing efforts. Smaller movies like "Birdman," which has grossed $19 million since its October release, use the kudos as a hook to persuade moviegoers to check out the source of all the acclaim.

"Accolades from the Globes for a movie, particularly one like ours that's going into release, is very valuable," says Platt, whose film opens Christmas Day. "It allows us to use something to make our movie more singular in a competitive marketplace."

GOLDEN GLOBES 2015: Top nominees | List | Snubs/Surprises | Reactions | Announcement | Full coverage

The value of the HFPA's attention goes beyond commercial considerations too. Awards consultants know an ad trumpeting Golden Globe nominations grabs the attention of the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who can start filling out their Oscar nomination ballots on Dec. 29.

"Academy members are bombarded with Globes, Globes, Globes stuff all day on the news," says a veteran Oscar consultant, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity so as not to compromise potential relationships. "How could it not make an impression?"

And the impression the HFPA membership is making these days seems far removed from just four years ago, when the group came under fire for nominating the musical bomb "Burlesque" for best picture-comedy or musical after enjoying a lavish Las Vegas junket that included a private concert by the movie's star, Cher.

The following year, the HFPA's longtime publicist, Michael Russell, sued the group, claiming he had been fired after telling then-President Phil Berk that members were engaging in "unethical and potentially unlawful deals and arrangements which amount to a payola scheme." (A settlement was reached last year.)

Kingma, a Dutch photographer, took over as president in June 2013. According to several awards consultants, he began weeding out the group's older, less active members, which has had the effect of making the HFPA as a group younger and less cliquish. Kingma says the effort remains a "work in progress," attributing the relative absence of oddball choices in the last two years to studios showing them movies in a more timely manner.

When asked whether the group had moved away from its star-struck ways, Kingma replied: "That's a fair assessment."

Ratings for the show are strong, perhaps affording the organization the opportunity to reform its ways now that it has become a viewing institution. The 2014 telecast drew 20.9 million viewers, marking a 10-year high for the event. Well-liked hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will return for the Jan. 11 show, and you never know who might be at home watching.

"I've watched the Globes since I can remember," says punk rock godmother Patti Smith, a nominee for her original song for "Noah." "Since I was a child, my mother loved Hollywood. It's not really a world I have been privy to in real life. It's something I watch on TV, so these things seem unattainable."

Twitter: @GlennWhipp

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