i>NO COUNTRY WINS FIRST AWARD OF SEASON

The movie awards season got under way Wednesday with the National Board of Review naming the Coen Bros.' No Country for Old Men best picture of 2007. Tim Burton received the best director award for his adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd. The best actor award went to George Clooney for Michael Clayton, while Julie Christie took best actress honors for Away From Her. Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was named best foreign film, while Body of War was voted best documentary.

TWO MORE MOVIES DERAILED BY STRIKE

There will be no overture for a new movie about William Tell, at least while the writers' strike remains in effect. Spyglass productions on Wednesday announced that Ironbow: The Legend of William Tell would be postponed because the script by former game-show producer Jay Wolpert needed additional work, which could not be performed during the strike. Wolpert has one previous screenplay credit -- 2002's The Count of Monte Cristo. He also received story credit on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Also stalled is Rogue Pictures' Dracula flick Castlevania, based on the video game, with a script by Paul W. S. Anderson (the Resident Evil films). Studios had previously announced strike-related delays of three other films. Meanwhile, in another strike-related development, today's (Thursday) Los Angeles Times reported that the studios have hired a new team of public relations advisors for the duration of the strike, including Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, who have served as aides to Bill Clinton and Al Gore and Steve Schmidt, who managed Gov. Schwarzenegger's 2006 campaign. Fabiani and Lehane, the Times observed, "have a reputation for hardball tactics in damage control and inflicting damage on opponents."

CATHOLIC BISHOPS GIVE THUMBS UP TO COMPASS

The U.S. Conference of [Catholic] Bishops has split with the Catholic League, the nation's largest Catholic lay group, over The Golden Compass. The League has called for a boycott of the movie, which opens Friday, claiming that it promotes atheism. But the official review of the film by the Conference says that "the good news is that ... explicit references to this church" found in the book on which the movie is based "have been completely excised." The review continues: "This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent Elizabeth: The Golden Age or The Da Vinci Code. Religious elements, as such are practically nil." However, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, has insisted that the movie will encourage young people to read the book. "The idea is to sell the horrors of Catholicism and the virtues of atheism to youth," he said on Fox News Channel Wednesday.

MOVIE GALLERY'S DEBT: $1.4 BILLION

Bankrupt video chain Movie Gallery said in court papers Wednesday that it owes creditors $1.4 billion of which $902 million is owed to secured creditors. The total figure is slightly higher than the $1.2 billion that Movie Gallery borrowed to acquire rival Hollywood Video in 2005. The company has been closing unprofitable stores and continuing to operate, although analysts have noted that video stores in general are facing increasing competition from online video renters and from kiosks installed in restaurants, grocery stores, and other retail outlets, which rent movies for about one dollar a day, less than a third of Movie Gallery's fee.

POST OFFICE SEES RED OVER NETFLIX ENVELOPES

Analysts on Wednesday downgraded Netflix's stock after an audit by the U.S. Postal Service determined that the company's return envelopes jam automatic sorters and have to be sorted by hand. The postal service indicated that it was likely to charge Netflix an additional 17 cents per envelope to process them. Netflix ships 1.6 million DVDs daily. The 17-cent surcharge would therefore cost the company almost $100 million per year. Netflix is expected to redesign its distinctive red envelopes in order to avoid the charge.

BAY CLAIMS MICROSOFT FUNDING HD DVD CAMP

Director Michael Bay (Transformers) has accused Microsoft of handing out $100-million checks to the studios to persuade them to release high-definition video using the HD DVD format exclusively. Writing on his website Tuesday, Bay said, "Microsoft wants both formats [HD DVD and Blu-ray] to fail so they can be heroes and make the world move to digital downloads. That is the dirty secret no one is talking about." (A similar accusation was voiced last October by Mike Dunn, head of Fox Home Entertainment.) Bay said on his website that Microsoft wants "confusion in the market until they perfect the digital downloads."

YOUNG AFGHAN ACTORS SPIRITED OUT OF COUNTRY BY PARAMOUNT

Paramount delayed the release of The Kite Runner for six weeks so that four boys who appeared in the movie and their families could be whisked out of Afghanistan and relocated in the United Arab Emirates, the Associated Press reported today (Thursday). In one scene, one of the boys witnesses the rape of his friend. Although the film was not scheduled to be released in Afghanistan, there was fear that should pirated copies get into the country, residents there might harm the young actors. The film is due to open on Dec. 14.

Brian B.