I’m seeing Departures, the Japanese-produced film that won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, late this afternoon in Manhattan. Two press screenings are also set for Los Angeles on Friday, 2.27, and Wednesday, 3.4. Regent Releasing will be opening Yojiro Takita‘s drama sometime in May.

Take this with a grain but I’ve been told that Departures won due to a very old but still effective hide-the-ball screening strategy. The fact that it won the Oscar surprised a lot of people so theories have been kicking around. The hide-the-ball strategy, while hardly complex, certainly sounds clever.

Since those foreign-film committee members who vote for the foreign film Oscar have to verify that they’ve seen all five nominees, the Departures team decided to try to eliminate potential votes for their chief competitors, Waltz with Bashir and The Class, by simply restricting the number of Departures screenings.

The fewer the screenings, the fewer chances existed that Bashir and Class supporters could get to see Departures. The odds that they might miss the Japanese film altogether were therefore increased, as well as possibly disqualifying themselves from casting final ballots.

This scenario basically alludes to the efforts of L.A.-based publicist Fredel Pogodin and not so much Sophie Gluck in Manhattan, who mainly looks after local journalists. Pogodin obviously couldn’t control who liked which film, but being an experienced publicist she does know, I’m told, who the older impressionable softies are among the foreign-film committee. So her strategy became to make sure that the softies voted and also to try and increase the odds that hipper, edgier, more discerning voters — the ones who were theoretically more likely to vote for Bashir or The Class — might potentially be kept from voting by failing to see Departures. Simple.

The older and more conservative types, according to this theory, were likely to respond to the delicate emotional character of Departures. They also might also be more uncomfortable with Bashir‘s unusual combination of animation and documentary realism, and with its criticism of Israel’s conduct during the Lebanon war.

The oldies, one hears, also tend to be a bit bored with a film like The Class, which uses an intellectual, underplayed, soft-spoken approach in telling a story of a group of French high-school teachers and students.

To keep Departures as hidden as possible, it wasn’t shown to press at all during the Oscar campaign time. Not for nothing was Pogodin’s first e-mailed invitation for the two press screenings (or at least the first one I received) sent out on 2.17.09 — the deadline day for final Oscar ballots. (Gluck, in turn, didn’t invite New York-area press until 2.23, the day after the Oscar telecast.)

How did In Contention‘s Kris Tapley see Departures ? A publicist (not Pogodin) slipped him a DVD screener.