One indie Oscar hopeful after another seems to be struggling financially just to stay alive during awards season.
All are suffering from declining box office numbers, reversing the encouraging momentum of their openings.
Others like "Eastern Promises," "Things We Lost in the Fire" and "Reservation Road" (which couldn't manage to expand its limited run) don't even appear on Variety's box office list after little more than a month.
However, riding in to the rescue last weekend was Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men," from Miramax, which had a phenomenal $43,798-per-screen average in 28 runs. It looks to be an indie breakout, both at the box office and in awards races, if it can keep up its first-week momentum, something the others have not done with great success.
Academy Award potential for "No Country" will probably become a little more clear after its "official" 3 p.m. screening Saturday at academy headquarters in Beverly Hills. Attendance (which has been surprisingly low at Oscar HQ for many contenders this season) and lobby buzz afterward are often key indicators of a picture's chances.
Also blowing into town last week to build buzz were the cast and key creative team behind the Cannes Film Festival darling "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
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Director Julien Schnabel's imaginative tale is another Miramax entry that hopes to buck the current downward trend for smaller films when it opens Nov. 30. It will roll out in a slow release pattern designed to carefully build word of mouth and keep it alive during the key voting periods of December and January.
This inspiring true story of a 42-year-old stroke victim who wrote a book by using only his left eyelid to communicate was a sensation at Cannes. Schnabel won the best director prize, and the film seems to be generating passionate responses among critics and the few academy members who have seen it.
As one publicist said at a private dinner at Craft that Miramax threw last Friday to honor the team behind the film, the studio is dedicated to taking it "one voter at a time" to build an effective campaign.
Frank Marshall, whose Kennedy/Marshall company is one of the key backers of the French-language movie (his wife, Kathleen Kennedy, and Jon Kilik produced), told us they are a little nervous that so many indie films are not registering and are cannibalizing each other this season.
In fact, he says that's the key reason they ultimately decided against an awards run this year for their immigration drama, "Crossing Over" (MGM/Weinstein Co.), written and directed by Wayne Kramer ("The Cooler") and starring Harrison Ford and Sean Penn, among others. Instead, they will position it in 2008 when there is less competition for the same piece of the narrow adult audience that "Butterfly," "No Country" and all the others are fighting over.
At the same dinner, Miramax President Daniel Battsek said he's got confidence in the awards prospects for his films (one of which is Ben Affleck's "Gone Baby Gone," which has grossed $17 million so far).
But Battsek wonders if the downward trend is going to hurt the indies overall in the best picture race. He concedes he's nervous, theorizing that with no real favorites, any number of movies could sneak in, and they could be from the major studios. (He thinks "American Gangster" is likely to be one of them.)
It's an interesting thought.
Indies have dominated the best picture nominations in the last two years with "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Goodnight and Good Luck" and eventual winner "Crash" scoring four of the five nods in 2005. "Babel," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen" grabbed spots in 2006. Although, Warner Bros.' "The Departed," riding sentiment for perennial loser Martin Scorsese, was the big winner in the end.
Independent movies have been major players in the best picture race ever since Harvey Weinstein started rewriting the academy rulebook in an aggressive quest for Oscar glory.
In fact, you have to go back to 1991 to find a year when the majors dominated the best picture category ("Beauty and the Beast," "Bugsy," "JFK," "Prince of Tides" and the winner "Silence of the Lambs").