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").
Often it appears that the studios aren't even that jacked anymore about the Oscar thing, much preferring to have a tentpole movie like "Transformers" to anything cerebral enough to appeal to academy voters. They seem content to let their specialty divisions play in that sandbox.
When Warners had eventual best picture winner "The Departed" last year, it seemed to go out of its way initially to label the movie as anything but an Oscar contender, fearing that would send the wrong message.
Its winner two years earlier, Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," was something that never would have gotten made without the clout of Warner cash cow Eastwood willing it to happen.
Remember how Universal tossed "Shakespeare In Love" aside only to watch from the sidelines when hungry indie Miramax rode it into the winner's circle in 1998?
But if the stars are aligned, it could all change this year. In fact, could we possibly see that rare best picture lineup that iscompletely from the majors?
Well, maybe. Sort of. Possibly.
For your consideration:
Say the academy ultimately decides "No Country for Old Men" is too violent, "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is too French, "There Will Be Blood" too, uh, bloody and "Into the Wild" too, well, wild. Then, watch out.
The lineup for best picture could conceivably include Universal's money-making critical success "American Gangster" and Warner Bros.' steady and admired George Clooney legal flick "Michael Clayton."
Another likely nominee could be "The Kite Runner," which despite distribution by Paramount Vantage is really a Dreamworks product. In fact, it was Dreamworks head Stacey Snider who introduced the film at its first industry screening Aug. 22.
Then there is "Atonement"(Dec 7), initially developed by Working Title for Universal before winding up in its Focus Features lineup and being released worldwide by Universal's international division.
Even the indie-that-could, Lions Gate's "3:10 To Yuma," is a best picture possibility. It was developed at Columbia, which owned the rights to the remake and was going to shoot it as a $100-million-plus Tom Cruise vehicle before dropping out when Cruise passed. The budget was slashed in half and the film was eventually financed by Relativity Media sans Cruise.
And don't forget the still-largely-unseen "Sweeney Todd." The "demon barber of Fleet Street" is from three, count 'em, three big boys: Dreamworks, WB, Paramount.
The all-star "Charlie Wilson's War" is from Universal, the same studio that also started a trade ad campaign this week for its August blockbuster and critical success "The Bourne Ultimatum" for consideration "in all categories."
With one of the year's top scores, a 93% positive Rotten Tomatoes rating (out of 204 reviews), could there even be hope for a studio summer popcorn picture, albeit a smart one like "Bourne," to break into the 2007 best picture race? Or even a feel-good musical like New Line's "Hairspray?"
And perhaps sensing a rare opportunity for some major studio love from the elusive and exclusive academy, Columbia took out an expensive Variety front cover ad this week touting its upcoming (but hardly Oscar-centric) Judd Apatow-produced biopic satire, "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," that simply stated "For your consideration in every category you got."
Likely? NOT. But you can't blame them for trying to bring back a piece of best picture glory to the studios that started the whole thing in the first place.
In other words, the majors may be too busy fighting striking writers to point this out themselves, but they've got their fingerprints all over The Season.