Indie, genre pics play lead roles in wide open race

Chances are when the Oscar nominees are announced at the crack of dawn on Feb. 13, several talents will emerge who have never basked in Oscar’s spotlight. Part of this has to do with the burst of new blood that has infused Hollywood’s ranks both in front of and behind the camera over the last decade.

It also has to do with a public and critical community that increasingly reacts less to star power and studio polish, and more than ever to storytelling and character. In an age where tastes have become hyper-sophisticated and access to information as quick as a key stroke, let’s call it the “been there, done that” syndrome.

Of course the cynics will, as they invariably do every year, point to the current crop of movies as reflecting a weak year, where no films stand out as clear frontrunners, “Erin Brockovich” notwithstanding.

Last year the same refrain reverberated from certain corners, even when it could not have been further from the truth. If anything, 1999 represented an over-abundance of quality movies from both experienced and novice filmmakers. The work of first- and second-time helmers like Sam Mendes, Kimberly Peirce and Spike Jonze overshadowed that of perennial critics’ faves like Martin Scorsese, Atom Egoyan and Neil Jordan. The plethora of strong Oscar contenders made the final cut brutal. Even the swan song of Stanley Kubrick — long considered America’s greatest living director, and whose death might have made “Eyes Wide Shut” a sentimental favorite — was left out in the cold without a single nom.

Such an embarrassment of riches makes this season appear rather anti-climactic on the surface. The dearth of sweeping historic epics, issue-oriented dramas and burnished star vehicles that the Academy traditionally embraces has made this a year in which genre pictures and modest, character-driven indie films will play a greater role.

Eyes wide open

The challenge, of course, is to get Academy members to see a crush of films — both year-end and the attendant backlog — in time to make some knowledgeable choices come Jan. 9, when the Oscar ballots are mailed out. Specialty releases face a particular uphill battle, since they don’t have the built-in awareness factor that comes with studio marketing muscle.

“If there’s no buzz going in, it makes it more difficult,” says veteran Oscar campaign consultant Tony Angellotti. “Something with heat going in makes (a campaign) easier.”

“When you’re not talking DreamWorks — not that they don’t do special work — and not throwing tens of millions of dollars into your Oscar campaigns, it’s about grass roots,” adds Fine Line president Mark Ordesky, who has high hopes for Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Dancer in the Dark” and fest sensation “Before Night Falls,” which is being released Dec. 22.

“It is relatively harder to get people to focus on non-studio films,” Ordesky continues, “But especially in a year like this, people are looking for a breath of fresh air — something distinctive that feels different.”

Accordingly, the wide-open nature of the Oscar picture has opened the door for specialty distributors who haven’t figured prominently in previous Oscar races. Along with Fine Line’s offerings, which also include “Saving Grace,” Fox Searchlight is touting “Quills”; Sony Pictures Classics is sitting pretty with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; Artisan is hopeful about “Dr. T and His Women” and “Requiem for a Dream”; upstart USA Films boasts “Traffic” and “Nurse Betty”; and Paramount Classics is emerging strong with “You Can Count on Me,” the re-released “Sunshine” and the upcoming “The Gift,” with Cate Blanchett.

High hopes

Despite all the enthusiasm, Ruth Vitale, who with David Dinerstein runs Paramount Classics, seems to view an aggressive awards-season push as almost untoward. “We’re mostly known for being cautious and optimistic and careful,” she says. “We buy movies that we love and we’re lucky that other people do, too.”

“You Can Count on Me,” which the 3-year-old company bought at Sundance, has benefited from the kind of reviews film execs dream about. Several major critics have hailed it as one of the year’s finest offerings — including the New York Times’ Stephen Holden, the Boston Globe’s Jay Carr, Time magazine’s Richard Schickel and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert — and its two leads, Laura Linney and newcomer Mark Ruffalo, have been singled out for praise.

While critical kudos don’t always translate into boxoffice success, another factor that influences the Academy’s perception of a film, “You Can Count on Me” has performed well across the board in limited release. “It’s playing equally as well in the suburbs as it is in the megaplexes as it is in the art theaters,” says Dinerstein.

“Movies are always now about the bigger, the better, the louder, the faster,” he adds. “This film harkens back to the movies of the ’70s like ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘The Last Picture Show’ — films that were character-driven and people could relate to.”

Ordesky acknowledges that it’s easier for the indies to lobby for the talent categories of actor, director and writer than it is for the top picture prize. He points to such indie lead actor nominees as Hilary Swank, Janet McTeer, Fernanda Montenegro and Ian McKellen to make a case for Bjork (“Dancer in the Dark”), Javier Bardem (“Before Night Falls”) and a whole slew of lesser-known talents. “There’s been this trend now where Academy members are used to seeing people in films that have grossed less than $10 million.

“For best picture it’s obviously a bit trickier,” he adds, “because there’s more of a big-gun kind of spending going on in support of those nominations.” The expenditure is usually justified at the box office when a picture wins the top prize, since, over the past decade, the honor has translated into an average of 25% of the film’s final gross (see related chart).

But Ordesky shuns the popular notion that there are “indie slots” in the best pic category that act as wild cards. “As if the Academy actually thinks that way,” he says. “But the truth of it is there’s never been a year where it’s less the case than this year.”

Both Ordesky and Vitale point to 1996 — when “The English Patient,” “Fargo,” “Secrets and Lies” and “Shine” vied with sole studio contender “Jerry Maguire” for top honors — as a watershed year, making an indie-heavy Best Pic category in 2001 not out of the question.

There’s prestige in formula

The anything-goes nature of the race has also left the door wide open for the kinds of genre films not usually considered Oscar’s cup of tea: comedies, action adventure, suspense thrillers. In this climate, a movie like “Gladiator” — which many consider essentially a well-crafted summer action film with the Oscar-friendly trappings of large scale and period setting — boasts the kind of awards profile it might not wield in any other year. With the film out of theatrical circulation, DreamWorks pumped new life into its campaign with a lavish DVD launch Nov. 30 at the Academy theater in Los Angeles, including appearances by director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe. It was as if the film had premiered all over again.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” directed by Ang Lee (“Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm”), likewise takes the Hong Kong martial arts movie to another level, with sumptuous production design and a philosophical depth that made it a hit with critics at Cannes and Toronto. As such, Sony Classics is gearing up for its highest profile rollout in history after a Dec. 9 opening. While the film’s biggest drawback might be its Chinese-language dialogue, “Crouching Tiger” is bound to be given greater support than Lee’s previous film, the revisionist Civil War epic “Ride With the Devil,” which USA Films released last year with little fanfare.

As with Lee, there will be a few other encore appearances this year. M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) and Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”), both nominated in February for best director and whose films vied for best picture, are back with “Unbreakable” and “Chocolat,” respectively. Russell Crowe, who turned several critics org wins into an Oscar nomination last year for “The Insider,” comes back strong in “Gladiator.” And “American Beauty” best actor Kevin Spacey and “Sixth’s” Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment both stand a respectable chance of being considered for “Pay It Forward,” as does “Cider” winner Michael Caine for “Quills.”

The more the merrier

Then there are those performers whose sheer volume of work makes it hard for the Academy to ignore, such as previous Oscar winner Helen Hunt, who plays the femme lead in no less than four major releases this year: “Dr. T and the Women,” “Pay It Forward,” “What Women Want” and “Cast Away.” Likewise, Joaquin Phoenix’s profile has been raised substantially by roles in “Gladiator,” “The Yards” and “Quills.”

Previous Oscar winner Michael Douglas (“Wall Street”) also is featured in multiple roles: as a would-be anti-drug czar in “Traffic” and a stoned out English lit professor in “The Wonder Boys.” The latter film, which was critically lauded but suffered a tepid theatrical run earlier this year, has been re-released by Paramount to give it some crucial late-year momentum.

“In a fall window when more adult movies are being opened, we thought we could give it another shot with a fresh campaign and try to utilize the reviews to help it find its audience,” says Nancy Kirkpatrick, Paramount executive VP worldwide publicity. Although the “O” word makes her nervous, Kirkpatrick feels the film’s pedigree (it’s director, Curtis Hanson, helmed the best-reviewed film of 1997, “L.A. Confidential”) gives it more than a decent shot for Oscar gold. “I’d be lying if that didn’t cross our minds,” she says. “We all think this has a lot of Oscar potential.”

Steven Soderberg, who directed Douglas in “Traffic,” could very well have two movies in contention for best picture and director, including Julia Roberts starrer “Erin Brockovich.” As this weren’t enough, it’s not inconceivable that Soderberg could receive a nomination of the cinematographer of “Traffic,” for which he also served as camera operator.

Ed Zwick, the producer of “Traffic” along with Marshall Herskovitz and Laura Bickford, calls the modern-day epic — which examines the drug trade from the street level to the cartels — a “serious movie” for which word of mouth is important. “There are many ways to go about doing a serious movie,” says the director-producer, “but a good one has to benefit from critical attention, and the timing that happens to a movie at the end of the year.

Zwick, who won an Oscar as one of the producers of “Shakespeare in Love,” knows what a nomination can do for a picture’s awareness factor. “If the film is still in release, a nomination means everything,” he says. “It can really focus the public’s attention on a movie which otherwise they might not have paid much attention to.”

Delay of game

But at a time when Academy screenings begin as early as October and tapes are being mailed out prior to Thanksgiving, does holding a film back until late December risk its being lost in the Christmas glut, leaving critics precious little time to draft their year-end lists and staving off the early buzz factor?

“Without breathing room, or a longer play, a film really has to knock your socks off a la ‘Shakespeare in Love’ or ‘The Thin Red Line,’ which had tremendous artistic integrity, or is an ‘important film,'” says Angellotti.

Miramax, the proven champion in staging savvy Oscar campaigns, has been playing it relatively low-key, with most of its Oscar hopefuls entering the race at the 11th hour. Two of its most important releases — “All the Pretty Horses” and “Chocolat” — barely began screenings the first week of December. But Mark Gill, president Miramax L.A., isn’t worried.

“All the happy chatter and early buzz amounts to nothing once people see all the movies,” says Gill. “And thankfully they seem to make their decisions in early January, not December. So if you view ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ which nobody had seen until about this time (of the) year, as the model, that worked out just fine. Frankly, I’m not concerned about it at all.”

Neither is Elizabeth Gabler, who as executive VP of production for 20th Century Fox helped shepherd “Cast Away” through the development process beginning in 1993. The film, which opens Dec. 22, “was always perceived as a very commercial movie and a very provocative movie,” says Gabler, who’s now president of Fox 2000 Pictures. “But given the caliber of the writing, Tom’s (Hanks) talent and the scope of the story, you can’t help but think of this as a big tentpole picture for the studio.”

Fox is also hoping that lightning will strike twice with the combination of Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, who both mined Academy gold with 1994’s “Forrest Gump” — a film that netted six Oscars for Paramount, including best picture. In terms of an Oscar campaign, Gabler’s response sounds strikingly familiar: “We believe the movie speaks for itself; we want people to see it because it’s superior in every way.”

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