Promotions, sans-screeners, shifts strategies

Ask an indie executive if they think their picture has a shot at an Academy Award nomination, not to mention Golden Globe recognition, and you will often get an uneasy and humble response.

“I don’t like to seem presumptuous that we will get nominations,” says Dennis O’Connor, head of domestic distribution for HBO Films, which released “American Splendor.” “Just being mentioned within the same breath as the Academy Awards is flattering. Even a remote possibility that we might be nominated for something would be unbelievable to us.”

Arthouse producers fear that a Philistine display of Oscar lust will alienate the very Academy members they’re courting. But behind the “awe-shucks-I’m-not-sure-we’re-worthy” smokescreen, they are feverishly positioning and promoting their movies, because everyone understands awards from the various guilds, critics orgs, the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are crucial to indie films, which live and die by artistic reputation.

While they have no hope of matching the publicity blitzkriegs of the majors, which typically buy 10 times as many ads in the trades during awards season, indies enjoy some subtle advantages.

First and foremost is their platform strategy. By opening in just a handful of theaters in Los Angeles and New York, then gradually branching out to other markets, indie hits are often in release much longer than studio fare.

“Bowling for Columbine,” which won an Oscar last year for best documentary feature, ran continuously in theaters for more than eight months. The actors and filmmakers often travel with the movie as it expands to new markets, meeting with local press and slowly building a groundswell of support. “Independent filmmakers are very often extremely passionate about their projects,” Rick Sands, chief operating officer of Miramax, observes. “They are willing to go the extra mile.”

Tom McCarthy, the writer and director of Miramax’s “The Station Agent,” has recently hit the circuit, giving 10-15 media interviews a day in each of the cities he visits. “What I’m doing is comparable to starting a small business. When you have a small niche market business, it’s really the personal touch that enables you to succeed.”

The topicality of some indie films — abuses of the Catholic church in “The Magdalene Sisters,” teenage rebellion in “Thirteen” — can make it easy for publicists to generate spinoff stories in print, radio and TV. “Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to ‘Thirteen,'” says Nancy Utley, marketing president for Fox Searchlight, which opened the film Aug. 20. “The publicity continues to build gradually over time and it keeps it alive among the Academy voters.”

Bob Berney, president of Newmarket Films, which is pushing “Whale Rider” and “Monster,” hopes to win nominations for the lead actors in those films: Keisha Castle-Hughes in the former, and Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci in the latter.

“Monster” won’t open until Dec. 26, but Newmarket is holding early screenings of the picture. “The unanswered question is: what will attendance be like at the screenings this year? Typically it’s been low,” says Dennis O’Connor. At the very least, the screener ban proposed by the MPAA, which Berney referred to as “a serious, shocking drawback,” will no longer be a factor, allowing Newmarket to send out watermarked VHS copies of its awards hopefuls.

Berney plans to bring “Whale Rider’s” teenage star Castle-Hughes and director Niki Caro in from New Zealand to appear at some of the L.A. and New York screenings, along with Kahurangi, a troupe of tribal musicians and dancers. “We want to give a feel of New Zealand,” he explains. “We want people to have an opportunity to see Keisha and Niki together, because they’re very dynamic. It (is) very emotional to learn about the struggle that Niki went through to make this film. It took her 10 years to finally find the right actress who delivered the perfect performance.”

Utley is trying everything she can think of — such as easy-to-read calendars mailed to Academy members and multicolored fliers sent to guild members — to maximize attendance at her screenings. “Our biggest innovation is that we are holding sneak previews of ‘In America’ at the same four theaters in L.A. every Thursday night at 7:30 for the next six weeks.”

“It’s all about having screenings, screenings, screenings,” she says.

Fox Searchlight is producing a half-hour special on the making of both “Thirteen” and “In America,” and will buy time on local cable stations to air it during the voting period. Searchlight is also publishing a book on the making of “In America,” filled with lush color photos and the shooting script. It will hit bookstores at awards season, and copies will be mailed to guild members.Searchlight has fixed its efforts on snagging some SAG awards. “We’re mailing a brochure to the SAG membership that illustrates how well the lead performances were received. I think SAG members appreciate the longevity of Holly Hunter’s career and the gutsy choices she’s made.”

Berney insists any award won by an indie is victory for all of them. “It helps the whole independent sector,” he says. “When independent films win awards, the public is impressed and, for both the wrong and right reasons, you bring new investors and money into the filmmaking pool. It will always be an uphill battle for us, but we can compete and sometimes even beat them.”

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