Particularly this year, specialty pix face uphill battle

The smart money is on the big pictures, the studio epics that have been produced with a rare confluence of serious budgets and weighty themes this year.

With the studios feeling their oats this Oscar season, it’s not entirely coincidental that they rallied behind the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s screener ban policy, which would favor films with big promotional budgets over smaller, more personal films with arthouse pedigrees that depend on fest buzz, critical acclaim and word of mouth — i.e., screeners — to pique the interest of Oscar voters.

Indie and specialty films have had their place in the picture category in recent years with Davids like “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Shine,” “Fargo” and “The Full Monty” duking it out with studio Goliaths.

This year, the picture category is looking particularly muscle-bound, with likely contenders “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “The Last Samurai,” “Cold Mountain,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “Mystic River” carrying significant heft.

If one of these titles fails to make the cut, that might leave room for a dark horse like “Lost in Translation,” “American Splendor,” “The Station Agent,” “In America,” “House of Sand and Fog,” even “The Barbarian Invasions” — pictures with devoted followings among critics and discerning film buffs, festival audiences and people who go for punditry over popcorn.

Trickle-down theory

The problem with the Davids has always been the sidetrack principle. At the outset of the Oscar season, they might have been highly touted for best pic, but then Oscar honors them for other reasons. “Fargo” was nominated for t picture in 1996 as well as a small raft of other categories. Frances McDormand ended up with a statuette for the lead, and her husband and brother-in-law, Joel and Ethan Coen, respectively, took home the Oscar for original screenplay.

That same year, another indie, “Shine,” was nominated but took home only one Oscar — for leading man Geoffrey Rush. The picture winner that year was “The English Patient.” A similar thing happened to Focus Features’ “Talk to Her” last year. The Spanish-language drama was not eligible for the foreign -lingo category (Spain entered another pic). Focus pushed it for picture, but it wound up competing for director and original screenplay, which ultimately went to writer-director Pedro Almodovar.

The inverse phenomenon seems to be in store for Miramax’s subtitled French-Canadian “The Barbarian Invasions.” Though it has been lauded by critics groups and at the Toronto Film Festival, Denys Arcand’s dramedy about a randy professor on the wane could get a screenplay nomination but will more likely be relegated to foreign-lingo territory.

A clear front-runner among backburners is Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” which has built up excellent good will since its debut in August. It made the top 10 lists of the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review, was named best picture in the San Francisco Film Critics poll, and got the director nod for Coppola in the New York and the Boston film critics polls, edging out “Return of the King’s” Peter Jackson in both. Bill Murray was named best actor by the critics in Beantown and Fog City.

Sign o’ the times

Michele Robertson, the award-season consultant who worked on last year’s Focus Features stalwarts “Far From Heaven” and “The Pianist,” gives the Academy high marks for recognizing true film achievement, regardless of scale or promo budget. To ascend to the rarefied level of best picture consideration, she says, a film must have two things going for it: It must embody the Zeitgeist, and it must be a crowdpleaser.

“When you have a film of quality,” she says, “the Academy will do the right thing. They saw the movie — and cast the vote that makes the most sense. Did Roman Polanski make sense to win for best director? Yes. When people did see the movie, they responded to it.”

Like “Translation,” Fine Line’s quirky “American Splendor” has a loyal fan base among the word-of-mouth devotees who have been exposed to it since August. Its producer, Ted Hope, was one of the key architects of the indie studio lawsuit that reversed the decision to ban screeners. “We don’t have the bells and whistles of the big talent or track records of directors or anything like that,” says Fine Line marketing exec Marian Koltai-Levine. “The only way a film like ‘American Splendor’ can get notoriety is to have real quality. Our best chance is if they see the movie. That’s why these screeners are important to us.”

The saga of underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar was a winner at Sundance and of the recent AFI Awards; it took five Independent Spirit Awards as well as the New York Film Critics’ First Feature award for husband-and-wife co-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, as well as nods to its lead actors, Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.

Of course, there’s always the chance that the film will be diverted to other categories, like acting or screenwriting, a prospect not entirely unwelcome to Fine Line.

Nor is such a prospect anathema to Miramax, whose “The Station Agent” has likewise been honored by critics groups and film festivals. Its star, Peter Dinklage, has been touted as a best actor prospect out of left field.

Dreamworks’ “House of Sand and Fog,” which stars Oscar winners Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly in powerful performances, and Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo in a sustained supporting role, will also face the same challenge.

And at Fox Searchlight, Jim Sheridan’s autobiographical “In America” could be diverted to the best director slot.

For all of the “smaller” movies, the task will be to convince the Academy voters that they are big enough to compete. If their producers can do that, then the voters will respond accordingly.

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