A major indentity crisis

Niche is nice, major is minor in noms

Execs at the major studios must be experiencing mixed emotions.

Their niche arms did great. Universal’s Focus was a star with “Brokeback Mountain,” Sony Pictures Classics scored with loads of “Capote” noms and Warner Independent is glowing thanks to the perf of “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

But except for a strong showing by U’s “Munich” — and a handful of acting mentions — pics from the studio motherships have to live with technical noms.

Last year, the stage was set. “The Aviator” had an indie sensibility with a major budget; Warner Bros.’ “Million Dollar Baby” wouldn’t have been released without Lakeshore’s involvement; and “Ray” was a Universal movie financed by Philip Anschutz’s Bristol Bay. And then there were “Sideways” and “Finding Neverland,” two genuine indies.

Historically, however, it wasn’t always this way.

“Jaws,” “E.T.,” ‘Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Titanic” — all of them were major studio efforts with terrific reviews and boffo box office … and all of them scored a best pic nomination.

New Line, though not a “major” major, has recently been able to mix nominations, critical acclaim and giant grosses with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

This year, “King Kong” and “War of the Worlds” missed out in the major categories. And Sony’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” — a pic many thought was just the type that wins over the Acad — had a good morning … in the artistic categories. “Walk the Line” had a strong showing but didn’t get a top nom.

Some indie folk claim there hasn’t been a major shift in the film landscape; rather, Oscar years are cyclical, and voters use what they have to work with to produce their list of nominees.

“I don’t think it’s rare,” said Michael Barker — who co-heads Sony Pictures Classics with Tom Bernard — of this year’s indie bent. “The Academy, over the years, has gone through cycles when they gravitate toward high-quality, low-budget films. What is surprising is that I thought the studios had very high quality films.”

Indeed, a decade ago — before the triumphs of James Cameron and Peter Jackson — 1996 was a year in which indie pics prevailed, with best picture noms going to “Shine,” “Fargo,” “Secrets & Lies” and “The English Patient.” “Jerry Maguire” was the one more mainstream pic in the bunch then, just as “Munich” is now.

Focus Features co-topper David Linde — whose specialty unit received 16 noms — said that the year had been shaping up for an indie-centric showdown all along.

“It seemed like this was where the year was going,” he said. “These were the best-reviewed films of the year. So I don’t see a trend.” Behind the scenes, this year’s picks were perhaps particularly poignant for Warner Independent Pictures head Mark Gill, who came to the studio as a former Miramax Films marketing guru only to find a rocky road when success proved elusive in his first year.

Now the honcho will roll up the red carpet with noms in the pic, foreign film and docu categories — a first for any company.

“It all ebbs and flows,” said Gill, who added that this year “sure beats being the whipping boy of 2004.”

“I don’t think there’s any grand change in the biz,” he added. “It happens to be an indie year.”

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