Plucky pics looking for awards recognition

Call them a little crazy.

The indie distribs behind “Starting Out in the Evening,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Music Within,” “Honeydripper” and “Man in the Chair” are taking a longshot at grabbing the gold: Inspired in part by upstart Oscar contenders such as “Crash,” “Hotel Rwanda” and “Half-Nelson,” they are mailing DVDs of their little-movies-that-could to some 6,000 Academy and 4,000 Screen Actors Guild voters.

If you’ve never heard of these films, you’re not alone –neither have most Academy members.

These plucky pics are looking for recognition in the face of rivals that include studio specialty pics — many of them “the dark, edgy auteur-driven movies that used to be the province of the independents,” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman. “We’re not up against ‘The Sound of Music.’ We’re up against ‘There Will Be Blood.’ ”

Which screeners will voters actually watch? Most likely it’s the titles with some name recognition from critics’ groups, Golden Globes noms or trade ads. Others could get buried at the bottom of the pile.

With “The Great Debaters,” the Weinstein Co. not only has a period film about race relations that liberals will embrace, but two beloved icons eager to promote it: producer Oprah Winfrey and director-star Denzel Washington. Winfrey devoted an entire “Oprah” segment to “Debaters,” and flew to L.A. to host the Arclight premiere last week.

Academy members will probably sample “The Great Debaters” before they vote. But without that kind of celeb support or other splash, that’s not something any of the smaller distribs can count on.

“It’s extremely difficult to make a dent in this sweepstakes because the studios figure that money is no object,” says Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen, who is pushing a modest film for literate grown-ups, “Starting Out in the Evening,” with a poignant, powerhouse performance from Frank Langella.”The studios don’t have to figure profit into it when they spend $1 million or $2 million on an award campaign for a film, like ‘Things They Lost in the Fire,’ after it has bombed. They’ll do a campaign even when a film doesn’t have a chance. It’s about prestige.”

Cohen started strategizing an Oscar campaign when he acquired “Evening” months after its Sundance debut, partly because it was a condition of the sale. A batch of early reviews cited Langella’s perf and his Tony win in June for “Frost/Nixon” and casting in the Ron Howard film didn’t hurt.

At the beginning of November, Roadside hired several awards consultants and sent DVDs to critics’ groups, the entire Academy and the SAG nominating committee. It screened the film for the L.A. film critics, mounted a New York opinion-maker screening hosted by Langella pal Barbara Walters, and landed a coveted December screening at the Academy.

The gamble may be paying off. After Roadside opened the pic Nov. 23 to raves from the likes of the New York Times’ A. O. Scott, Langella won best actor from the Boston Film Critics, was a runner-up in the L.A. Film Critics tally and won a nom from Chicago critics.

Roadside then had something to tout in the ads for the pic’s wider release in 10 cities this weekend, although not landing a Golden Globe nom was a blow.

Now the distrib will hang tight until Jan. 22, the morning that Oscar noms will be announced.

Not all the upstarts are able to build that kind of buzz.

Emerging Pictures’ Ira Deutchman says he is “fighting like mad” for writer-director John Sayles’ low-budget tribute to Southern blues music, “Honeydripper,” starring an all-black ensemble led by Danny Glover. “We’re trying to get the film into the hands of the people who matter.”

Deutchman is co-distributing the film with Sayles and his producing partner Maggie Renzi. The duo put up their own funds for prints and advertising to open the film Dec. 28 in New York and L.A., plus five more cities on Jan. 18.

But while Deutchman has been building word-of-mouth “slowly” since the film’s Toronto debut in September, he admits that “the major pundits are not batting around the name ‘Honeydripper.’”

So far only the National Board of Review has cited “Honeydripper,” as one of its top 10 films of the year.

“We know the odds are stacked against us,” says Deutchman. “It’s all about the pre-events, gauging a sense of momentum through critics, the Hollywood Foreign Press and guild awards.”

Outsider Pictures, which had some hopes for its “Man in the Chair” after fest showings in Berlin, Santa Barbara, Stony Brook, Mill Valley and Method Fest, spent some $170,000 to ship DVDs and tout thesp Christopher Plummer, but the film has failed to spark with any of the major critics’ orgs.

Still, Outsider principal Paul Hudson is expanding the film to four screens in L.A. this week. “Christopher Plummer is the centerpiece of our campaign. We’re hopefully raising our profile for our ancillaries.”

With “Music Within,” which opened Oct. 26, MGM is promoting “The Queen” star Michael Sheen as supporting actor for his role as a wheelchair-ridden man with cerebral palsy. But the film hasn’t won much critical support, so when the DVD ships in April, it is unlikely to list any Oscar mentions.

In documentaries, ThinkFilm’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which traces the pattern of torture practice from Afghanistan’s Bagram prison to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, shows some heat. It landed both an Intl. Documentary Assn. nom and a slot on the Academy documentary committee’s short list of 15.

ThinkFilm, which opens the pic on Jan. 11, the sixth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, is betting that a second Oscar nom will follow for filmmaker Alex Gibney, who made “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”

“It’s not an easy thing on a Friday night to get anyone to see a film about torture,” admits Gibney.

But, avows Urman, “People will be culturally mandated to go to see a tough gritty film if it’s nominated for the Academy Award.”

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