Many contenders slipped through majors' fingers

After the success of “Little Miss Sunshine” (four Oscar noms, two wins, $60 million in domestic B.O.), you’d think Hollywood would have learned the lesson: Just because a movie “looks too dark on the page” or “doesn’t have A-list stars attached” or “might not travel well to overseas markets” doesn’t mean it’s not going to wind up a sleeper surprise and viable Oscar contender.

At a time when studios’ specialty divisions are jumping onboard projects earlier in the process, this year’s indie awards-season front-runners offer proof there are just as many worthy films they’ve let fall through their fingers.

Before winning the director prize at Cannes and garnering a distribution deal with Miramax, Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — the inspiring story of French fashion mag editor Jean-Dominique Bauby — was originally set up at Vivendi’s Universal before it was tossed away, as producer Kathleen Kennedy suggests, because times changed and the studios began “putting their efforts towards bigger star-driven pictures.”

Before raking in a robust $53┬ámillion and occupying Lionsgate’s “Crash” frame, James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma” was developed and greenlit by Sony, but as exec producer Ryan Kavanaugh says, “A $110┬ámillion Western was too risky.”

Before being acquired by Fox Searchlight just prior to production and going on to become the fall’s pre-eminent indie crowdpleaser and drawing comparisons to “Miss Sunshine,” “Juno” was one of those “good writing samples” that no studio division would touch with a 10-foot pole, according to exec producer Nathan Kahane.

Then there are the truer indie contenders — from “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” to “Lars and the Real Girl” to “I’m Not There” — who were close to studios at one point or given lowball offers, but for various reasons, ended up on the fringes.

“History is full of films that somehow become available, and those who didn’t buy them look foolish when they do well,” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman, who lobbied hard to take on Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” from parent company Capitol Films when the usual specialty suspects put up less-than-satisfactory offers.

“I instantly saw it as a fourth-quarter awards type of movie,” says Urman, who adds he’s not only “undeterred” by the films’ dark, lacerating tone, but he’s “excited by it,” citing noms he’s nabbed for other “unhappy movies” such as “Half Nelson,” “Affliction” and “Gods and Monsters.”

“It was a very dark script,” “Devil” producer Michael Cerenzie admits. “On paper, it’s maybe even darker, and on the first go around they (studio divisions) all just weren’t sure.”

Upon completion of the film — which features a host of strong perfs, including Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman — offers were put on the table, but according to Cerenzie, “the feedback was that they just didn’t know how to market the movie.”

Writer-director Todd Haynes recalls the “I’m Not There” script ultimately scared off domestic backers.

“I met with every single studio and independent head,” he says. “I understood the confusion and the perplexity that the script gave people. I tend to get very detailed in my descriptions, and it gets very bogged down, but the spirit of the film — light, moving and fun — was not something that you could experience on the page. And I knew that. I tried to underscore that, but it wasn’t successful.”

Similarly, “Lars and the Real Girl” producer John Cameron says Nancy Oliver’s script was such a “tightrope walk … because you could take one step one way and it’d be broad farce, or one step another way and it would be maudlin and silly.” Making the film, he notes, was a challenge best handled outside the studio system.

Indie by choice

Indeed, unlike “Devil” and “I’m Not There,” however, “Lars and the Real Girl” was made independently less as a result of financial offers than creative choices.

At one point, the film was in negotiations with Warner Independent Pictures, but, says Cameron, “We got the sense in terms of casting suggestions and other creative input from the WIP staff that it would be much more of a studio situation than an independent.

“That’s not a pejorative,” he adds. “But for this particular piece, the director felt it was such a delicate balance that he needed to be free to make the creative decisions, absent from continuing input from above.”

While celebrated upon the film’s festival premiere, Diablo Cody’s “Juno” script was also considered, initially, a hot potato.

“We got zero calls,” says Mandate Pictures’ Nathan Kahane, after the company announced its purchase of the script. “No one questioned it was a great screenplay,” he says, but given the difficult subject matter (teen pregnancy) and “consumer unknowns” (Ellen Page), studios stayed away.

But Kahane says that’s often the case — until “someone says, ‘I believe.’

“I think ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was that; I think ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Sideways’ and ‘Walk the Line’ were that, too. I remember passing on those for the same reason: It’s a really scary bet that you’re going to hit an A-plus. And if you hit a B-plus, you’ll fail financially.”

Many of the aforementioned filmmakers also faced the straight-up reality that the studios’ prestige slates have already been planned, produced and strategized months or years in advance.

Universal’s Focus, for example, wasn’t about to adopt “Diving Bell” from its parent company or pick up “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead,” even if it liked the films, when it’s already got “Reservation Road,” “Lust, Caution,” “Eastern Promises” and “Atonement” in the works.

For that reason, Kennedy says, “Producers around town are making choices on their own and seeking independent financing even before having a conversation with the studios.”

And in the end, they might just get the last laugh.

“I’ve had more than one competitor congratulate me and say, ‘We just didn’t see it,'” Urman says. “And that’s delightful, delicious and validating.”

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