PGA Awards honor arthouse crowd

Nominees are 'independent in point of view'

This year’s PGA award nominees boast equal measures of studio moxie and indie cred — a blend of smartness and scope suggesting the traditional “Chinese Wall” separating majors from boutique divisions may be a Berlin Wall in the process of coming down.

To “Juno’s” Lianne Halfon, “These five aren’t independent in financing — that’s almost impossible today — but independent in point of view.”

In referring to his own two horses in the race, “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” Scott Rudin could be alluding to the entire slate when he states they’re “made by what one would call indie filmmakers. On the other hand, they are, in their scale and execution, and the polish of the vision of each, both executed at the absolute highest level. … They’re not movies that were compromised by their budgets — though they were both made for very little money.”

Similarly, Russell Smith describes any of the noms when he says of his own “Juno”: “It’s execution-dependent, cast well, beautifully directed. I guess that’s why it’s one of the five.”

An unusual array of development, financing and marketing challenges made each a worthy candidate for end-of-year honors. Nod for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” for instance, may reflect peer appreciation of its handling of paraplegic subject matter and non-English soundtrack.

“Every year there are a couple of great foreign films that struggle because it’s thought that they can only be marketed to an arthouse audience,” says Jon Kilik. “And we had the added challenge of its seeming to be a tough subject. We had to make it in a way that would be an enjoyable experience rather than a downer. So maybe (the PGA) respected our courage in fighting for this story — a tough story in French … not an easy thing to do.”

Pic’s struggles with financing hinged on language. When Kathleen Kennedy, who first saw cinematic possibilities in the fragmented memoir, spotted leading man Mathieu Amalric on the set of “Munich,” a conversation began that eventually led to translation of Ronald Harwood’s English-language script.

Says Kilik: “You’ve got to go against the horrible tragedy and create a world where there’s hope. And in a funny way, the language adds to the poetry of it all.”

Kennedy concurs: “The melodic quality of the French language gives it a very romantic feeling. The irony is that the financing ended up coming from Pathe in France. All the Americans wanted to do it in French, but the French thought it should be done in English.”

Money was also a concern for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Giant”-echoing (in more ways than one) “There Will Be Blood.” Producer Daniel Lupi reports that “everyone read it, and they saw all the oil-well fires, the train and the town, and said, ‘This film’s going to cost a lot.’ ”

Settling in at Paramount Vantage, Anderson, Lupi and producing partner-spouse JoAnne Sellar “were basically putting the project together with all of us working for free. We spent the better part of a year lowering the budget, costing out trains and so forth.”

Key player in getting the epic to the starting gate was exec producer Rudin, coincidentally shepherding another toughie, the Coen brothers’ thriller “No Country for Old Men,” at the same time. It helped that he was tight with then-Paramount Vantage topper John Lesher (who is now Par Film Group prexy) and Miramax’s Daniel Battsek.

“Daniel had had a lot of movies with the Coens in the past and was dying to be a part of ‘No Country.’ And John, who’s my good friend, was looking to get Paul’s movie made. So I went to Lesher and said, ‘Why don’t we try and partner them both?’ And I went to Daniel and said, ‘There’s this amazing opportunity here. These are two movies that both need partners. Why don’t we see if we can make a swap? Immediately, the post-Weinstein Miramax is going to have the potential of two fantastic movies with two hugely important filmmakers.’ ”

Never in recent memory have the same two studios — major or indie — partnered on such a strong pair of award contenders in the same year.

Content issues were the sticking point for “Michael Clayton,” in producer Jennifer Fox’s words “a thriller for adults — precise, deliberate, character-driven and … respecting the audience’s intelligence.”

She reports that “the film’s complexity was the biggest hurdle in getting it made. The traditional financing entities were nervous about the nuances.”

Fox and writer-helmer Tony Gilroy spent two years, before George Clooney came onboard, “trying to get somebody to pay for it — and hit a wall, until we met Steve Samuels, a Boston-based real estate developer who was willing to take the bet.” (The only PGA nominee to go out under a major’s banner, “Michael Clayton” was a negative pickup for Warner Bros. and hence retains its indie feel.)

Four of the five nominees are serious stuff, and even “Juno” is described by Halfon as “a comedy with a real measure of gravity.”

The underage, unwed pregnancy theme led to early walkouts, but she insists that “it hasn’t been polarizing; just the opposite. It cooled the flames rather than heating things up. Pro-choicers feel it supports their point of view, right-to-lifers feel the same. … The online arguments I’ve read aren’t full of polemics. What (screenwriter) Diablo Cody did so well is make Juno so real as to separate her from the debate.”

Trump card

Still, it made sense to pass the ball to a boutique like Fox Searchlight where, as Mason Novick notes, “They can make things that could’ve been studio films in the 1970s — films where nothing blows up in the end.”

Again and again, marketing savvy is cited as the smaller divisions’ trump card. Rudin reports: “I have movies coming up I would like to see handled by the specialty division because they need much more careful handling. They’re not easy movies. I always want the movie to be handled by a group for whom it’s the most important movie they have,” and there, the boutiques have a distinct edge.”

Kennedy believes that “the talent in understanding niche marketing, and most efficiently and effectively using the money you have, is becoming more insightful. The marketing and publicity meetings I’ve had at Miramax on ‘Diving Bell’ rival any of the similar meetings I’ve had at studios on films that were 10, 15 times more expensive.”

So where does the major/ boutique dynamic stand at this point in time? Most agree the line is blurry, as the studios beef up their specialty lines and major stars queue up for involvement. (“You have to feed your stars,” Smith notes, “especially the ones who want to think of themselves as actors rather than product. You don’t want them going down the street; you want them at your studio.”)

It gets to the point where “Clayton” producer Fox can say in all seriousness: “I think of places like Miramax and Paramount Vantage as studios. I think of Scott Rudin — brilliant producer — as a studio producer.”

Main factor blurring the line may be the executive strength the boutiques boast. Lupi speculates, “You could argue in the last few years, when John took over Vantage and Daniel took over Miramax, and John Lyons and James Schamus took over Focus, you ended up with incredibly strong divisions with strong talent ties and cash flow, which probably hadn’t happened before.”

Kathleen Kennedy agrees. “I’ve been incredibly impressed by a few of the independent production companies. Daniel Battsek at Miramax and his entire group are a small company … but they’ve just had an incredible year.

“Perhaps that’s what seems to be blending here: The expertise at the studio level and the marketing expertise at the independent level are beginning to come on par.”

19th annual Producers Guild Awards
When: Feb. 2
Where: Beverly Hilton Hotel, Beverly Hills

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