Extreme poverty and sordid lives are hard sells

Poverty, illegal immigration, professional wrestling — they’re not exactly the most uplifting or obvious subjects for a best picture contender. But stranger things have happened on the way to the Oscar stage. With “Midnight Cowboy” grabbing victory in 1969, the industry has long proven its ability to embrace tough subject matter — on the right budget, of course.

While Oscar buzz has circled “Slumdog Millionaire,” one of this year’s Cinderella stories, the film always faced challenges, acknowledges producer Christian Colson. “It’s set in India, it wasn’t easy to cast, and some of it is in Hindi,” he says, adding that it “focused on extreme poverty and extreme deprivation.

“But it was a fantastic, compelling, original narrative,” Colson notes. “You don’t come across scripts that good that often, so when you do, you don’t think about the obstacles.”

Financed by Colson’s Celador Films and Film Four, Colson sought distribution pipelines to justify the film’s expense, eventually garnering negative pickup deals with Warner Independent and Pathe. If the project had gone directly to a studio, Colson believes the film’s vision would have been compromised.

“It would have been very difficult to be allowed to shoot the script we wanted,” he says, citing the film’s unflinching portrayals of police brutality and destitution. “It’s tough, like all of the best fairy tales. But because of some of the darkness that we pass through, the light at the end of the tunnel feels all the brighter. Without one, you don’t get the other.”

Audience reaction to “Slumdog” appears to confirm Colson’s view. The film won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, nabbed $36,000 per-screen averages on its opening weekend and scored 92% with critics on RottenTomatoes.com.

Fox Searchlight, which scooped up the film after Warner Independent shuttered, has capitalized on the good buzz. Before release, it conducted 186 free word-of-mouth screenings in 50 different cities. Its marketing strategy emphasizes the film’s brighter, buoyant side: The trailer is filled with cheering crowds, running children and upbeat music from the Ting Tings, as well as lots of “experiential quotes,” notes Searchlight marketing prexy Nancy Utley, “about how the movie will make you feel.” Adds Utley, “We’re trying to make the materials look joyful.”

But Searchlight can’t pull off the same strategy with “The Wrestler,” the company’s other last-minute contender, which it acquired at Toronto in September. Darren Aronofsky’s return to indie filmmaking, starring Mickey Rourke in a widely heralded comeback performance, may be in the English language, but the world of professional wrestling might be just as foreign as Bangalore.

“The studio divisions didn’t know what to make of a movie about wrestling,” says producer Scott Franklin, who shopped the movie around to nearly every U.S. company. “There’s never been a serious movie about wrestling. They just didn’t get it.”

On a scaled-down budget of $6 million fronted by French sales company Wild Bunch, Franklin says they slashed salaries and shot major scenes in front of an audience of live wrestling fans at real matches. “They were out for blood,” he says. “And you don’t have time to light or block; you just have to get in there and go.”

Searchlight’s Utley acknowledges the image of pro wrestling might not be ideal for sophisticated moviegoers or Oscar voters: “It’s blue collar, fake, violent, and heavy-metal music.” To counteract the stereotypes, Utley explains, “We’re trying to position it as a character study rather than a wrestling movie. We’re calling it this generation’s ‘Raging Bull.’ “

If initially financiers doubted Rourke’s ability to carry or open the movie, Searchlight is now depending on it: “Mickey’s comeback story has been incredibly valuable,” says Utley. The actor will be doing mainstream press, such as the “Today” show, and the film’s poster and trailer utilize Newsweek critic David Ansen’s claim: “Witness the resurrection of Mickey Rourke.”

A strong central performance is also what’s keeping Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor” in the Academy’s ring. On the page, the film, about a burned-out widowed professor whose life is transformed by two illegal immigrants, doesn’t exactly scream Oscar. But a slow platform release, positive press and strong word of mouth about character-actor Richard Jenkins’ first major leading turn propelled the film to a healthy $9.4 million gross and plenty of Academy chatter.

“The movie was our best marketing tool,” says Overture marketing prexy Peter Adee, who admits the film had few easy hooks. “You can say it’s about a man who is out of touch with his own life. You could say it’s about a teacher who comes across some immigrants who are living in his apartment. You can say that it’s about the immigration issue. But I was vehemently against those.

“When you have a small, sweet, emotional movie,” Adee continues, “you have to boil it down to the one emotional feeling that comes out of it: It’s about a man who finds a way to connect to his life.”

And if “The Visitor” doesn’t conclude with “people riding off into the sunset holding hands,” as Adee quips, he isn’t concerned. “Life doesn’t always present itself in a box, tied up in a bow. It’s a realistic ending. And actually,” he adds, “I think that helps us.”

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