'Benjamin Button' leads the pack with 13 noms

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The Academy Awards nominations Thursday proved a reminder once again that Oscar voters are still capable of surprises.

And while the Hollywood major studios made good on their early-2008 promise to rebound at the Oscars this year, they didn’t do it to the extent that they expected.

The majors’ two best picture nominees — Paramount-Warner Bros.’ “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and Universal’s “Frost/Nixon” — were double last year’s results (WB’s “Michael Clayton” was the lone rep from a major).

And while the majors did well, with “Button” sewing up 13 noms — only the ninth film to ever score that many — they didn’t dominate the list.

Though the specialty business had a tough year in ’08, niche films scored three of the best pic mentions: Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (overall runner-up, with 10 noms), Focus Features’ “Milk” (eight bids), and the Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader” (five).

Focus Features’ James Schamus noted that the Oscar nom list is a testament to specialized films after Warner Independent and Picturehouse shuttered last year, while New Line and Paramount Vantage scaled down. Schamus pointed out that many specialty labels “stayed under the radar in terms of the media’s business stories. But this is a sort of fraternity-sorority, and we continued doing what we’re supposed to do: find and make movies that are interesting aesthetically and do it in a fiscally responsible way.”

Among Thursday’s surprises was the fact that smaller pics vastly outscored biggies in some cases. “The Reader” was in, “Dark Knight” was out. Miramax’s “Doubt” scored five noms, while WB’s “Gran Torino” and Sony’s “Seven Pounds” were among the MIA pics, and Fox’s “Australia” scored a lone bid (for costume design).

And Oscar voters decided for themselves. Though Kate Winslet campaigned as a supporting actress for “The Reader” (and won a Golden Globe in that category), Oscar voters tapped her in the lead race.

Bloggers and print pundits declared weeks ago that the five pic contenders were a lock, and there was consensus on the other races as well. But noms for the 81st Oscars showed that critics groups and Golden Globes are interesting but are not really bellwethers.

The style of this year’s crop — which mixed serious themes with messages of hope — is more diverse than in the past few years, when the rosters were dominated by violent and/or brooding pics like “The Departed,” “Munich,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Babel,” “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men.”

At the Mumbai premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire,” held Thursday night, Fox co-topper Jim Gianopulos sounded elated and said, “There’s no doubt that this film resonates so powerfully here and around the world because it is a sign of the times. People are uplifted by the film because it puts their own difficulties in perspective to see what real suffering and adversity are.”

Except for maybe “Slumdog,” none of the pic contenders could be described as a feel-good movie, but most contain notes of optimism and change that reflect the times.

While “Frost/Nixon” doesn’t underline the Bush political parallels, the film centers on a president accused of abusing his power — and ends with the personal triumph of his antagonist.

Asked about the shift in tone this year from past nominees, the film’s director, Ron Howard, said, “I don’t think that’s accidental. That darkness was a reflection of the global psyche. Emotionally, people are now looking for that possibility of hope. That’s what made the Obama candidacy viable.”

“Button” producer Frank Marshall agreed, telling Daily Variety on Thursday, “We’re in a period of hope and renewal. Our film is about life and love, and I think that’s why we fell in love with the script. Living your life forward or backward, it’s about how you live it and to live it well. We hope everyone lives it well.”

Schamus mused that “Milk” is “a tragedy that makes you really happy. It’s about wanting to do something with your life, and it’s so special — those movies don’t come along too often.”

Certainly the most somber of the top nominees is “The Reader.” Will that help or hurt its awards chances?

“I think that will serve us well,” Harvey Weinstein said. “The more complex the movie is, the more it resonates with audiences. This is a movie that deals with deep, deep issues. I think it plays stronger and can affect more people. I know there are bigger favorites to win best picture. But if you watch the movies side by side, I think we have a strong chance. We were counted out as a nominee, and I think we will be counted out as a winner.”

As early as last March, execs at the major studios said they would reclaim the Oscars in 2008 after ceding the awards to their specialty divisions in the past years. The studios kept their kudos hopefuls under wraps until the last minute, pushing them against deadlines for voting from the Golden Globes and critics groups. In part that was to build anticipation, but it was also because some filmmakers were working on their pics until December.

The changing nature of the biz makes studio tallies almost impossible. Paramount has “Benjamin Button” domestically, while WB has it overseas. WB’s logo appears on “Slumdog,” but that’s because its Warner Independent unit was affiliated with the film before eventual domestic distrib Fox Searchlight took over.

And so it goes with other contenders, for which a mix of private funding, overseas deals and co-productions means a flurry of logos during the opening credits.

This year’s major-specialty mix in the best-pic race is on a par with the last few years — but a far cry from the majors’ domination of the races through the 1980s.

Of the 15 titles nominated for best pic in the past three years, only one-third were from majors. (The majority of them were from majors’ specialty divisions, including Focus, Fox Searchlight and Miramax.)

Among other interesting factoids:

  • Many were surprised that there are only three song nominations. That’s because the music branch rated 49 eligible songs, using a scale where 10 points is the maximum, and rules require a song to score 8.25 or higher. Among those who missed the boat were Bruce Springsteen, Miley Cyrus, Will.i.am, Clint Eastwood and Jamie Cullum, Robyn Hitchcock, Beyonce, Jack White and Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris and Mariah Carey.

  • Four of the five director contenders were also among the DGA nominees: Danny Boyle (“Slumdog”), David Fincher (“Button”), Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”), and Gus Van Sant (“Milk”). But Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”) on Thursday replaced DGA nominee Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”).

  • Though Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E” didn’t land a best-pic nom, it did gangbusters, tying “Beauty and the Beast” for a record number of noms for a toon. (In the feature-animation race, it’s competing with Disney’s “Bolt” and DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda.”)

  • The revamped foreign-language system seems to have paid off. After the surprise this month that Italy’s “Gomorrah” was not on the shortlist, many foreign-film mavens were content with the final five contenders: Germany’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” France’s “The Class,” Japan’s “Departure,” Austria’s “Revanche” and Israel’s “Waltz With Bashir.”

  • All five best-pic contenders opened in the last two months of the year.

In 15 of the past 20 years, the top-scoring contender went on to win best picture. But the trend may be changing. The top nominee won the top prize in only two of the last five years.

Even in Hollywood, the Oscar noms were the second biggest news story of the week thanks to Barack Obama. Noms are usually unveiled Tuesday morning but were delayed 48 hours this year due to
the inauguration.

Nominations were announced at 5:38 a.m. PT Thursday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences HQ in BevHills by Acad prexy Sid Ganis and Forest Whitaker.

Final ballots will be mailed Jan. 28, and polls close Feb. 17.

Awards will be presented Feb. 22 at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. The show, produced by Laurence Mark and exec produced by Bill Condon, will be hosted by Hugh Jackman and air live on ABC.

Click here for the full list of nominees.

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