Nominations for low-profile contenders are no fluke

Each Oscar season has its share of obvious front-runners attached to studio pictures and hotly hyped movies for which nominations seem practically a given. But the real suspense every year lies in the less-well-known names in lower-profile films trying to break into the top ranks.

Melissa Leo and Richard Jenkins, two veteran character actors who rarely topline movies, landed Oscar acting nominations last winter for indies — “Frozen River” and “The Visitor” — that were hardly sure-fire contenders in the awards race. As improbable as their journeys to Oscar night seemed, though, it’s hardly a fluke in the indie era.

“The Academy’s history of finding performances in smaller films goes back to ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ at least,” says publicity vet Cynthia Swartz of 42 West, whose roster of clients this season includes long shots ranging from Michelle Monaghan in “Trucker” to Mark Duplass for “Humpday.” “People are really willing to look at lots of different kinds of performances.”

It can be a yearlong odyssey for smaller films from festival buzz to blogger huzzahs and finally DVD screener saturation. Where a prestige studio release with A-listers can count on a massive marketing budget and the need-to-see factor that comes from boasting marquee names, a little film needs constant talking up.

“It’s word of mouth in tandem with publicity, and that’s not the secret, it’s the necessity,” says Michele Robertson, one of the strategists behind Hilary Swank’s inaugural Oscar run for “Boys Don’t Cry” 10 years ago. Currently, Robertson is looking to build on her client Michael Sheen’s momentum over the past few years (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) to secure him an actor nomination this year for “The Damned United.” “You just keep the chatter going, and then that bubbles up to the next level, until you’re in that pile of movies people watch.”

It helps if the thesp is a willing and eager participant in the process. Leo was so proud of “Frozen River” that after its debut at Sundance — where it won a prize and got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics — she gladly made time to promote the film throughout 2008 whenever she wasn’t on an acting job.

“When things began to unfold, I had had a little heads up of how it worked,” says Leo, who was introduced to Oscar campaigning during the push for “21 Grams” a few years prior. “It’s going to parties, going to screenings, laying a little of my own money toward that end in clothing and publicists and greeting everyone with a smile on your face, ’cause you never know who you might be talking to. It’s a real crapshoot, because I could be on those (prediction) lists one day and then the next day be knocked right off. But you’ve got to put something out to get something back.”

It doesn’t help to be too coy, in other words.

“There’s a balance of doing it in a way that’s gracious and respectable, but not being afraid to let people know you’re interested,” says Robertson. “You’ve got to shake the trees a bit.”

With Leo and Jenkins, it helped that actors were in these unsung talents’ corners, spreading the word. Targeting the Screen Actors Guild membership is key, says Oscilloscope co-founder David Fenkel, who has the soldier drama “The Messenger” and actors Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton in contention.

“We did a great actors’ screening (of “The Messenger”) a few weeks ago in L.A., and a who’s who of actors came to see it, and immediately Sean Penn hosted a screening up in San Francisco,” says Fenkel. “That’s a very potent piece of buzz. I don’t think actors want to reward campaigns that spend tons of money just because they can. They want to reward performance.”

The online world is the latest arena to get word moving about smaller-sized Oscar hopefuls, with “Moon” filmmaker Duncan Jones aggressively promoting lead Sam Rockwell via Twitter and film blogs. It’s unclear how much sway social networking sites will have in the race this year, but as one publicist speculates, “Campaigns will start to take their cue from what’s happening, people will report on that, and then all of us PR people will try to get everyone to join Facebook groups like ‘So-and-so for best actress.’”

Inevitably, for someone like Leo, the craziness of awards season was worth it to help push a film she was proud of and merely an extension of the passion it took to get the film made.

“We’d made a tiny film, and the expectation that anybody would ever even see it wasn’t there when we shot,” says Leo. “So each thing that happened was a remarkable wind in the sails of the film, for sure. It was all just miraculous and proof that in this crazy, mixed-up world, anything can happen.”

A sampling of low-profile Oscar acting contenders

Ben Foster, “The Messenger”: It could be this versatile up-and-comer’s time, as a brooding Iraq War returnee making a connection with a combat widow.

Michelle Monaghan, “Trucker”: Breaking out of girlfriend roles, Monaghan showed grit, fire and melancholy as a big rig driver forced into close quarters with the son she left behind.

Patton Oswalt, “Big Fan”:The comedian scored raves for his portrayal of a mama’s boy loner with stunted emotional growth and a hermitlike obsession.

Sam Rockwell, “Moon”: Indie stalwart Rockwell’s portrait of loneliness and madness as the sole occupant of a lunar module earned plenty of praise.

Catalina Saavedra,”The Maid”: Sundance prizewinner Saavedra is alternately creepy, funny and poignant as a wealthy Chilean family’s long-serving, territorial servant.

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