Arthouse survivors play in more open Oscar field

Of the last four best picture winners, three (“Crash,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Slumdog Millionaire”) came from the specialty sector. But as arthouse divisions have disappeared (Warner Independent) or been downsized (Miramax), a gap has opened up this award season. Could this be the year Oscar and Indiewood break up?

Without the powerhouse divisions pushing their prestige projects with a barrage of ads, this year’s playing field is more open than ever. Sure, survivors of the economic downturn, such as Fox Searchlight (back with “Amelia”) and Focus Features (with “A Serious Man”) persist, but who’s left? The once sweet middle has largely disappeared, replaced by bigger studio contenders (“Invictus,” “Up in the Air,” “The Lovely Bones”) and a wider array of low-budget suitors (“The Hurt Locker,” “Precious,” “Me and Orson Welles”).

Sony Pictures Classics has long been an Oscar player, striking it big with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2001 and “Capote” in 2006, for example, but this year, the company has a half-dozen possible contenders in “An Education,” “The Last Station” and “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” plus foreign-language titles including “The White Ribbon,” “Broken Embraces” and “Coco Before Chanel.”

“These things are cyclical,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker, who argues that this year’s race isn’t actually any easier for those who remain than were past editions. “There may be companies that have had an Oscar strategy in past years that are no longer there,” he says, “but there are three more companies that have sprouted up — Overture, Apparition, Summit — with Oscar-potential films, so I just don’t feel it’s that different.”

Summit’s Rob Friedman acknowledges that downsizing in the sector has left a “vacuum that can create opportunity,” but ultimately he feels Summit’s contender “The Hurt Locker” would stand on its own in any year.

Apparition prexy Bob Berney, however, believes there are more Oscar opportunities today for his fledgling outfit’s releases: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” and Emily Blunt starrer “The Young Victoria.” Of the latter, he says, “I think it has a much bigger chance this year because there are fewer films out there, and many of the films are not ‘Academy films.'”

To some degree, Berney argues, that’s because there are fewer companies interested in just that Oscar space. “You still have Harvey out there, but for how long?” he says.

Indeed, in his glory days, Harvey Weinstein was known for supporting star-studded big-budget indies with major campaign spends involving ample for-your-consideration pleas and swanky parties. But this year, given the widely reported economic crunch facing not just TWC but all businesses, can the Oscar titan really mount a similarly aggressive operation for films such as “Nine” and “A Single Man”?

Of course, not one to be counted out, TWC surprised much of the industry with last year’s “The Reader” triumph: five nominations and a best actress win for Kate Winslet.

But the Weinstein strategy may be a ploy of the past. Donna Gigliotti, the Academy Award-winning producer of “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Reader,” worries, “Could (‘The Reader’) get made today given the contraction in the specialized market? Probably. But only if Harvey Weinstein stays in business.”

Given the unpredictability of this year’s season, there is one shift that everyone in the business agrees on. “The global economic crisis will cause everyone to study what they have to spend, and everyone will be careful,” Barker says. “It affects everybody, whether big studio or independent company.”

“The huge Academy campaigns took so much money that ultimately they were not fiscally rewarding,” agrees Eamonn Bowles, president of boutique distrib Magnolia Pictures. “A lot of these companies have found that out the hard way.”

With less money in the Oscar race, it could potentially make the awards less of a popularity contest. As Berney says, “Maybe it means this year’s awards will make for a fairer, purer procedure.”

Then again, publicist Tony Angelotti, who is advocating consideration of several studio titles from Universal and Disney, says this year’s smaller contenders may ultimately encounter the same sort of resistance they’ve always faced. “In order to get their due with Oscar voters, these kinds of films need to strike a chord with the public as well,” he says. In other words, the specialty divisions have always successfully wooed Oscar because they had the crossover box office appeal to show for it.

Without the money to back them up, then, indies could find themselves right back where they started at the 1992 awards — before Disney owned Miramax, before Sony Pictures Classics’ “Howards End” and the rise of Fine Line — and when Oscar’s top paramours (“Bugsy,” “The Prince of Tides,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “JFK”) all came from Hollywood.

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