Helmers find ways to make Oscar-worthy projects

Oscar-type movies don’t come easy, especially in today’s risk-averse climate. Just ask the filmmakers behind this year’s contenders. From the lowest budget productions to James Cameron’s costly, ambitious blockbuster “Avatar,” it’s a surprise the movies were ever made in the first place.

Indeed, Hollywood perennially overlooks its eventual Oscar contenders on their way to fruition; Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” and Bennett Miller’s “Capote” were cast out by their original distribs’ parent companies, and how many of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors — Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet — have faced resistance on subsequent projects after earning honors from that very same establishment?

With studios relying ever more on familiar commodities, specialized divisions seen as a drag on resources and the dogged persistence of the economic slump, “executionally dependent” films have increasingly become Hollywood’s neglected stepchildren — eventually dressed up nice and paraded out only during award season. As the Economist reported late last year, “Above all, Hollywood has learned that bigger is better” and “known characters and stories” are the most reliable generator of profits.

Making “movies for adults,” as Jason Reit-man calls them, has become tougher than ever. Reitman spent years trying to get “Up in the Air” off the ground and was ultimately only able to move forward after the attachment of George Clooney and the $231 million global take of his 2007 hit “Juno.” When Reitman couldn’t get his first scripts made, “I was offered bad broad comedies,” he says. “But I stuck to my guns, and I’ve tried to take tricky subjects and make them in accessible ways, so I can continue to make movies like this.”

“It’s absolutely a crisis,” echoes “The Last Station” director Michael Hoffman, who says his long-in-the-works film about Leo Tolstoy was saved by economic development funds in, of all places, the former East Germany. “No one wants to take a risk. Unless you’re extremely brave or extremely wealthy, it’s very hard not to think seriously about making a safer choice and doing something more commercial.”

A movie like “The Hurt Locker” — set during the Iraq War, addressing the pain and addiction of battle — would never have gotten made if not for a luck in timing (before the economic crisis and the deluge of political films) and the tenacity and dedication of producer-director Kathryn Bigelow. “I don’t know that we could make that film right now because of how the domestic market has dropped off,” says producer Greg Shapiro. (The film was fortunate enough to get picked up at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival by rising distrib Summit Entertainment for $1.5 million.)

But even in 2006, the film might not have happened if they hadn’t found ways to cut the budget — such as shooting guerrilla-style in Super 16mm with a less-expensive cast — and through Bigelow’s commitment. “At the time, she could have made any number of films that she was developing,” says Shapiro, “but at a certain point, she threw all in. And when she said, ‘I’m making this film whether you like it or not, and if you want to come, I’ll be in the desert in July 2007,’ that attitude became pervasive.”

For the comparably tiny budget of “Precious” — financed in the low-eight figures before the crash — director Lee Daniels calls himself “blessed” by his ability to find backers. “I do think there is the right financier for the subject matter,” says Daniels, adding, “You have to be tenacious about getting it.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the way other end, there’s “Avatar,” James Cameron’s $300 million 3D sci-fi epic. But as much as “Avatar” is bigger — and now represents the kind of would-be franchise that studios dream about — at the time of its making, it could be seen as the riskiest of them all.

“Its greatest risk was its originality,” says Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman. “It’s not based on a comicbook or a TV show, and it’s not a remake or a sequel, and there are not a lot of Hollywood movies made today that aren’t one of those.”

But could “Avatar” get made today? “Yes,” says Rothman. “It’s a testament to Jim Cameron’s talent and skills that, yes, in my opinion, I think it would have been greenlit today. But it wasn’t easy then, and it wouldn’t have been easy now.”

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