Searchlight indie bucks convention with noms for pic, Zeitlin, Wallis

Oscar talk was tossed around in frosty Park City from the moment people piled out of the premiere of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the Sundance Film Festival nearly one year ago. But even the most optimistic fans knew the odds were stacked against Benh Zeitlin’s feature directorial debut.

It was too small. It had no recognizable stars, and its protag was a 6-year-old girl. It never saw a wide release. It played far too early in the year to be remembered come nominations time.

But “Beasts” overcame all of those handicaps to earn four Oscar mentions, including a surprise bid for Zeitlin in a year when Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Ben Affleck (“Argo”), Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained”) were left out of the running.

The only best picture nominee released in theaters prior to the fourth-quarter crunch, Fox Searchlight’s “Beasts” has shown stamina over the course of awards season despite never playing in more than 318 theaters nationwide. After Thursday’s Oscar bounty, Searchlight is planning a Jan. 18 re-release of the pic in key cities including Gotham, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle.

“We’ve come so far with nothing,” said “Beasts” co-writer Lucy Alibar, a nominee along with Zeitlin for adapted screenplay, based on her play “Juicy and Delicious.” “To see Benh (Zeitlin) up there for director, it became a little surreal … I’m also so thrilled for (star) Quvenzhane Wallis. She’s an incredible actress.”

Made on a reported budget of $1.2 million, “Beasts” captivated auds at Sundance, leaving most viewers either speechless or unable to stop raving about what a breath of fresh air it was — a down-and-dirty slice of life in a poor community on the bayou. Wallis beat out thousands of other hopefuls for the role and has made the most of the opportunity, becoming the youngest best actress nominee, at 9, in Academy Awards history.

Wallis told Variety that she was “flipping off the walls” after waking up to watch the announcement with her mother in her hometown of Houma, La., where the pic is set.

“We’re gonna have some waffles and then go to Toys R Us. Just my normal schedule.” Asked if that was really her “normal” schedule, Wallis snapped back: “For today, it is.”

Zeitlin was reeling from the news and the promise of what the Oscar spotlight will mean to the pic, produced through his “filmmaking army” venture, Court 13, based in New Orleans. Court 13’s Dan Janvey, Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald are up for best picture as “Beasts” producers.

“So many people around the world look to the Academy Awards for what they should watch, and to have the opportunity to compete on that level is a paradigm shift for this movie,” Zeitlin told Variety . “I’m excited to represent a different type of filmmaking that comes from outside the industry. We were renegades out in Louisiana who made this guerrilla-style, and it’s an unbelievable honor. I’m so ridiculously excited and proud to be on that list of (best picture) nominees.”

Zeitlin also credited Fox Searchlight for having the guts to take on such an unusual film and get behind it with a kudos campaign.

“I can’t say enough about what a beautiful collaboration it has been with Fox Searchlight,” he said. “I’d never been in Los Angeles before we finished the film and was very suspicious of it, but they saw the heart in the movie, believed in it and had faith in it despite there not being a precedent for it.”

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