Oscar Rings In New Era Of Indie Chic

Depending on your vantage point, Feb. 14 either saw Hollywood give a big wet kiss to its independent stepkids, or mainstream studio fare was the victim of a new Valentine’s Day Massacre, with only “Forrest Gump” surviving yet another moment of history.

Either way, the strong showing of indies in the Oscar nomination lineup should have been easily predictable: It was the culmination of a two-year trend in which distributors of offbeat fare have found themselves courted by studios with big wallets.

With Walt Disney, Universal and Turner Entertainment paying the bills, indies like Miramax, Gramercy and New Line/Fine Line have been paying attention.

The result: The independents have joined the Oscar fray with a vengeance, exploiting the benefits – financial and otherwise – that come with casting their lots with studio sugar daddies. The combination – studio strength, independent tenacity and arthouse quality – could be a powerhouse. “I think those of us (independents) with the wherewithal to spend have learned how to spend and where to spend,” says Russell Schwartz, president of Gramercy Pictures. “Spending is a part of what studios do well.”

And Schwartz knows. With four nominations, including two for best picture candidate “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” the relatively tiny Gramercy scored twice the nominations of its studio parent Universal. (“Four Weddings” and the foreign-lingo nom “Before the Rain” were produced by Polygram, which owns Gramercy jointly with Universal.)

Gramercy isn’t alone, of course. Consider the stats: Seventeen films garnered two or more noms, and of those 70 noms more than a third went to the indie sector. Factor in the films that nabbed single bids and you have, among others, Miramax’s now-familiar chart-topping 22 nominations and Gramercy’s four. Together, Miramax and Gramercy contributed two of the five best picture contenders, and, along with the Samuel Goldwyn Co., made a weighty showing in the top performance categories.

Is it just indie chic?

Indie chic or just a bad year for studio fare? The answer, of course, is both. But while some industry vets insist that the indie presence is a fad, and the infusion of studio money will no doubt corrupt the adventuresome indie spirit sooner rather than later, others suspect something longer-lasting than the limited lifespans of past indie golden ages.

“This is not,” says Schwartz, “a cyclical thing, like ‘this year it’s independents, next year will be studios.’ The lines are blurred now, and everyone wants a piece of the action. So studios invest in boutiques.”

While indie execs are quick to point out that their strong presence in this year’s Oscar race indicates the quality of their product, their victories don’t come cheap. By nearly all accounts, indies spent more on this year’s nomination campaigns than ever before, even if the numbers pale alongside studio budgets.

Goldwyn undertook the most aggressive nomination campaign in its 40-year history to spread the word on “The Madness of King George,” a $400,000 push that got four noms and considerable publicity for a film that could well have gotten stuck in Manhattan’s arthouse ghetto.

Gramercy’s “Four Weddings” got an equally expansive push, with star Hugh Grant shuttled from city to city on a press tour that might have helped the film but did not manage to nab a best actor nod. The indie also launched an impressive TV campaign.

“That’s the major difference between what I call the well-heeled independents and the others,” says Schwartz. “We can afford TV… and the game is still a television game.”

Not surprisingly, the Disney-owned Miramax (certainly the most well-heeled of all indies) clearly outspent each of its indie competitors, if not on a per-picture basis (the company spent about $400,000 to promote its top-priority “Pulp Fiction”), then certainly on the sheer number of pictures plugged.

Shoeing them in

Did the shotgun approach work? Money (admittedly nominal amounts) spent on “Fresh,” “Clerks” and “Little Buddha” went down the Academy drain, but would the little-seen “Tom & Viv” have garnered two noms (best actress and best supporting actress, no less) without the feisty distrib’s support? Ditto “Heavenly Creatures,” the critically acclaimed arthouse pic that turned scripters Frances Walsh and Peter Jackson into best screenplay contenders.

Fueled by the 22 noms, Miramax’s marketing machine now shifts into overdrive. The company needn’t do anything groundbreaking: only the de rigueur print campaigns, TV commercials and expanded playdates. Even if Miramax spends only a few million on TV campaigns – a major might spend $10 million to push a top contender – the tab lessens the gap between indie and studio budgets.

Still, the well-cultivated reputations of co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein as shoot-first mavericks shouldn’t fool anyone: Miramax will spend their millions, but every dime will be squeezed through an arduous cost analysis.

The distrib’s smaller-grossing films (“Red,” “Strawberry and Chocolate,” “Heavenly Creatures”) will get more modest campaigns – revamped newspaper ads, publicity pushes and the like.

Big push for ‘Pulp’

Miramax’s big money will be earmarked for the big films, and for the Weinsteins that means “Pulp Fiction” and Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway.” With a domestic gross of about $75 million, “Pulp” is Miramax’s biggest hit ever. “Bullets,” which took a hefty seven noms, is another story.

Just shy of 20 weeks of a limited release, “Bullets” has done OK biz for an Allen movie (about $9 million), but not OK enough to move it off the company’s debit roster. Of the film’s seven noms, one Oscar (Dianne Wiest, supporting actress) seems more than likely. The obvious question becomes, how much money is an Oscar worth?

Obvious but, to Miramax’s way of thinking, misguided. “You’re not spending money for an Oscar,” says Mark Gill, Miramax president of marketing. “You’re spending money for box office. You do these campaigns for one reason only: to sell tickets.”

Given that, a multimillion-dollar campaign for “Bullets” could make sense. Assume the company spends $3 million on an Oscar-related promotional and advertising campaign for the film. That’s a whopping one-third of the film’s gross to date and an even bigger percentage of the $5 million the movie could take at the box office during and after Oscar season.

From there, the highly exposed “Bullets” goes to video stores (a May-June release date is expected), where the company would hope to score another $5 million or so.

Will Miramax ever turn a profit on “Bullets?” Industry watchers are skeptical, despite Harvey Weinstein’s staunch belief in the $20 million film. Will the company lose less because of its canny Oscar maneuverings? The Weinsteins are banking on it. Thanks to Disney, they’ve got a big account.

And thanks to the Weinsteins, Disney gets to bask in some additional Oscar glow, however indirect – the same glow Universal might feel from “Four Weddings.”

“What all this shows,” Schwartz says, “is that when producers and directors are left alone, they can still turn out some pretty good work. What the studios have finally gotten smart about is keeping their hands off. And they’ll still get a piece of the independent pie.”