Smaller pics groom actors for Oscar

Every year, indies vie for awards glory

Ever since Sally Kirkland landed an actress Oscar nom for 1987 micro-indie “Anna” by throwing a few parties for her actor friends and by taking out some “for your consideration” ads, it is widely believed inside the Hollywood community that it is possible for a long-shot actor to score a nomination — even without spending scads of cash.

Every year, a batch of indie underdogs vie for awards glory — knowing in advance that they lack the deep pockets that come with studio affiliation. What they have are a few good actors who might be able to grab enough attention from their peers to gain some awards traction. A successful actor push requires a few hundred grand– the cost of a minimal Oscar campaign — plus real passion, elbow grease and canny campaign finesse.

Press agent Mark Pogachefsky says the one thing an actor needs to get in the Oscar race is recognition from a critics group or guild. Pogachefsky was hired by micro-distrib Bleiberg Entertainment to land Jeff Goldblum an Oscar nomination for Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected.” It is the sort of juicy role that could score a slot, with a bit of luck and the right avid supporters, Pogachefsky says.

The trick is to get the Screen Actors Guild nominating committee and the Academy actors’ branch to see the film. So Bleiberg has shipped “Adam Resurrected” DVDs to both groups, as well as to Academy directors. Even so, the screener could easily wind up lost in piles of discs, along with Overture’s “Traitor” and “Last Chance Harvey,” Samuel Goldwyn’s “Elegy” and Oscilloscope’s “Wendy and Lucy.”

At this stage, many people may not even have heard of all these films, some of which have already been released and need to be raised from the dead. For a small movie, it’s worth taking a chance on a longshot because an Oscar nom means the difference between a blip at the box office and a branded title that will score big ancillary sales all over the world.

Ryan Gosling is a recent example of an actor who catapulted from little-known Sundance pic “Half-Nelson” to a best actor Oscar nom. But in Gosling’s case, everything went right. In order to have a remote shot at a nom, outsider candidates have to have several things going for them.

Passion. Year after year during his Miramax heyday, Harvey Weinstein proved that with enough moxie and tenacity (along with some serious spending), he and his team could score kudos attention for such films as”Life Is Beautiful,” “Chocolat,” “Enchanted April,” “Mrs. Brown,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “The Cider House Rules” and “Iris.” Step by step, Weinstein established what has become a well-trodden path to Oscar: Screen the hell out of a movie, grab a Golden Globe or critics’ group mentions, and work the guilds and press in Academy-centric Los Angeles and New York.

In 2005, 42West’s Cynthia Swartz (a Miramax vet), reminded that an aggressive campaign could make all the difference. In October, Lionsgate sent screeners of “Crash” to every branch in the Academy, 5,800 strong, plus another 2,000 to the SAG nominating committee, about 200 to critics’ groups, and 90 to the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. “Crash” wound up winning the best picture Oscar.

Swartz also helped to strategize last year’s campaign for critics’ fave “No Country for Old Men.” This year she is determined to push Michelle Williams into kudos contention for her poignant role as a homeless drifter in search of her missing dog in “Wendy and Lucy,” which has built a following on the fall fest circuit.

The movie is backed by year-old Oscilloscope, co-founded by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and David Fenkel, who cut his teeth at ThinkFilm working on marketing campaigns for Gosling and the Oscar-winning doc “Born into Brothels.” Fenkel says it’s all about “being strategic and making sure the right people see the film. It’s not just about Oscars, but building buzz with 10-best lists and critics and guild awards. We think Michelle’s performance stands up to anyone else’s.” 

“Wendy and Lucy” will garner some media attention when it opens in one theater each in New York and Los Angeles in mid-December. DVDs went out in mid-November to actors and critics. With his limited budget, so far Fenkel is targeting most of his ad spending online, but will expand going into December and January. “SAG is very important,” he says. “We’ll see where we are in three or four weeks.” Optimistically, the movie expands the day after the nominations are announced on Jan. 22.

A well-known name. In order to become a must-see, a movie needs to pop, usually via raves for a standout star. “Elegy” boasts Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz and Dennis Hopper.

Lakeshore Entertainment’s David Dinerstein, who at Paramount Classics managed to move the needle to earn Terrence Howard an Oscar nom for “Hustle & Flo,” hopes to do it again with the veteran Hopper, who has been nominated twice (supporting actor for “Hoosiers” and screenwriting for “Easy Rider”). Goldwyn tagged print ads for the film as open to guild and Academy members, and shipped screeners out in October to Academy writers and actors. A second round will go out in November. But Sony won’t ship the DVD to retailers until the first quarter of 2009, which means a missed opportunity to put Hopper on talkshows.

It also helps to have a popular movie. In “Elegy’s” case, critics’ praise for the cast and a literary pedigree — Nicholas Meyer adapted a Philip Roth novel — may not counter a movie that opened back in August to mixed reviews and a modest arthouse gross of $3.6 million.

Lionsgate is pushing Josh Brolin, who followed last year’s “No Country for Old Men” with Oliver Stone’s “W.,” which fared modestly at the box office (grossing $25 million) and with critics (58% on Rotten Tomatoes).

But many did single out Brolin’s performance as George W. Bush. Vet James Cromwell as the senior George Bush may have more heat in the supporting actor race. Brolin may be stronger in that category as well for his role as Dan White in “Milk.”

Overture has a better bet with Richard Jenkins, who has sometimes struggled to make a living as a working actor but finally scored critical raves in the arthouse hit, “The Visitor.” Overture, Groundswell and Participant are backing a full-on campaign for Jenkins. ID-PR’s Bryna Rifkin, who shepherded Marion Cotillard to a best actress win for “La Vie en Rose,” is on the case. But is Jenkins’ laconic role flashy enough for the Academy actors?

That’s also the problem for Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. While it’s likely that their acting peers will check out the sweet romantic comedy “Last Chance Harvey” because these two garner serious affection and respect, it remains to be seen if the film boasts enough gravitas to push them into contention in a competitive year.

For her part, Thompson has mixed feelings about chasing awards. “This insistence on awarding things to people has gotten out of control. This circus, which requires you to promote yourself, is very disturbing. It’s not good for the creative ability: There is a balance to be struck.”

Weak competitors. Unfortunately, the 2008 best actor field is more crowded than usual. Longshots Goldblum, Hoffman, Jenkins, Brolin and Benicio Del Toro (who won best actor at Cannes for Steven Soderbergh’s arty “Che”) are going up against heavyweights Sean Penn (“Milk”), Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”), Brad Pitt (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”), Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino”), Will Smith (“Seven Pounds”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Revolutionary Road”).

On the best actress side, “Wendy and Lucy’s” Williams faces Meryl Streep (“Doubt”), Kate Winslet (“Revolutionary Road”), Nicole Kidman (“Australia”), Angelina Jolie (“Changeling”), Cate Blanchett (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Kristin Scott Thomas (I’ve Loved You So Long”) and Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”).

In order for an unexpected name to sneak into the nominations announcement, the competitive field has to be weak. “There is always a surprise,” Pogachefsky insists.