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Oscar noms challenge small distribs

Careful release plans, streamable screeners boost buzz

NEW YORK — While year-end film awards are an honor and a valuable marketing tool, for independent distributors they are also a challenge. In addition to selling their film to a target audience, indie distribs also need to woo kudos voters, which requires some special finessing — and they need to do all this on a limited budget.

This past week, “Albert Nobbs” and “Margin Call” were among the indie films receiving Oscar nominations. The noms were a payoff for careful and thrifty release plans. In the case of “Albert,” distributed by LD Entertaiment and Roadside Attractions, that meant a one-week qualifying engagement, which was significantly cheaper than a fourth-quarter theatrical release.

The strategy for Roadside’s other entry, Lionsgate co-acquisition “Margin Call,” was to build buzz, and to take a targeted approach to media buys. Positive reviews for its timely Wall Street subject matter, as well as word of mouth, were important. The film also gained attention when its VOD availability didn’t appear to hurt its box office during the movie’s fall day-and-date strategy.

“One of the challenges for movies that don’t have massive marketing budgets is spreading the word, but in order for that word to happen, you’ve got to get a critical mass of people to see it,” says Roadside co-prexy Eric D’Arbeloff. “The Academy isn’t that different from everyone else — certain people will only see movies in theaters, certain people watch screeners and others hear about the movie from their friends who may have seen it on VOD. We felt like these were distinct audiences, (which) gave us that much more word of mouth.”

Awards season comes at a busy time of year, with family time and holiday vacations. Critics see many, many films, but a lot of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members are working people, so have limited time to see a large array of films before they fill out a ballot.

“Albert Nobbs” saw Oscar noms for actress (Glenn Close), supporting actress (Janet McTeer) and makeup. “Margin Call” was tapped for original screenplay.

Roadside sends out screeners and holds official AMPAS and guild screenings, though not as frequently as the studios do, says Roadside co-president Howard Cohen. The distrib focused on drumming up media interest. Last year, Roadside saw 2010 Sundance pickup “Winter’s Bone” nab four top Oscar noms, including one for best picture.

David Dinerstein, who helped advise on the “Nobbs” plan and now heads LD Distribution, says withdrawing “Nobbs” from theaters for a month after its one-week Oscar qualifying run in late December helped put a limited budget to its best use.

“Rather than having to compete at the consumer level at that time, we felt we should target people within the Academy and the guilds,” he says. “Now with the nominations, it gives us an opportunity to cut through a bit easier than it would have been otherwise.” The limited nationwide rollout that began Jan. 27 takes advantage of last week’s noms and allows a few targeted TV ads to reach potential Academy and guild voters.

Dinerstein says Close’s Career Achievement Award at January’s Palm Springs Film Festival gave the pic a key boost as well.

As far as the cost to the company for Oscar attention, Dinerstein, as with others interviewed for this article, demurs. But he says that, as with the launch of any of LD’s films, the budget is less than most of his competitors. “If you don’t have deep pockets, you need to be smarter, whether it’s on the publicity side or in choosing the types of screens you have,” he says.

Four-year-old Oscilloscope saw its sixth Oscar nom when “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front,” a historical look at political activism, was tapped in the feature documentary category.

Oscilloscope prexy David Fenkel says that the limited number of members in the doc and foreign-language feature nominating committees is a boon to indies, making it easier to target the appropriate people. Fenkel plans to have director Marshall Curry discuss the film at new bookings in major markets around the country, emphasizing its relevance.

Newer to the game is Drafthouse Films founder Tim League, whose sophomore release “Bullhead” earned a foreign-language film nom. League cites the film’s AFI Fest and Palm Springs awards (and helmer Michael R. Roskam’s mention as one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch) as helping the violent thriller break into Oscar’s top five, along with reaching out to foreign-language committee voters.

For his post-nomination strategy, League plans to move the tentative April 27 release date to February, and in addition to DVD screeners, he’s finalizing streaming partnerships this week to get the film into Academy members’ homes, a strategy sure to become more popular with cost-conscious distribs.

“I know we have a tough road ahead of us,” League says. “We’re a small company — a staff of three — but we’re going to be scrappy.”

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