Scrappy indies aspire to level playing field

Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview

Dating back beyond the mid-’80s, when independently distributed films began to establish a toe-hold in the Oscar race, the best pic category has increasingly taken on a David vs. Goliath scenario. While “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno” and “Winter’s Bone” proved that low- and even micro-budget indies could go toe-to-toe with studio heavyweights, the challenge has always been getting exposure at a time when Academy voters are being deluged with awards hopefuls.

“One of the first things we learned is that the best way to get into the Academy is for the Academy to see your movie,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard. “That is the most difficult part: Getting it on the radar, and keeping it on screens for a long time.”

Before DVD screeners, Bernard remembers sending out VHS tapes of the French film “Camille Claudel” in 1989. Now, he says, knowing when to send out an Academy screener — so it doesn’t get lost among the dozens of other DVDs — “is like choosing a release date.”

“And then you have to create some awareness to get that Academy member to put that DVD in,” adds Bernard, whether that’s through media or festival buzz.

This year, SPC is pushing Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s “Amour” as a contender. “We’re promoting it as a best picture movie in the same way we promoted ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ ” Bernard says. “It won in Cannes, the Academy members are aware of the film. I think it will be seen.”

Howard Cohen, co-prexy of Roadside Attractions, which released dark-horse best pic nominee “Winter’s Bone” in 2010, agrees that creating awareness is most important, particularly for indies that don’t have the tubthumping budgets of Hollywood films.

“When you do a smaller movie, you don’t have mass marketing dollars, so you need reviewers and critics on board,” echoes David Glasser, COO of the Weinstein Co. “I absolutely think this is key.”

Award-season campaigners note that word-of-mouth is a significant driver for indie titles. “It’s all about getting the film in front of people,” says one publicist, “doing festivals, doing Q&As — you have to be everywhere.”

Indies, in essence, can be the “passion vote” for members. And if a critical mass of voters can get behind a little film, its modest origins can help intensify its Oscar chances, as may be the case for a couple of films that made a splash at Sundance in January: “The Sessions” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

“There’s always something exciting about discovering something new and being part of that groundswell of support,” says “Beasts” executive producer Paul Mezey. “I think it’s a participatory thing, and for audiences who feel that sense of discovery, they are going to be passionate about ‘their’ film, and participate in it in a stronger way.”

Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview
Art finds surprising home | Scrappy indies aspire to level playing field | Dramas ripped from headlines | Popcorn epics’ battle for top prize |

Award Season Calendar 2012 – 2013: November – December | January – February