Oscars: Will Indies Outshine the Major Studios (Again)?

The Oscars are supposed to be Hollywood’s biggest night, but for the second year in a row, they could mirror the Independent Spirit Awards.

So far, the early frontrunners in the best picture race — IFC’s “Boyhood,” the Weinstein Co.’s “The Imitation Game,” Focus Features’ “The Theory of Everything,” Fox Searchlight’s “Birdman” and Sony Pictures Classics’ “Foxcatcher” — are all modestly-budgeted films that opened in limited release. And to date, they haven’t crossed over to wide release-sized grosses. “Boyhood” leads the pack, with $24 million domestically.

A handful of other indies, including Sony Pictures Classics’ “Whiplash” and Searchlight’s “Wild” and “Grand Budapest Hotel,” also are hovering on the fringes of the race, a category that was expanded to up to 10 films in 2009, so that the Academy could recognize more audience-friendly titles.

Last year, the Spirit Awards, which recognize the best achievements in independent film, honored the same winners in most major categories as the Oscars: picture, actor/actress, supporting actor/actress and best screenplay. Over the last 10 years, only three best pic winners hailed from a major studio (all three were Warner Bros. films: “Argo,” “The Departed” and “Million Dollar Baby”).

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Will the studios upend that trend in 2015?

As of mid-November, the best picture offerings look sparse. Paramount’s “Selma,” about Martin Luther King, Jr., is benefiting from a surge of buzz from early screenings, but it’s the kind of drama that the studio’s indie division used to release. And Oscar voters are waiting to see Universal’s “Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, and Disney’s musical “Into the Woods,” starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, which might be a better fit for the Golden Globes.

“Gone Girl,” which has grossed $153 million domestically, has been absent from the campaign trail so far and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” previously considered a frontrunner, will need to fight to clinch a spot, following mixed reactions at Academy screenings.

Historically, more popular titles in the best picture race generally translate to higher ratings for the Oscarcast. Last March’s awards show, which had a decade-high viewership of 43 million, was bolstered by picture nominees “Gravity,” “American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Captain Phillips.” But given this year’s crop of contenders, the Academy might need to keep expanding the best picture race in order to include a box office winner. How many until it hits “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1”?

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