In rewarding films such as “Trumbo,” “Beasts of No Nation” and “99 Homes,” the Screen Actors Guild nominations recognized a trio of newcomers to the film scene.
Together, Bleecker Street, Broad Green and Netflix combined for seven nominations, despite the fact that 2015 marks their first full year of producing and developing their own narrative films (Netflix racked up 10 nods total for its film and TV releases). In nearly every case, their inclusion in the list of nominees was something of a surprise — actors such as “Trumbo’s” Bryan Cranston and “Beasts of No Nation’s” Idris Elba were widely acclaimed for their work, but were expected to be nudged out by the likes of Will Smith (“Concussion”) or Michael Keaton (“Spotlight”), two contenders who were snubbed.
Andrew Karpen, CEO of Bleecker Street, the indie label behind “Trumbo,” deflected questions about what the recognition meant to the nascent company, saying, “it’s all about the movies.” But he did say that he had been impressed by the reception “Trumbo” was receiving from audiences and awards voters. That gave him confidence.
“I was getting a lot of feedback that people love the film, love the story and really love the performances,” he said.
The movie business is a notoriously risky one, and the indie scene can appear downright funereal right now. In recent months, Relativity Media has gone bankrupt and the Weinstein Company has announced it will slash the number of films it releases while concentrating more on television.
In the midst of this uncertainty, both Bleecker Street and Broad Green have benefited from having deep-pocketed backers. Bleecker Street was launched in 2014 with backing from Manoj Bhargava, billionaire founder of 5-hour Energy. Karpen was previously the co-CEO of Focus Features, the indie label behind “Brokeback Mountain” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Broad Green also kicked off in 2014. The studio, which scored nominations for “99 Homes” and “I Smile Back,” is a family affair for brothers Gabriel and Daniel Hammond, who act as CEO and chief creative officer, respectively. The two made a fortune from Alerian Capital, a financial services company that Gabriel founded in 2004. They’ve committed to releasing a dozen films a year, ranging from art-house works such as Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” to more mainstream offerings such as the fall hit “A Walk in the Woods” with Robert Redford. In an interview with Variety, the brothers hailed the nominations as a “milestone” for the company, and noted that despite the fact that Broad Green is a new player, they have industry veterans working for them such as Adam Keen, a former Warner Bros. publicity executive, to help them navigate their first awards season.
Though Netflix is a known quantity, having upended the television business with homegrown hits like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” “Beasts of No Nation” is its first major narrative film. The child soldiers drama washed out at the box office, grossing $90,777, but the company said it has been widely streamed by subscribers. The recognition from SAG reignites Netflix’s Oscar hopes. Many in the industry were predicting the commercial failure of the film would hurt its chances with the Academy, but now it appears that Elba may have a good shot at cracking the supporting actor category.
Wednesday’s nominations could have commercial repercussions beyond changing positions on the Oscars leaderboard. Karpen’s hope is that “Trumbo,” which scored a lead actor nod for Cranston, a supporting actress nod for Helen Mirren and a best ensemble nomination, will get a box office boost from the attention. It’s one of only two nominees in the best ensemble category that is widely available in theaters, the other being “Spotlight.”
So far “Trumbo” has made $4.4 million during a difficult period for indie films. Other pictures geared at adult audiences, such as “Steve Jobs” and “Our Brand is Crisis,” have struggled to attract big crowds, and some industry figures, such as Weinstein Company chief Harvey Weinstein, have criticized the push to release dozens of awards contenders in the final four months of the year. In a recent op-ed, Weinstein argued that Oscar voters must reward movies that are released earlier in the year. He got his wish with SAG, which recognized Helen Mirren’s work in “Woman in Gold,” a spring release.
“Harvey had a point,” said Karpen. “Adult audiences are still going to films. There are just a lot of films for them right now.”
The Hammonds are also betting on awards attention to drive ticket sales, as well as home entertainment and digital revenues. “I Smile Back,” a drama about a mother’s struggles with mental illness, scored a leading actress SAG nod for Sarah Silverman, while “99 Homes” picked up a supporting actor nomination for Michael Shannon. The two films together have made less than $2 million.
“We truly hope that these nominations will shine a light on the films and that more people will see them,” said Gabriel Hammond. “It was always our hope to get these amazing films out to the widest possible audiences.”
The brothers seemed particularly pleased that Silverman had elbowed into the best actress race. Her nomination was seen as a major upset, one that came at the expense of Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”) and Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”). The role allowed Silverman to stretch her muscles as an actress. She’s best known for her raunchy standup act and her work on Comedy Central’s “The Sarah Silverman Program.”
“This film revealed a side of Sarah that nobody had ever seen,” said Daniel Hammond.
The nominations for “I Smile Back,” “Beasts of No Nation” and other pictures revealed something else. They may be the new kids on the block, but Bleecker Street, Broad Green and Netflix have some serious awards ambitions.