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Independent Films Get Big Boost From Awards Season Push

While indies have consistently played a big part in awards seasons over the past two decades, in the rapidly changing production and distribution climate, the studios have been putting a big focus on four-quadrant blockbusters with only a handful of prestige items that they view as awards hopefuls. This has led to the emergence of various newbie distributors who are all searching for their golden slice of cinematic cake.

There’s a dynamic list of films that will be competing for voter attention this year, including “Call Me by Your Name,” “Stronger,” “I, Tonya,” “Hostiles,” “Last Flag Flying,” “Lady Bird,” “The Florida Project” and “The Meyerowitz Stories.” Smaller, more challenging fare will always be on the menu, but how does one film stand out over another? And what can happen to a smaller film when it does hit Oscar gold?

Amazon Studios has some serious contenders this year with “Last Flag Flying,” “The Big Sick,” “Wonderstruck,” “The Lost City of Z” and “Wonder Wheel.”
Amazon has been wonderful to work with,” says director Richard Linklater, whose “Last Flag Flying” recently opened the New York Film Festival. “They’re extremely supportive, and they gave us just enough budget and schedule and then let us make the movie that we wanted to make. It’s a good time in our industry to be working with these newer companies who are still interested in making films of this nature.”

“The Big Sick” star and co-writer Kumail Nanjiani says that “working with [Amazon head of marketing and distribution] Bob Berney and Amazon’s PR team has been fantastic. They’ve been very involved in the marketing, and the process has felt very personal. We’re truly surprised by the reaction and being included in the awards season discussion means that more people will get a chance to see the film, which is what it’s all about.”

Entertainment Studios’ “Hostiles,” a dark and gritty Western from director Scott Cooper, is one of the more expensive indies on this year’s calendar at $40 million, and stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi,

Cooper is no novice when it comes to awards season: his 2009 drama “Crazy Heat” earned three Oscar nominations and won two, for star Jeff Bridges and songwriters T Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham.

“It’s not about which distributor releases the film,” says Entertainment Studios CEO Byron Allen. “It’s always about the overall quality of the film, and getting as many voters to see it. ‘Hostiles’ isn’t a small movie. To the contrary, it’s an epic, but it’s the sort of film that the major studios have recently shied away from. We’re excited to be bringing it out into the world.”

FilmRise is looking to make Oscar inroads with “Marjorie Prime” and Lois Smith for a supporting actress nomination. “It’s vital that independent films continue to receive Academy support,” says Danny Fisher, CEO of FilmRise. “For an independent film to stand a chance at studio-level success and attention, no matter how smart, brave, challenging, thought-proving it is, it needs a light shown on it by something as major as the Academy Awards.”

Distributor Neon is new to the game, but its splashy dark dramedy “I, Tonya,” from director Craig Gillespie, looks to figure prominently into awards season.

“Neon has been fantastic to work with, and I love how they’re marketing our film,” Gillespie says. “They really got the story, and they’re staying true to the project in every department.” And what happens when the scrappy outsider gets a chance? “Academy consideration is huge for an indie,” Gillespie says. “We don’t have the same type of resources, and it validates the entire project.”

Netflix has demonstrated a willingness to work with auteurs on high-end productions that come fully loaded with awards potential. The critically acclaimed dark comedy “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” from filmmaker Noah Baumbach, seems like a very strong bet for traction if Academy voters can overcome their prejudices about the streaming giant’s method of content delivery. Likewise, Netflix’s Sundance hit “Mudbound,” from Dee Rees, is also getting awards season treatment, especially supporting actress Mary J. Blige.

“As an Academy member myself, I care about great storytelling and incredible filmmaking,” says Scott Stuber, head of the film initiative at Netflix. “It is important that films of all sizes get recognized by the Academy and at Netflix we have the opportunity to support bold filmmakers whose budgets range from small to large.  This year alone with such diverse films as ‘Okja,’ ‘The Meyerowitz Stories,’ ‘Mudbound’ and ‘First They Killed My Father,’ we are showcasing that range.”

And though owned by multinational giant 21st Century Fox, Fox Searchlight operates as an indie, putting a focus on filmmaker-driven projects, this year touting “The Battle of the Sexes,” “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water.”

Meanwhile, Sony’s arthouse division, Sony Pictures Classics, will offer up “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” “Novitiate,” and “Maudie” to the cineaste crowd.

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