Outside the system: The Heavyweights

Variety weighs in on a dozen independently financed contender heavyweights that could find themselves in the kudo mix.

Focus Features
IN SHORT: Ang Lee‘s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story about the relationship between two cowboys over 20 years is a pic about forbidden love and longing that’s as compelling as it is unusual. The idea of two actors on the rise, such as Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, starring in a gay love story — even a macho one — has caused controversy from the get-go, even as the film gathers kudos and warm critical response.
COIN: Budget was $13 million. Project was first at Sony, then at Good Machine, and ended up with Ted Hope‘s This Is That shingle. Bill Pohlad’s River Road took on the financing as part of an equity deal with Focus right before filming started.
KUDOS: Debuted at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top prize, the Golden Lion; played at Telluride and Toronto. Nommed for four Independent Spirit Awards
PROS/CONS: Ledger is a strong candidate for actor, while Gyllenhaal, who could get notice for “Jarhead,” has longer odds for supporting actor. Lee, who has been nominated in the director category before, has a good chance for another mention. Picture and screenplay noms are also possible. The subject matter could go either way in helping or hurting the pic’s kudo chances.

Sony Pictures Classics
IN SHORT: Bennett Miller‘s narrative debut shrewdly captures the events surrounding the creation of “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote‘s influential nonfiction book about a Kansas murder and the subsequent execution of the killers. Actor-turned-writer Daniel Futterman‘s script is a marvel of restraint, brought to life by Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s dazzlingly complex lead performance and Miller’s acute direction.
COIN: Budget was $7 million. Produced by Infinity Media, film was a negative pickup by United Artists, and ended up at Sony Pictures Classics after MGM’s sale.
KUDOS: Unspooled at Telluride, Toronto and New York fests; won best pic and breakthrough director prizes at the Gotham Awards. Nommed for four Independent Spirit Awards.
PROS/CONS: Hoffman’s performance propels the film from mere indie small fry to viable contender, and he has a strong shot at an actor mention. Futterman’s script could garner recognition. But the film’s pleasures are dark, meticulous and require patience, not exactly an Oscar hat trick. If Hollywood’s leviathans fall, “Capote” could pull a dark horse picture nom.

Focus Features
IN SHORT: Brazilian helmer Fernando Meirelles‘ English-language debut is a gritty take on the John le Carre novel about a British diplomat who uncovers an international conspiracy as he searches for his wife’s killers in Kenya. Pic grossed more than $33 million Stateside for Focus.
COIN: Budget was $25 million, with financing from Focus, Scion and the Premiere Fund.
KUDOS: Won best film, actor (Ralph Fiennes) and actress (Rachel Weisz) at the British Independent Film Awards.
PROS/CONS: Compared with smaller distribs, Focus has deep pockets for Oscar marketing. Critical support has been strong and the politically relevant subject matter could appeal to Academy voters. Meirelles and star Fiennes have Oscar pedigrees, and Weisz has a strong shot at a supporting actress nod, especially after the BIFA wins. But will the Academy take to Meirelles’ arty handling of le Carre?

Lions Gate Films
IN SHORT: “Million Dollar Baby” scribe Paul Haggis‘ second feature as director takes

on race, crime and the nature of chance in contemporary L.A. The film has grossed more than $55 million for Lions Gate.
COIN: Budget was $6.5 million, financed by Yari Film Group and German fund Apollo Media.
KUDOS: Won Grand Special Prize at the Deauville Film Festival. Nommed for two Indie Spirit Awards.
PROS/CONS: L.A.-centric, socially conscious material caters to the Academy demographic, and pic had high media visibility throughout the spring and summer. But early-year releases always fight an uphill battle.

Warner Independent Pictures
IN SHORT: A spare and focused docudrama, “Good Night” examines journalist Edward R. Murrow’s fight to bring down Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his communist witch-hunts, while revealing the behind-the-scenes workings of the 1950s newsroom during one of the hottest periods of the Cold War. Topical relevance has not gone unnoticed, pushing the film to over $20 million at the U.S. B.O.
COIN: Estimated budget was $7.5 million, financed by 2929 Entertainment, Participant Prods. and Warner Independent Pictures.
KUDOS: Opened the New York Film Festival; won five prizes at Venice, including actor (David Strathairn) and script (George Clooney and Grant Heslov). Nommed for four Independent Spirit Awards.
PROS/CONS: Not since 1976’s “Network” won four Academy Awards has a drama so eloquently captured the inner workings and corporate pressures of the broadcast news. But “Good Night” is a modest production shot in black-and-white. Still, Strathairn’s performance as Murrow can’t be counted out, nor can Clooney’s sharp direction.

The Weinstein Co.
IN SHORT: Debut feature from commercials/musicvid helmer Laurence Dunmore charts the rise and fall of the decadent 17th-century English poet John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. After screening as a work-in-progress at Toronto 2004, pic languished on the Miramax shelf for over a year while the company sorted out its titles for the newly formed Weinstein Co.
COIN: Budget was $16 million, from Odyssey Entertainment, the U.K. Film Council, First Choice and the Isle of Man Film Commission.
KUDOS: Was nommed for eight British Independent Film Awards but only scored one: Rosamund Pike for supporting actress.
PROS/CONS: Stars Johnny DeppSamantha Morton and John Malkovich each have multiple prior Oscar noms to their credit. Award voters love costume dramas, which usually garner crafts category mentions, but mixed reviews and the bawdy subject matter might be off-putting.

IN SHORT: Woody Allen making a drama/thriller in London
doesn’t sound like a throwback, but this story of a tennis pro in a love quadrangle, with Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Emily Mortimer and Matthew Goode, is a return to vintage Woodman. Originally set in New York, Allen filmed for the first time in London to get financing.
COIN: BBC Films produced in conjunction with Thema Prods., a Russian-funded company based in Luxembourg, as well as Invicta Capital. Allen also had his longtime producing team of Letty Aronson, Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins. DreamWorks acquired at Cannes.
KUDOS: Screened at Cannes and traveled to San Sebastian and Vienna fests
PROS/CONS: Critics hailed it as Allen’s best film in years, but he still has a lot of political ground to make up with Academy voters. His best way back into the fray could be in the original screenplay category.

The Weinstein Co.
IN SHORT: Based on the true story of feisty widow Laura Henderson, who brought the West End’s Windmill Theater back to life after the Depression and kept it open during the Blitz of London to inspire troops with nude musical revues. Directed by Stephen Frears, pic is full of acerbic wit thanks to the repartee between haughty socialite (Judi Dench) and her theater manager, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins).
COIN: Financed by Pathe Pictures and BBC Films, produced by Hoskins’ shingle Heyman-Hoskins Prods. The film was picked up in February by Miramax, which released the last few Frears pictures, but was transferred to the Weinstein Co. slate when the companies split.
KUDOS: Nominated for eight British Independent Film Awards.
PROS/CONS: All hopes are pinned on an actress mention for Dench, who should fare well with her solid heroine role befitting a grand dame. Acad could recognize pic’s period details with craft noms.

Focus Features
IN SHORT: Debut feature helmer Joe Wright’s take on the saga of Jane Austen‘s 18th-century Bennett clan has stood out among the fall specialty releases (and from numerous previous adaptations), grossing nearly $20 million so far in platform release.
COIN: Financed by Universal and Focus; produced by Working Title Films
KUDOS: Unspooled at Toronto and Dinard
PROS/CONS: Star Keira Knightley stands a solid chance of being nominated, with possible notice for supporting thesps Judi Dench, Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland. Period setting bodes well for craft mentions. But with this year’s deep list of major category contenders, “Pride” is a long shot for picture or director noms.

IN SHORT: David Auburn‘s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play about a mentally ill math genius was a hit in 2000, but the pic, with Paltrow in the lead, Anthony Hopkins as her dead father and Jake Gyllenhaal as the love interest, had a harder time getting off the ground. Its theatrical release this year was part of Miramax’s dump, before the Weinstein Co. broke away, and wasn’t a mainstream draw, grossing $7.5 million.
COIN: Miramax developed with Hart-Sharp, and brought in Jim Stern’s Endgame Entertainment for additional financing about halfway through the $20 million-plus production.
KUDOS: Debuted at Venice, then played in Toronto. Hopkins will get the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes in January.
PROS/CONS: Oscar winner Paltrow gives the kind of nuanced mad-genius performance that benefited Russell Crowe in 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind.” But Miramax and the Weinstein Co. might not push too hard, given their recent divorce. Adapted screenplay, by Auburn and Rebecca Miller, could find its way into the kudo mix.

Samuel Goldwyn Releasing
IN SHORT: Writer-director Noah Baumbach put his childhood divorce trauma on display, as Brooklyn intellectual parents (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) and their two boys (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) live under an unusual custody agreement. Smart and funny, the film did well in New York, but didn’t have much traction outside the city, cuming $2.8 million.
COIN: Baumbach brought on “Life Aquatic” screenwriting partner Wes Anderson as producer along with Peter Newman, and they cobbled together financing from a number of companies, including Charlie Corwin and Clara Markowicz‘s Original MediaAndrew Lauren Prods. and Reverge Anselmo‘s Seven Hills Pictures. Samuel Goldwyn acquired the film after Sundance.
KUDOS: Debuted at Sundance, where it won director and screenplay prizes. Also played at Toronto, New York and Chicago. Won best ensemble cast at the Gothams and is nommed for six Spirit awards.
PROS/CONS: Great reviews may translate into critical laurels. Oscar hopes rest on Jeff Daniels breaking through this year’s crowded actor field and Baumbach’s original screenplay catching the kind of attention that usually goes to Anderson.

Sony Pictures Classics
IN SHORT: Master thesp Tommy Lee Jones makes a foray into directing with this contemporary Western about a ranch foreman (Jones) who undertakes a precarious trip into Mexico to bury his murdered friend. After a triumphant debut at Cannes, pic was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics at Toronto. February release Stateside will follow a qualifying run in mid-December.
COIN: Financed by Luc Besson‘s EuropaCorp.
KUDOS: Won actor (Jones) and screenplay (Guillermo Arriaga) prizes at Cannes. Nommed for four Independent Spirit Awards.
PROS/CONS: Jones’ Oscar track record, critical enthusiasm and Cannes prestige will give this little indie the support it will most definitely need if it’s going to compete against the well-financed specialty and studio releases. But small-scale dramas always face a battle for Oscar recognition, even if they are handled by the kudo maestros at SPC.

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