As even the casual observer knows, awards season is only partially about quality. Yes, from November to February every year talented people are often rewarded for wonderful film work, but only a fool would argue that those honorees and nominees are definitive. Aside from the inevitably debatable results determined by subjective judgment, there is an ocean of equally great performances and craftwork that simply don't make it onto nomination lists — or onto voters’ radars at all. Unsurprisingly, those overlooked films are usually high-caliber independent releases.
So indie and specialty film distributors with limited resources have to be especially strategic about just how they get attention for the films they think are worthy. It’s often a long shot given what they’re up against, but the effort itself can pay off when it comes to the ultimate goal: getting more people to see the movies.
When Millennium Entertainment threw its cocktail party for Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” Monday night at the Merc Bar in Soho, surely it knew that any effort to get the filmmakers kudos over the next few months is an uphill battle. “Bernie” did receive fairly good critical response, with star Jack Black called out by many for his performance as a gentlemanly mortician who murders an old widow. So Millennium sees Black as a plausible candidate for acting awards. There’s nothing too strange about that -- and who knows, it may happen.
But for a relatively new distributor like Millennium, “Bernie,” which was acquired after its Los Angeles Film Festival debut in 2011, is seen more as a great opportunity to play up the company’s ability to do well by a respectably artistic film. Released in April, “Bernie” grossed more than $9 million domestically, a genuine success story even with limited box office and Millennium’s biggest hit by far. The company acquired several more indies at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, and it wants to send a signal that it’s a good home for great indie films.
In that sense, an awards campaign for Black is as much an investment as anything else. The company may genuinely believe that Black deserves recognition, but even if he doesn’t receive the kudos, Millennium needs to put its name out there in an awards context so filmmakers and producers see it as a strong option moving forward. And if Black or the movie do turn up on year-end best-of lists or nomination ballots, people will notice.
“We're passionately behind an awards campaign for ‘Bernie’ because it's right for the film, and we believe it should be recognized,” says Millennium CEO Bill Lee. “Specifically, Jack Black, whose breadth of talent is extraordinary, and Rick Linklater, who is one the greatest storytellers of our time. As for what this means to Millennium Entertainment, the more awards-worthy our slate, the better films from high-quality producers we attract. So this awards campaign for ‘Bernie’ is an investment not only in the film but in our future.”
Newer distributors such as Oscilloscope Laboratories, Drafthouse Films and A24 inevitably try to establish a beachhead in the awards context because it broadens their options for acquiring movies. Oscilloscope did so with “The Messenger” in 2009; Oscar, Globe and Spirit noms materialized for Oren Moverman’s debut drama. And Drafthouse landed “Bullhead” in the foreign-language category last year. Brand new, A24 is hopeful that its recent acquisition “Ginger and Rosa” can stir up attention across the board for writer-director Sally Potter and young star Elle Fanning.
Millennium did score a best male lead Spirit Award nomination for Woody Harrelson last year off of Oren Moverman’s cop drama “Rampart.” A qualifying run in November and limited February release ultimately led to a mere $1 million in domestic box office that saw no bump coming out of awards season. And this year, the company’s flashiest release, Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy,” looks destined for a sweep at the Razzies. So “Bernie” may be its best shot for critical recognition in 2012.