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DISPATCH FROM AWARDS SEASON: The Indiewood Oscars -- Four Specialty Films (Made For $35 Million Comb

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire March 2, 2006 at 10:53AM

Leading up to Sunday's Academy Awards, numerous insiders and observers have quipped that this year's Oscar ceremony will be a bust with TV viewers since there are few big stars and only smaller movies nominated for the big awards. Indeed, the combined budget for the five best picture Oscar nominees is about $105 million (and $70 million of that belongs to the cost of the one studio picture, "Munich"), while the collective box office gross of the five best picture nominees is just over $225 million. Yet, budgets and box office aside, this year's ceremony will offer a bit of drama, particularly in the best actor category. We have to simply wonder...if he wins, will Philip Seymour Hoffman bark like a dog?
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Leading up to Sunday's Academy Awards, numerous insiders and observers have quipped that this year's Oscar ceremony will be a bust with TV viewers since there are few big stars and only smaller movies nominated for the big awards. Indeed, the combined budget for the five best picture Oscar nominees is about $105 million (and $70 million of that belongs to the cost of the one studio picture, "Munich"), while the collective box office gross of the five best picture nominees is just over $225 million. Yet, budgets and box office aside, this year's ceremony will offer a bit of drama, particularly in the best actor category. We have to simply wonder...if he wins, will Philip Seymour Hoffman bark like a dog?

It turns out that best actor Oscar nominee for "Capote," Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film's director Bennett Miller, and their friend Steven Schub, made a pact years ago when they were in college...Should any of the three of them ever win an Oscar, their acceptance speech must consist entirely of barking, and nothing but. The barking must continue for the entire speech and until the winner is dragged off stage, according to Miller (who confirmed the agreement to indieWIRE). Hoffman recently told David Letterman of the deal during an appearance on The Late Show, and Schub recently called Hoffman to remind him of the obligation, according to Miller.

At the Toronto International Film Festival, "Capote" star Philip Seymour Hoffman with the film's director Bennett Miller. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE.

"Capote"

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the odds on favorite to win the best actor Oscar for his stunning performance as Truman Capote in Sony Pictures Classics' "Capote," a film the company agreed to release less than a year ago following the demise of United Artists -- which financed the $7 million movie -- and was later acquired by a group lead by Sony studios. The story of Truman Capote researching and writing his landmark book, "In Cold Blood," debuted over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival and played days later at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film, nominated for five Oscars, opened in theaters on Capote's birthday -- September 30th -- following a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival, a festival that had been a lifelong dream for New Yorker Bennett Miller. It has earned $23 million at the box office so far.

Along the way, "Capote" won a pair of Gotham Awards, the prize for best feature and the award for breakthrough director. The movie won best picture from the National Society of Film Critics and shared the best screenplay prize from the LA Film Critics Association. Actor Hoffman dominated the critics awards for best actor, also winning the lead acting award from the Screen Actors Guild, the National Board of Review, and at the Golden Globes. The film was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, including best feature (for producers Caroline Baron, William Vince, and Michael Ohoven), best male lead (Hoffman), best screenplay (Dan Futterman), and best cinematography (Adam Kimmel).

The race for the best picture Oscar is dominated by four films from studio specialty divisions, a development that seemed unlikely at the start of awards season when insiders predicted that big studio movies would inevitably dominate the season. Steven Spielberg's "Munich," released by Universal, was the only big film to make it to the final five.


"Crash"

The other $7 million movie nominated for best picture, Paul Haggis' "Crash," seemed like a particularly unlikely best picture nominee heading into awards season. The parable exploring race relations among a mix of characters in Los Angeles, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival more than a year ago and was acquired and released by Lionsgate back on May 6th. However, the film (nominated for six Oscars) connected with audiences, stirring passionate discussions among fans and detractors alike on its way to earning $53 million at the box office. The film was recently released on DVD amidst growing buzz that the success of "Crash" has resulted in clashes among its many producers. Former colleagues, financier Bob Yari and producer Cathy Schulman, are among the litigants currently battling for credits and profits.

Candidly admitting, during a conversation with indieWIRE on the day that the nominations were announced that "Crash" may not be everyone's cup of tea, Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg explained that the film has passionate supporters. "The movie resonates," said Ortenberg. "The most interesting and telling thing about 'Crash' is that when you speak with almost anybody who has seen the movie -- in Toronto, back in May when it was released, or at an awards-season screening -- they remember it like it was yesterday."

Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco won the screenwriting award for original script from the Writers Guild and the film was awarded the prize for best performance by a cast in a motion picture from the Screen Actors Guild. It was nominated for 2 Independent Spirit Awards, including the best first feature prize (Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman, Don Cheadle, Bob Yari, Mark R. Harris, and Bobby Moresco) and best supporting male (Matt Dillon).

George Clooney, director, co-writer, and co-star of "Good Night, And Good Luck," at the opening night of the New York Film Festival in September where the film had its North American premiere. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE


"Good Night, And Good Luck"

This may in fact be the year of George Clooney, whether or not he wins one of the three Oscars for which he is nominated. Another $7 million movie, the black-and-white "Good Night" debuted on October 7th, having earned some $30 million so far at the box office and six Oscar nominations. The story of CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow taking on U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy for his role in communist witch hunts in the 1950s, debuted in Venice and then opened the New York Film Festival.

"I thought it was a good time to raise the idea of using fear to stifle political debate," director & co-writer Clooney said at a New York Film Festival press conference in September. "The real teeth of journalism has been missing [recently] but there is still some [good] journalism out there," he said.

"The country is in crisis in just about every way," explained Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures, in a conversation with indieWIRE on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, "Even the one studio movie in all of this is filled with moral quandary and difficult decisions -- they are all about something."

"Good Night, And Good Luck" won the prize for best picture from the National Board of Review. It is nominated for 4 Independent Spirit Awards, including best feature (producer Grant Heslov), best male lead (David Strathairn), and best cinematography (Robert Elswit).

At the Spirit Awards nominees reception Thursday, "Brokeback Mountain" director Ang Lee, co-writer and producer Diana Ossana and producer (and Focus Features co-president) James Schamus. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE


"Brokeback Mountain"

The true cultural phenomenon of the pack is Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," a film known by many as "the gay cowboy movie" and embraced by fans as "the gay 'Gone With The Wind'." The film was probably the greatest underdog of the season, simply because, sight unseen, its subject matter -- the story of two male ranch hands who fall in love while herding sheep in Wyoming in the 60s -- would seem to relegate the movie to a primarily niche release. However, very early on, producer James Schamus and his team at Focus Features seized the opportunity to push the movie as a great American romance, convinced that it had the ability to reach an audience much wider than that of an art house picture.

At an early marketing meeting, Schamus asked director Lee who their target audience was for the film. The filmmaker responded that it was "the gay audience," according to a rehash of the exchange published by Newsweek. "No, women," Schamus corrected him. And so began the push to win the hearts of romantics -- in fact journalists and bloggers noted that Focus, in creating the film's one-sheet, surveyed posters for some of the most romantic movies ever made, and decided to go with a one-sheet that seems to evoke "Titanic." The campaign worked, the film opened on December 9th, and backed by the resources of Focus and its parent Universal, has resulted in box office grosses for the film that recently topped $76 million. Many are now wondering how close it will come to making $100 million.

Early on during awards season, the movie clicked with viewers. The $14 million movie debuted at nearly parallel screenings at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals, followed by a trip to the Toronto International Film Festival. The film has dominated awards season, winning best picture from the Producers Guild of America, the New York Film Critics Circle, and at the Golden Globes, among many other best film prizes from many critics groups. Likewise, Ang Lee has won numerous best director awards, including the top prize from the Directors Guild of America, the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, among others. Additionally, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story has been honored by numerous groups, including the Writers Guild of America, and at the Golden Globes. The film is nominated for 4 Independent Spirit Awards, including best feature (for producers Diana Ossana, James Schamus), best director (Ang Lee), best male lead (Heath Ledger), and best supporting female (Michelle Williams).

Along the way, with the line "I wish I knew how to quit you" uttered regularly on TV and in casual conversation, the film has spawned numerous parodies and mock movie trailers online, all containing the spare sounds of Gustavo Santaolalla's score. A search for the word "brokeback" on YouTube.com reveals clips that mix "Brokeback" with such films as "Back To The Future," "Star Wars," "Heat," "Top Gun," and apparently even "Strangers With Candy."

"Brokeback" is widely considered the favorite to win best picture on Sunday night, but some have speculated that "Crash" will ruin its run for the gold. Given "Brokeback"'s stunning social achievement this year, taking a gay love story to a mass audience, it has already accomplished something huge. Oscar wins on Sunday would be icing on James Schamus and Ang Lee's cake.

[The 78th Academy Awards will air Sunday night at 8 p.m. EST on ABC Television. The complete list of nominees is available here at indieWIRE.com.]

[indieWIRE is publishing the latest from awards season -- including iPOP photos -- this weekend in the special Awards Watch section.]

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