Final answer: awards glory
Yet if the Danny Boyle film emerges from the pack to pick up a best picture nomination -- and like many others, I think it will -- it would be one of the least likely best picture nominees in history.
By conventional expectations, the director's India-set movie about a slum kid who fights his way out of poverty and on to a "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"-type show shouldn't work onscreen. Any other project to attempt such a melange of genres -- a Dickensian coming-of-age story, a romantic fairy tale, a "Kite Runner"-ish saga of class and religious tensions, a pop-culture sendup, a globalist screed, a game show drama, a gangster epic and a Bollywood fable -- normally would end up either unmade or a big mess. But Boyle's film is one of the most appealing in years precisely because of that ambition.
A similar kaleidoscope of challenges awaits its bid for awards.
"Slumdog," which opened Wednesday in exclusive engagements, is rolling out more slowly -- Searchlight COO Stephen Gilula calls the strategy "almost old-fashioned" -- than almost any serious best picture contender in years. This weekend, it's playing in just 10 theaters, and and it won't hit 100 until Dec. 12.
Meanwhile, to say the film lacks stars is like saying "Trainspotting" was about some guys who dabbled in heroin. Of the 100 films nominated for best picture in the past 20 years, you can count on one hand those that didn't feature one recognizable actor.
And Searchlight, which only acquired the film from Warners in August, had to develop one of the fastest campaigns in history.
These aren't obstacles lost on Searchlight. "With 'Little Miss Sunshine,' we had Steve Carell, and with 'Juno,' we had Michael Cera coming out of 'Superbad.' But this is incredibly challenging," Gilula acknowledges. "And India is an entirely unfamiliar milieu."
So why is it as certain as death, taxes and a Weinstein Oscar push that this movie will be nominated?
Partly because reviewers have been raving in such awards-critical outlets as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. Partly because of what a critic said of Boyle: that he's a director who makes "entertainment run deep." And after a few years of dark indie contenders, Oscar voters might find themselves in the mood for something deeply entertaining.
Then there's Searchlight's strong track record: During the past couple of years, it has fielded at least two buzz movies heading into the season, with one making a run at best picture and the other awards: "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Last King of Scotland" two years ago and "Juno" and "The Savages" last year.
This time, Searchlight is pushing "Slumdog" and "The Wrestler," which has a shot at actor, director and even best picture. Of the awards movies I've seen so far, arguably the only two that are better directed are Gus Van Sant's "Milk" and, well, "Slumdog."
But the biggest factor in its favor is what some would consider its greatest challenge: It's different from everything else. A movie about the American "Millionaire"? Few would want to see it. The Indian version? That, like the film's Oscar run, is an entirely different story.