Oscar glow might be light at end of the tunnel for 'Last Station'

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Indie films don't get best picture nominations unless Academy members see them, which makes getting voters to screenings the first order of business.

That's the game plan for Sony Pictures Classics' "The Last Station," from writer-director Michael Hoffman ("Restoration") and starring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy.

"They're really screening the hell out of the movie, and that's, I think, the best way to do it," Hoffman says.

An early look at "Station," which premiered in September at the Telluride Film Festival, suggests it's the type of performance-driven film Academy voters embrace. Besides Academy screenings, there will be December qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles before the film hits theaters again Jan. 15.

Hoffman interweaves two contrasting love stories: There's the crumbling marriage between 82-year-old Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) and his wife of 48 years (Mirren), and there's the blossoming love affair between Tolstoy's idealistic private secretary (McAvoy) and a young teacher (Kerry Condon).

The film might be about Tolstoy, but it's no biopic. "That wasn't what I was interested in," Hoffman says.

The script, which he began writing in February 2004, is based on Jay Parini's novel about how Tolstoy -- after writing "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" -- became a spiritual guru late in life. Suddenly, he was advocating poverty, celibacy and giving up ownership of land and personal possessions, none of which sat particularly well with his wife.

What interested Hoffman was making a film about "those central relationships that create us and destroy us and re-create us -- and the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without love," he says.

That's why he sees people connecting to this story about the biggest media celebrity of his time who, as the director put it, "one night packs a bag and runs away from home. His wife rents a train and chases him across Russia, and he ends up dying in a tiny train station with the world's press surrounding him."

Casting the film was unexpectedly easy.

"It was the only script I've ever written where everybody I went to said yes," Hoffman says. "There was something about the Russian-ness of it that really attracted the actors."

Financing indie films like "Station," which cost $13 million to make, is anything but easy.

"For a long time, these movies were made by going out and getting foreign-sales estimates from different territories and then going to the bank and using that to get your loan -- finding some equity here and there or maybe a little bit of soft money or some sort of rebate," Hoffman says.

Now, the bottom has fallen out of foreign sales, so it's harder than ever before to get the pieces to fall into place.

"We were extremely lucky that we had access to Jens Meurer and his German company Egoli Tossell," he says. "He and his English partner, Chris Curling of Zephyr Films, were able to access soft money from various states in the former East Germany."

Soft money is financing that doesn't have to be repaid until much later. Or, as Hoffman puts it, "It sits very far back in the waterfall." That makes things more attractive to other investors because they can recoup earlier.

"Station" also was fortunate in connecting easily with a domestic distribution deal after SPC toppers Michael Barker and Tom Bernard saw how well it was received at Telluride.

"They saw what happened with this movie in front of an audience, and I think it just made a very strong argument for itself," Hoffman says.

"Station" would get a boxoffice bump from a best picture nom -- and could benefit from 10 such slots this year rather than five. With so many strong performances, it could wind up with a large number of noms, typically an advantage for a best picture candidate.

Last year, there were at least five indie hopefuls -- "Doubt," "The Visitor," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "The Wrestler" and "Revolutionary Road" -- talked about as possible best pic nominees, but all failed to get into the race. This time around, with twice as many runways available, all five might have landed.

"I don't really understand the upside and the downside or even the thinking behind 10 slots," Hoffman says. "But I'm going to guess it has to improve everyone's odds."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on ZAMM.com.
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