risky business

How ThinkFilm goosed Gosling's Oscar drive

It takes guts to chase after an Oscar. It also takes serious money, luck and insider experience. Fail to land a nomination, and that cash doesn't magically come back.

The stakes are precariously high, especially for a small indie distributor. ThinkFilm distribution and marketing president Mark Urman knew that he was in for a wild ride when he made the decision to pursue a best actor Oscar nomination for "Half Nelson" star Ryan Gosling. Here's how he landed the awards season's most surprising nomination.

The Oscar question was first raised, as it often is these days, during the seductive tap dance surrounding ThinkFilm's acquisition of "Half Nelson" at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006.

"Half Nelson" centers on the touching relationship between a gifted inner-city high schoolteacher (Gosling) and a student (Shareeka Epps) who discovers the teacher's crack addiction. While it played well at Sundance, and the first reviews were strong, Urman told the rookie filmmakers, writer-director Ryan Fleck and co-writer and producer Anna Boden, that any talk of Oscar was "hideously premature." After all, the movie cost less than $1 million. "The likelihood of a low-budget American independent film making it to that pantheon was slim. I didn't rule it out. But if it didn't penetrate to a higher consciousness of the public, then it wasn't worth it to piss in the wind," Urman recalls.

Urman, a veteran Oscar marketer who had played a role in winning campaigns for Lionsgate's "Gods and Monsters" and "Affliction," knew that acting nominations for breakthrough newcomer performances are doable. "We all generalize that the Academy is one giant brain," he says. "But there are trends. There is a steady affection for the discovery, like Julie Christie in 'Darling.' The Academy has always enjoyed making an investment in a career."

In 2006, Sony Pictures Classics nabbed Amy Adams a supporting actress nomination for the micro-indie "Junebug." But Adams won a special jury prize for her performance from the Sundance dramatic jury. It was a bitter blow for Urman when "Half Nelson" won nothing on closing night in Park City.

In order to gain the necessary traction, the distributor opened "Half Nelson" in August — well before the customary fall Oscar launch platform at the Toronto International Film Festival. "The only way to do it was not to go out in the fall," Urman says. "We had to go out ahead of the pack. And by August, people were fed up with summer fun."

The critics gave Urman reason for hope, including Oscar mentions in USA Today and Entertainment Weekly. One critic threw down the gauntlet, as Urman recalls, hoping that Gosling would get the support he deserved. "That was a terrifying moment," Urman says. "It was a personal challenge. I would be the person who lost Ryan Gosling his Oscar nomination."

At the start of the fall season, Urman checked out the competition for best actor. Who was Gosling up against? The actor's lucky break: The field was weaker than usual. In a normal year, there are twice as many strong best actor candidates as best actress possibilities, often as many as 15. For 2006, Urman counted just nine, including Gosling, aiming for five slots. And as the possible contenders were shot down, that number got even smaller. Falling by the wayside were George Clooney in "The Good German" and Derek Luke in "Catch a Fire," examples of how "you can't build a campaign on visible failure and a rapid exit," Urman says. Even though "Half Nelson" was limping along at the boxoffice in only three runs, "you can build a campaign on a promise, but not a failed promise."

Another lucky stroke for ThinkFilm came in October, when the company received a healthy infusion of cash when it sold to David Bergstein and Ron Tudor's film financing and production company Capco Group for about $25 million. Having a cushion of extra money on hand made it a lot easier for Urman, who works closely with ThinkFilm CEO Jeff Sackman, to reach for the Oscar ring.

Suddenly, ThinkFilm had a different set of ambitions as it set about attracting filmmakers. "We needed to prove to the industry that we're real," Urman says. "A lot of actors make indie movies for prestige, not just money, to prove their chops. What better way to communicate our efficacy as a desirable home for these films than by landing an Oscar nomination for a low-budget movie about a crack addict?"

So he did what any smart company would do in this situation. He turned for counsel to 42West's Cynthia Swartz, who won her chops at Harvey Weinstein's knee and helped pushed "Crash" to last year's surprise best picture win. ThinkFilm followed a similar strategy. It sent out DVDs early, in October, to every branch in the Academy, 5,800 strong. Another 2,000 went to the SAG nominating committee. About 200 went to critics' groups, and 90 went to the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

Sure enough, the movie wound up on many critics' 10-best lists, and while "The Last King of Scotland's" Forest Whitaker kept winning best actor prizes, Gosling was often a first runner-up.

ThinkFilm also spent a lot of time on the Internet, especially on blogs like Oscarwatch.com, which were asking whether ThinkFilm would cough up the dough for a real Gosling Oscar run.

"Half Nelson" hummed along on the crest of its year-end plaudits. At the boxoffice, it grossed more than $2 million, playing best in major cities, but never widening to more than 85 screens.

Then came Urman's worst fear. No Golden Globe nomination for Gosling, even with slots divided between the Globes' comedy and drama best actor categories. "I took antacids for days," Urman says.

It didn't help that while other stars were campaigning vigorously, Gosling refused to do television interviews. Urman sent Gosling to the Gotham Awards, where the film was named best feature; to the National Board of Review, where the actor was hailed for his breakthrough performance; to the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, where he presented the best first film award to Fleck; and to the AFI Awards lunch in Los Angeles.

Gosling also agreed to do a SAG Q&A. And his eventual SAG nomination proved crucial because "it influenced the Oscars," Urman says. A return engagement in Los Angeles for "Half Nelson" gave the distributor an excuse to take out ads in the L.A. Times. The trade ad campaign — "never ostentatious," Urman says — stressed three images from the film, showing Gosling as beautiful, sad and isolated. "The campaign was not about a crack addict," Urman says, "or a failure of liberal ideals. It was all about an explosive brilliant young talent."

On Jan. 23, Oscar nominations morning, Gosling was on the best actor list. On the down side, ThinkFilm did not land nominations for Epps or the "Half Nelson" screenplay. Still, Urman was on cloud nine. "It was surreal," he says. "It was what we'd been working toward for so long. I couldn't allow myself to feel complacent. I became superstitious. When it happened, I realized what would have happened if it hadn't happened. All that money and my ass on the line."

One month later, just as interest is peaking in the Oscar race, the movie is coming out on DVD. That's real money in the bank. As for Gosling: He's now a member of the Oscar club. And on Feb. 24, chances are real good he'll win a Film Independent Spirit Award. "That's home," Urman says. "That will be a good a day for us."
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