Specialty effect

The independents are prepared to compete head-to-head against even the best studio fare.

If there is ever a method to the madness of the Oscar race, it's even more difficult to discern this year than usual. With the major studios failing to release almost anything that looks like a sure thing, the field is wide open for the specialty divisions and smaller independent distributors to again dominate the awards-season races. And while most insiders are concerned that so few contenders have been identified as likely nominees, Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg says he is enjoying the air of mystery surrounding the proceedings.

"People seem to think there are fewer front-runners now," says Ortenberg, whose company released 2005's "Crash," which took home the best picture gold. "But every year that the industry seems to think is a down year, those turn out to be the years where there's a plethora of choices. I love it when it's not obvious and when pictures come out of nowhere. It proves the adage that no one knows anything. And as far as I'm concerned, not enough people know that no one knows anything."

On that note, following is a look at the films the independent distributors are hoping the voters will get to know -- and love.

Focus Features

Focus Features had a strong presence at March's Oscar ceremony with Rachel Weisz's best supporting actress win for "The Constant Gardener," not to mention eight nominations and three wins for Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain." This year, the studio will be looking for a nom toward Ben Affleck for his role as George Reeves in "Hollywoodland," which earned the actor top honors at the Venice Film Festival. Co-stars Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins can expect supporting campaigns, while Allen Coulter will be pushed for director; Focus CEO James Schamus also is hoping for consideration for Paul Bernbaum's screenplay for the film.

Additionally, Schamus has high hopes for Phillip Noyce's drama "Catch a Fire," specifically the performances of Derek Luke and Tim Robbins. "We were very disappointed in the boxoffice, and often, that can have a negative effect on awards," Schamus says of the film, which was released in late October and had earned $4.2 million at press time. "But we love the movie, and we're not going to roll over."

Finally, Focus is pushing "The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends," a documentary about veterans of the Iraq War becoming leaders in the anti-war movement. "It's not a blockbuster, but we're really proud of it," Schamus says.

Fox Searchlight

"We have a very big slate," Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice says, "which is exciting -- and daunting." Indeed, the studio has what might turn out to be the film to beat for the best picture prize: its surprise smash "Little Miss Sunshine." "I think at the end of the year, it's the movie people will have loved more than anything else," Rice says.

"I think Alan Arkin will get best supporting actor, and I think Michael Arndt will win best original screenplay."

Rice also is thrilled by the performances from Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett in Richard Eyre's drama "Notes on a Scandal." "They're just career-defining performances," he says. "It's this biting, dark movie with two of the greatest actresses of their generation." Blanchett will be pushed for supporting actress, while Dench will be floated as a possible best actress. Additionally, Rice is hoping for recognition of Patrick Marber's adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel, Philip Glass' score and Chris Menges' cinematography.

In the best actor category, Forest Whitaker will be trumpeted for his performance as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," which Rice also hopes will earn a nomination for Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock's adaptation of Giles Foden's novel. Yet, one more adaptation Rice would like to see honored: director Jason Reitman's screenplay for "Thank You for Smoking." "That's a tough book to adapt," Rice says of Christopher Buckley's satire about the tobacco industry. "People have been trying to adapt it for 10 years, and Jason knocked it out of the park."

In the foreign-language category, Searchlight will campaign for the Canadian entry "Water," about widows in India. And finally, Rice will support Richard Griffiths for actor, Frances de la Tour as supporting actress and Samuel Barnett as supporting actor for their work in Nicholas Hytner's "The History Boys."

IFC Films

IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring is gunning for a best actress nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played a young mother released from prison in "Sherrybaby," and he also is hoping Matt Dillon will receive actor recognition for his performance as Charles Bukowski's fictional alter ego in "Factotum." "Matt thinks it's his best performance ever, but it's a tough category," Sehring says. IFC also is backing "Wordplay" for documentary, while foreign-film support is going to the official Danish entry "Efter Brylluppet" (After the Wedding) and the Argentine submission "Derecho de Familia" (Family Law). Lastly, Sehring hopes for recognition for the World War II drama "Indigenes" (Days of Glory), which IFC is co-distributing with the Weinstein Co.

Lionsgate

Coming off the success of "Crash," Ortenberg says, "It doesn't look as busy as it did for us last year." But the company does have a strong documentary contender in Amy Berg's "Deliver Us From Evil," about scandal in the Catholic Church. Ortenberg also hopes to garner attention for "Akeelah and the Bee," a drama about a girl who tries to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. "It's a most deserving picture," Ortenberg says. "But time will tell if we can get it seen widely enough in the industry and if the appreciation for the picture is truly there."

Miramax

"Last year, we had one horse to ride with 'Tsotsi,' and it came through as a winner," Miramax president Daniel Battsek says of the film he acquired just after arriving at the company. "Tsotsi," from South African director Gavin Hood, is a moving drama about a street criminal who finds redemption. "This year, there are two movies we feel very optimistic about, and that's 'The Queen' and 'Venus.'"

Indeed, Helen Mirren's performance as Queen Elizabeth II won top honors at the Venice Film Festival, and she is widely acknowledged as the one to beat for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' best actress statuette. "It's gone from people thinking it was a good movie with a great performance to a great movie with a great performance, so that's encouraging," Battsek says. Miramax also will campaign for actor Michael Sheen, who plays Prime Minister Tony Blair in the film, and for director Stephen Frears; Battsek says he is hoping for additional recognition in the editing and hair and makeup categories.

Expect across-the-board campaigns for Roger Michell's black comedy "Venus." "Peter O'Toole's performance is quite phenomenal, but it wouldn't be there without Michell's direction, Hanif Kureishi's screenplay and the performances of Richard Griffiths, Leslie Phillips and the wonderful newcomer Jodie Whittaker," Battsek says.

Paramount Vantage

The indie division has a new name and a new president in former Endeavor agent John Lesher, who is getting behind Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" in many categories. "Obviously, we want picture, director, screenplay for Guillermo Arriaga and nominations for a bunch of supporting actors, as well as below-the-line talent," he says of the drama, which features Brad Pitt, Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal. "But the most important thing is to get people to see the movie. My first job is to connect the film commercially."

Lesher also is optimistic about Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth" and Melissa Etheridge's title song from the film. "There's never been a best song nomination from a documentary," Lesher says. "So, that would be cool."

Picturehouse

Picturehouse president Bob Berney is betting on two projects when it comes to Oscar consideration this year. The first is Guillermo del Toro's fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth," which earned a rave reception at May's Festival de Cannes, where it screened In Competition -- and just about everywhere else it has played since. "The foreign-language category gives us a way in, but I also hope it will be considered in categories like screenplay, cinematography and director," Berney says. Berney also would like voters to recognize Meryl Streep's performance in and the late Robert Altman's direction of "A Prairie Home Companion." "I also think Garrison Keillor's screenplay has a chance, as well as Ed Lachman's cinematography," Berney says. "And the ensemble cast is great, with Lily Tomlin deserving consideration as best supporting actress."

Sony Pictures Classics

Last year, Tom Bernard and Michael Barker's specialty arm enjoyed enormous success with Bennett Miller's "Capote," which earned a best picture nomination and star Philip Seymour Hoffman the best actor prize. This time, the co-presidents are hoping for the same reception for Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," which features a dynamic, buzzworthy turn from Penelope Cruz. Barker says he not only would like to see Cruz nominated but to see Almodovar nominated for director and the film for picture. "Volver" likely will compete in the foreign-language category, too, as Spain's official submission.

SPC has a wealth of possible foreign-language contenders, including Zhang Yimou's "The Curse of the Golden Flower," starring Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat. "It's one of the most gorgeous-looking films ever made," Barker says. "The cinematographer (Zhao Xiaoding) was nominated for (2005's) 'House of Flying Daggers,' and I think it also has possibilities for actor, actress, costumes, set and director."

SPC also will support Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others." An international festival favorite, the German film will receive a one-week qualifying run, and Barker would like it to be considered not only for foreign film but also for screenplay. Barker has high expectations for Paul Verhoeven's Dutch film "Black Book," about a woman who survives the Holocaust.

ThinkFilm

Head of U.S. theatrical Mark Urman is pinning his hopes on the
drama "Half Nelson," which stars Ryan Gosling as a drug-addicted teacher in an inner-city school. Urman is angling for recognition for director and co-screenwriter Ryan Fleck. The studio also will push Gosling in the best actor category, Shareeka Epps for supporting actress and Anthony Mackie for supporting actor; Fleck and Anna Boden's screenplay will get a campaign as well.

There also is "Down in the Valley," with strong performances from Edward Norton and Evan Rachel Wood, and France's official selection "Avenue Montaigne." "It's a somewhat lighter film than some of the official foreign entries," Urman says. "But it has extraordinary craftsmanship and is a charming diversion for people who don't want to see yet another film about man's inhumanity against man."

Urman also is guardedly enthusiastic about Morgan Freeman's performance in the romantic comedy "10 Items or Less," but only because he's still waiting to gauge audience reactions. "He's the greatest actor we have working in America, so it's always a possibility," Urman says.

Warner Independent Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures' specialty arm might be under the leadership of Polly Cohen, a former production executive at big Warners, but the studio's slate still consists of films greenlighted by former president Mark Gill, who left the division in the summer. But no matter how successful the division might be, it will be difficult to replicate the success of last year -- when the boxoffice sensation "March of the Penguins" marched away with the feature-length documentary prize and George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" earned several high-profile nominations, including best picture. "Last year was one in a million," WIP vp marketing and publicity Laura Kim acknowledges.

This year, the studio will mount a campaign for "The Painted Veil," a co-production with Yari Film Group, and for the film's stars, Naomi Watts and Norton. "It's the kind of sweeping, epic romantic drama that people don't make anymore," Kim says. And while director Douglas McGrath's Truman Capote biopic "Infamous" failed to find an audience on the heels of last year's "Capote," "It's a film that deserves to be seen," says Kim, who cites strong performances by Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock and Daniel Craig.

The Weinstein Co.

They might have come up empty last year in their post-Miramax debut -- with the exception of Felicity Huffman's best actress nomination for 2005's "Transamerica" -- but there are no two men who can work Oscar voters quite like Bob and Harvey Weinstein. This year, the company is looking to score with "Bobby," Emilio Estevez's film -- which MGM is releasing -- about the day Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. "I think that's an all-category film," Weinstein Co. executive vp marketing Gary Faber says. Of the ensemble cast -- which includes Estevez, Harry Belafonte, Laurence Fishburne, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Hunt -- he says, "Every one of the actors has a shot." Faber also would like to see nominations for costume and set design, as well as for Bryan Adams' song "Never Gonna Lose My Faith," performed by Mary J. Blige and Aretha Franklin.

The company also has a contender in Anthony Minghella's "Breaking and Entering," which stars Jude Law, Juliette Binoche and Robin Wright Penn, and again is going out through MGM. "With Minghella writing and directing, you have to consider it for sure," Faber says. "We're getting behind the film, as well as behind Law for best actor, Binoche for best actress and Penn for supporting actress."

Speaking of actresses, Renee Zellweger's performance in "Miss Potter," Chris Noonan's biopic about author Beatrix Potter, will receive a campaign, as will Sienna Miller's in the Edie Sedgwick biopic "Factory Girl," which Faber hopes will be considered for George Hickenlooper's direction, Guy Pearce's co-starring turn as Andy Warhol and the accomplishments of the craft departments. MGM is set to release both films in late December.

In the documentary category, the Weinsteins will campaign for two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple's "Shut Up & Sing" -- which she co-directed with Cecilia Peck -- about the fallout after Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines made an anti-President Bush comment during a concert. The film also features an original song by the band. Faber, too, is hoping for a shot at best foreign-language film with the Algerian entry "Indigenes" (Days of Glory), which IFC is co-distributing, and noms in the animation, visual effects and sound categories for "Arthur and the Invisibles," which will receive a qualifying run in December through MGM.

Yari Film Group

Film financier-turned-indie mogul Bob Yari is campaigning for two of his projects. The first, "The Painted Veil," is being distributed by Warner Independent Pictures, but the second is a movie he chose to distribute himself when he couldn't find any other takers: "The Illusionist," featuring "Veil" star Norton as a magician, turned into a sleeper hit upon its late-August release. "I think that Edward and Paul Giamatti should get recognized for their performances," Yari says. "And I think we should also get attention for cinematographer, music and costume. We're probably out there on the fringes for best picture, but just like 'Crash,' there's always that one that can sneak in."
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