X-factors made it a walk in the park for 'Slumdog'

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"I'd like to thank the Academy, my producing partner Frank Marshall and fellow best picture nominees like 'The Dark Knight.' And I'd like to give a shout-out to all the other winners tonight, including newcomer Michael Shannon."

OK, so Kathleen Kennedy probably won't be standing up to accept the best picture Oscar on Sunday for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." (Vegas oddsmakers currently have it at 7:2; that seems generous). Shannon isn't likely to nab the supporting actor trophy over Heath Ledger. And whichever movie wins best picture, it won't be beating out "Dark Knight."

But this alternative-universe Oscars shouldn't be hard to imagine. In fact, it easily could have come to pass.

Welcome to the butterfly-effect Oscars. A series of seemingly unrelated events has combined to drastically affect the race. Among them: an unlikely decision by a tenacious New York producer to give up a scheduling fight, a tragic death in a Manhattan hotel room and, finally, declining revenue from nonfilm divisions at Time Warner.

The first — the move by Scott Rudin to walk away from "The Reader" — resulted in Harvey Weinstein releasing the film by year's end, which in turn snuck in and grabbed a slot that probably would have gone to "Dark Knight." Rudin, who was grappling with questions over how to support a second Kate Winslet movie, probably wasn't thinking much of the fanboys clamoring for their Batman choice. But he affected their lives just the same.

Ledger, meanwhile, turned in a strong performance and would have in any case been among the final five. But he arguably wouldn't have quite the same groundswell of support if he were still alive. Jack Nicholson, as the Joker in 1989's "Batman" — a performance that earned many of the same raves — didn't even earn a nom.

And the last monkey wrench thrown into the proceedings — declining revenue at Time Warner's indie units — had an impact on Oscar fortunes as well. TW chairman Jeffrey Bewkes decided to shutter original "Slumdog" studio Warner Independent. It's no guarantee that the indie outfit would have had a different result with the movie, but Fox Searchlight's uncanny ability to earn money and statuettes for its movies (think "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine") makes it a pretty good bet.

We could go back even further. A year ago few in the U.S. business, outside one Paul Federbush, even knew the Danny Boyle-directed pic was being made. (Federbush was the WIP exec on "Slumdog," the American most responsible for the movie who, in a further surreal twist, currently doesn't have a job.) And yet each of these factors played a critical role in the 2008 race.

That's especially true for "Slumdog," which is as sui generis as awards movies get. Comparisons to other shoo-in front-runners prove futile. Go to Wikipedia and see the list for yourself.

Modestly budgeted films that simply won over voters with their charm? "Chariots of Fire" comes to mind. But that movie had a serious tone and a twee setting, a Masterpiece Theatre "Rocky." "Slumdog" doesn't.

An intimate, character-driven story? "Driving Miss Daisy" did that. But that picture dealt with themes of race in America and featured names everyone knew. Plus "Slumdog," with its sweep across the Indian landscape and history, isn't really that intimate.

Another movie in an unlikely genre? "The Silence of the Lambs" is the obvious example. But scene-stealing moments from a prestige actor like Anthony Hopkins — not to mention the blockbuster grosses and marketing muscle that propels a candidate — were hallmarks of that pic. "Slumdog" opened in 10 theaters.

It might be, as one awards consultant said, "There is simply no precedent for 'Slumdog.' "

So, will the movie set a precedent?

Already development execs are telling agents they want to find "the next 'Slumdog' " with an earnestness that's poignant but off the mark. It's nice that movies with foreign settings and languages, an energetic vision and a nonpro cast had captured Hollywood's attention. But the next phenom of this order will look nothing like "Slumdog."

But even if "Slumdog" has no easy imitators, it has wrought a few changes on the awards system.

Small rollouts and festival word-of-mouth are now just as important, if not more so, than big marketing budgets, at least early in an awards campaign. Creatively, how a movie makes voters feel — and "Slumdog" no doubt made a lot of them feel good — is now at least as critical as whether a movie seems "important" or "like an Oscar picture."

And maybe most telling, given the production and marketing history of "Slumdog": The best way to win trophies is not to try too hard to win them. Now that's an alternative awards season.
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