A balance of credits, debits


The back story of "Slumdog Millionaire" has drawn more attention from journalists than Tom Daschle has drawn from the IRS. But here's something you might not know: The movie almost became "Slumdog Poverty Stricken."

While the happy ending to the film — main character Jamal Malik gets the money and the girl — is by now well-established, it's hard to imagine that the producers and writer Simon Beaufoy were considering having the kid miss the final question. He'd get the girl but not the dough.

It was notes from Warner Independent, which bought into the project for about $5 million, that were among the factors that changed the filmmakers' minds.

Most casual awards-season observers might be only glancingly aware of WIP's involvement, let alone input; the names of former WIP president Polly Cohen and her staff haven't exactly rolled off the tongues of award recipients. But the now-defunct WIP did have a hand in the pic. Success has many fathers in Hollywood, but the Oscars this year are turning into a giant paternity suit because there are claims of varying legitimacy on a crowded group of films.

Take "Slumdog." Fox Searchlight savvily distributed it. Warner Bros. helped fund and develop it, as acknowledged by producer Christian Colson in his thank yous, though notably he has mentioned studio toppers instead of WIP execs. And across the pond, Film Four and Celador sat in the production driver's seat.

But all their cases also have holes. Searchlight had almost no input on the film and wouldn't have gotten the opportunity if a chance event — a director's cut screening — had not flopped with Warners execs. Warners wouldn't be here had Searchlight not stepped in and saved the film from the straight-to-DVD pile. And with all due respect to Film Four and Celador, it's hard to imagine all this gold coming their way without the backing of a U.S. conglomerate. It's an intra-studio question, too. Searchlight released the movie, but execs at big Fox have been making the rounds happy to view it as a Fox success.

Nor is complex lineage limited to Slumdog. Anyone basking in the 13 Oscar noms of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has to look to producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall and director David Fincher, who doggedly worked to get it made. But beyond that, things get knotty. The project, after all, went through a two-decade development process at Warners and Paramount. And the eventual Par-Warners co-production was enabled by tax rebates in post-Katrina Louisiana. Maybe city fathers should get a piece of the statuette?

"The Reader" also poses a vexing case. Besides the Weinstein Co., Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack were actively involved early on but passed away in the first half of '08. And hovering over the movie is Scott Rudin, who was on as a producer until postproduction — and is now off it entirely. Is this in any way a Rudin movie? It's complicated enough to make you want a DNA test.

With so many co-productions these days — and, let's face it, with studio execs more worried than ever about their jobs — it's understandable that the grab for credit has become more furious than ever.

The problem is that there is, in the end, a hierarchy. Credit on Oscar movies isn't an unending fountain but a finite pool; take water from one end and there's less everywhere else.

The final tally on credit will happen at the Kodak. If Colson or "Slumdog" director Danny Boyle wins, they might be tempted to make a series of shoutouts. But in a year when everyone is scrambling for credit, they might want to think hard and work out exactly who gets their props. A child, after all, should know who his parents are.