The October Surprise

40 BIZ RACE Margin Call Zachary Quinto H
Walter Thomson/Roadside Attractions

Financial thriller "Margin Call" rides the anti-Wall Street wave to become an out-of-nowhere contender.

The 84th Academy Awards are nearly four months away, but that hasn't stopped industrious handicappers from culling the herd, anointing early front-runners including The Descendants, The Artist and Midnight in Paris while reserving place holders for such big-ticket contenders as War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that have not yet screened. Not so fast, though: Turns out there's still room for a surprise or two.

Enter Margin Call. In terms of its awards potential, the movie, made for just $3.5 million, hadn't been on the radar. But that all changed once Roadside Attractions released it Oct. 21 -- in theaters and as a VOD offering on cable, Amazon and iTunes.

Written and directed by first-timer J.C. Chandor, the son of a stockbroker, the film serves up a rigorous and bracing look at a major investment bank on the brink of collapse. Zachary Quinto, who helped develop and produce Margin Call, plays an analyst, who at first stares at his computer screen with the look of a disbelieving Titanic crewmember after spotting the iceberg. As his discovery -- that the firm could go under if it doesn't quickly sell off its toxic mortgage securities -- works its way up the chain of command, the movie introduces Paul Bettany as a cynical supervisor, Kevin Spacey as a conflicted manager, Demi Moore as a tense risk management exec, and, helicoptering in like a deus-ex-master-of-the-universe, company chief Jeremy Irons, who delivers juicy pronouncements like "The music is about to stop and we are holding the greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism."

Top critics rushed to offer praise. "Margin Call is one of the strongest American films of the year and easily the best Wall Street movie ever made," David Denby of The New Yorker declared. On the eve of its release, the movie was nominated for a Gotham Award for best ensemble. It could now make a legitimate bid for the Screen Actors Guild's ensemble prize, should be a major player at the Spirit Awards, and Oscar-wise, might well figure in the original screenplay and supporting actor contests, since, as New York magazine's David Edelstein wrote, "Spacey gives a major performance, his best in many years."

The irony is that Margin Call has been hiding in plain sight all along. In January, at its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it received mixed reviews, but Lionsgate/Roadside quickly scooped it up for about $1 million. "It wasn't seen as a prestige release, but we really liked it," says Roadside co-president Howard Cohen. The first omen that others might agree came when the film was selected to open New York's New Directors/New Films in March, drawing an enthusiastic assessment from the New York Times' A.O. Scott. "And that's when everyone suddenly woke up and said, 'This is a major film,' " Cohen adds.

Roadside continued to play its cards close to the vest. Since it was planning a simultaneous VOD and theatrical release, which would have disqualified the movie for Oscar consideration because eligible films must first appear in theaters, the distributor quietly booked a qualifying run in the San Fernando Valley community of West Hills earlier this fall.

Although no one could have predicted it, the zeitgeist then conspired to give Margin Call extra currency. With the Occupy Wall Street protests, which began in mid-September, targeting the banks behind the 2008 fiscal crisis, the film acquired real topicality. Additionally, while promoting the movie, Quinto seized the moment to come out publicly as gay with a simple, eloquent statement that he had been moved by the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a victim of bullying, to live his own life more openly. That only served to underscore his growing seriousness and stature within the industry.

Roadside didn't have an awards strategy in place for the film, but the company is now drawing up plans, deciding on such things as budgeting and bringing in a consultant. "We weren't using an awards strategy to help the movie do business, but now that we've seen the reception, we want to maximize its awards potential," says Cohen. In other words, don't sell Margin Call's awards stock short.

UNEXPECTED ENTRIES CAN SHAKE UP OSCAR: Each year, a few films fly under the radar only to emerge to challenge the conventional wisdom

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006): When Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers faltered, Warners shifted his companion film to December.It grabbed four nominations.

The Blind Side (2009): Most pundits dismissed the movie's Oscar chances, leaving it off early lists. The November release scored a win for Sandra Bullock.

Crazy Heart (2009): Fox Searchlight dropped the country-themed movie into the 2009 race at the last minute, and it brought Jeff Bridges a best actor statuette.