How best to slay this beast?


"Are you also finding it really hard coming up with new 'Slumdog' ledes?" a fellow journalist asked me Sunday night after the film scored its 872nd major award of the season.

Indeed, the "little movie that could" is fast becoming the story intro that can't. There are only so many plays on the "Slumdog Barks Again" or "Slumdog's Got Bite" theme that one can write -- and when in doubt, just, er, turn the difficulty of the lede into a lede itself.

Of course the real question, as the movie powers through awards season, is whether the Fox Searchlight release will capture the big prize.

It's not unheard of for a film to win the PGA's best motion picture statuette and the SAG's cast award but not the best picture Oscar -- it happened to "Little Miss Sunshine" during the 2007 season and to "Apollo 13" in 1996 -- but it won't be an easy train to stop. Producers and actors collectively comprise at least 30% of the Academy, and while there are many in both guilds who are not Academy members, their awards are pretty good indicators of how those camps will vote.

Four other studios, though, want to turn Feb. 22 into something other than a coronation. What will they need to do to pull it off?

With Prop. 8 still in the news, "Milk" has the topicality to grab votes, and Sean Penn's SAG victory suggests the movie is capturing the attention of actors. Focus Features will need to emphasize both.

At parent studio Universal, "Frost/Nixon" has the gravitas to sneak in some votes, and director Ron Howard has the ability to corral votes of his own.

"The Reader" is a film with a classic feel that establishment voters like. Stephen Daldry is favored by the Academy: He has directed three films and been nominated each time. And the death of two of the movie's beloved producers, a point the Weinstein Co. campaign no doubt will continue to make, might land it higher on some ballots.

But "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is seen as the movie with the best chance to kennel "Slumdog," and for good reason.

The David Fincher pic has the sweeping scope of past winners, and it has technical awards that could attract below-the-line-minded Academy members. In a field of indies, it's also the big-budget studio antidote: the long-gestating movie with a $150 million-plus budget, a big movie star and more than $100 million in domestic boxoffice.

That's the obvious pitch.

The quiet one is that producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall -- practically Hollywood royalty, with one or both producing moneymaking fare ($200 million grossers "War of the Worlds" and "The Sixth Sense") and prestige pictures like "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- made "Button" their passion project. The pair carry a lot of currency with, and have made a lot of money for, people in Hollywood, and the fact they've never won despite being nominated for a collective seven pictures is going to carry weight. If Paramount executes this strategy, the vote might be closer than you think.

For any of these movies to stand a real chance, something has to probably happen to 'Slumdog.' It's not inconceivable that it will; in Oscar history, a backlash has happened the way some people go broke: gradually at first, then all at once. But many things stand in the way of that. First you have Danny Boyle, with reps getting the word out that the director of groundbreaking fare like "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting" finally should get his due with the Academy.

Then you have its corporate backstory -- caught in the wreckage of Warner Independent, picked up by Searchlight. In a year when specialty divisions took a beating, what better vindication than to recognize a movie that nearly became one of that world's casualties.

Finally, there's the underdog factor. Backstage at the SAG Awards, Anil Kapoor said that it was hard to believe he was there. "When I was growing up, we couldn't even get a VHS film, and today we're doing a film that's such a global success," the actor said.

With those types of comments, a vote against "Slumdog" might be like a vote against, well, puppies.