Midyear Awards Report: Fox Searchlight (Analysis)

It's still the summer but this indie specialist, famous for creating contenders out of fall festival pickups, is already grooming one in "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Beasts of the Southern Wild

NOTE: Throughout July and August, THR's lead awards analyst and blogger Scott Feinberg will analyze each studio's 2012 awards outlook. He will then post his first "Feinberg Forecast" of the season -- featuring ranked projections for every major Oscar category -- on Sunday, Aug. 12.

The studios that we have covered, thus far: (1) Warner Bros.

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2011 RECAP

20th Century Fox's indie unit has become a perennial, and savvy, awards season player. Last year, it fielded both Alexander Payne's family dramedy The Descendants and Terrence Malick's tone poem of a film, The Tree of Life, and between the two, it collected eight Academy Award nominations, including two best picture slots. It hit a wall only with the NC-17-rated Shame, although that movie's star, Michael Fassbender, did pick up awards elsewhere, including a best actor prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

2012 SO FAR

The company has scored an unexpected commercial triumph with its May 4 release of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (May 4), a charming film about a group of septuagenarian Westerners who retire to India. The $10 million movie, which was directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and features an impressive ensemble of respected vets (including longtime Academy favorites Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Maggie Smith), has grossed an astounding $125 million worldwide, primarily from the 50-and-over crowd.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


Searchlight is famous for making late-season festival acquisitions and turning them into major contenders -- the most famous example, of course, is Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which went on to win the best picture Oscar. With a number of filmmaker-driven films (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's Inside Llewyn Davies, Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, and István Szabó's The Door) currently available for distribution, it's possible that the studio could still pick up a title or two for its 2012 slate. 

But it already struck early this year, picking up two of the hottest titles at Sundance, and positioning both of them for awards runs: Beasts of the Southern Wild (which bowed on June 27 and is now expanding into wider release), is a $1.3 million film by 29-year-old first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin that won the Grand Jury Prize and Excellence in Cinematography Award and then in May was awarded the Camera d'Or for best first feature at Cannes. The Sessions (set for an October 26 release), is a $1 million film written and directed by 65-year-old Australian director Ben Lewin that had its world premiere under the title The Surrogate at Sundance, where it won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting.

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Beasts is a vibrant film about a young girl (played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, an 8-year-old who was 6 when the film was shot) and her father (newcomer Dwight Henry, a 49-year-old non-actor who runs a bakery in New Orleans) who live in "The Bathtub," a mystical part of America's Gulf Coast. Sessions is an inspired-by-real-events story of a middle-aged man (Oscar nominee John Hawkes, playing Mark O'Brien, the subject of a 1996 Oscar-winning short) who was stricken with polio as a child and, largely paralyzed and breathing with an iron lung, decides to hire a sex surrogate (Oscar winner Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. Oscar nominee William H. Macy plays O'Brien's priest.

Searchlight also has Ruby Sparks (July 25), the newest film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife directing team responsible for the company's breakout hit Little Miss Sunshine (2006). With a truly original screenplay by actress Zoe Kazan, the movie revolves around a frustrated novelist (Little Miss Sunshine's Paul Dano) who discovers that the female character, played by Kazan, whom he is writing actually exists in the real world, leading to their romantic entanglement. (Dano and Kazan are a couple in real-life as well.) The film was well-received at a sneak screening at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival. THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy wrote: "It's an intimate, tightly focused tale that's been handled with impressive rigor."

Finally, production has just wrapped on a major biopic commissioned by the studio -- Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, which is being adapted from Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and will feature Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as the master filmmaker -- but it remains to be seen if its post-production can be completed in time to qualify for this year's race.

Anthony Hopkins, left, and Alfred Hitchcock


Beasts strikes me as the strongest Oscar prospect to emerge so far this year. It's a very likely candidate to be this year's indie representative in the best picture race -- there's always room for one or two. (It reminds me of The Tree of Life, only with a more traditional plot structure and less CGI.) My hunch is that -- thanks to strong reviews, relatively robust summer box office, and Searchlight's unparalleled ability to stir up interest in a film and its backstory -- the film could sweep the indie awards (Gothams, Spirit Awards, etc.) and score the same four noms as the indie darling of two years ago, Winter's Bone (2010): best picture, best actress, best supporting actor, and best adapted screenplay. I, for one, think that young Wallis, a force to be reckoned with on screen and off, could even win, which would make her the youngest best actress Oscar nominee and winner in history.

The Sessions is more of an intimate, performance-driven film for which Hawkes is very well-positioned to score his first nom in the best actor category -- there's often one veteran character actor among the A-listers in that category. Hunt has a decent shot of scoring a nomination for the first time since she won the best actress Oscar 15 years ago for As Good As It Gets, only this time, she will be competing in the best supporting actress category. Macy could show up in the best supporting actor field. And Lewin's script, which was derived from an article penned by O'Brien himself in 1990, is also one to watch for in the best adapted screenplay race.

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Considering that the Academy is dominated by 50-and-overs who respond to sentimental material more than younger audiences, it's possible that Marigold could be nominated for best picture and/or for one of its standout performers. (I'm hearing that Dench will be pushed for lead and Wilkinson and Smith for supporting.) Coming out in the first half of the year, though, its actors risk being overshadowed by newer and flashier perfs by year's end. (Here's hoping that composer Thomas Newman finds a way to hang on: he's been nominated for 10 Oscars over the past 18 years, but has yet to win! Then again, his cousin/fellow composer Randy Newman had to wait 20 years, until his 16th nomination, before he finally won his first.)

It's still too early to know if Ruby Sparks will have traction once the race begins to take shape, but it could be in the bidding for a best original screenplay nom. And, like Searchlight's similarly original 2009 romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, it could be a contender at the Globes or Spirits.

"Ruby Sparks"Ruby Sparks