Oscar Special: 'Slumdog' still Hollywood's sweetheart
There is no slowing the "Slumdog Millionaire" tsunami. Just days after Barack Obama, a self-described "mutt" because of his mixed racial heritage, took office as our new president, the motion picture academy honored its own cinematic mutt, "Slumdog Millionaire," giving the film 10 Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. Ever since academy voters settled down over the holidays to sample their screeners, "Slumdog" has emerged as the odds-on favorite to win best picture.
The reason is simple. Academy members murmur expressions of respect for the other best picture nominees, but they rave about "Slumdog." It's the one movie they unabashedly love. The film follows the improbable exploits of the ultimate underdog, an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who competes to win riches on India's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But the movie's odds of success a year ago were no better than Obama's chances when he started his campaign for president. Independently financed with money from England and France, filmed in India by director Danny Boyle with a cast of unknowns, the movie almost never made it to theaters. It was acquired for distribution here by Warner Independent Pictures, the Warner Bros. specialty division that was folded by its parent company before the movie was ready for release.
Instead of being overjoyed at having a brilliant film in its cupboard, Warners decided that it didn't have room for "Slumdog" on its crowded release schedule--and, having shuttered all its specialty divisions, wasn't sure if it could successfully market the film. So Warners put the film up for adoption, with Fox Searchlight (who had initially passed on acquiring it) stepping in to pick up the U.S. distribution rights. Once "Slumdog" played on the festival circuit last fall, a star was born, with critics and moviegoers swooning over the film's cinematic verve and soulful fairy-tale storyline.
Having watched the phenomenon, I'm still unsure of whether to look at the glass as being half empty or half full. It's reassuring, especially coming against the backdrop of Obama's own soulful fairy-tale ascendancy to the presidency, to see a great film find an audience the way Obama captured the imagination of the American people. But it's also a depressing commentary on today's film business that one of Hollywood's biggest movie studios took a look at what many people--myself included--believe to be the year's best film and decided to give it up. (Warners retains a half-ownership in the film, but if Searchlight hadn't stepped in to acquire it, Warners was prepared to send "Slumdog" straight to video.)
I know that on Oscar nomination day I'm supposed to be obsessed with all the snubs and surprises--it is quite a shock to see "The Reader" earning a best picture nod, considering the film's lukewarm reviews. (Apparently I was wrong in my assumption that the academy had lost its unquenchable thirst for Holocaust-based morality tales.) But for me, the bigger story is how the Oscars have slowly but steadily veered off into a different galaxy from the one inhabited by the movie business during the rest of the year. It's as if the Oscars are from Mars, the Hollywood movie studios from Venus.
After all, the irony of all ironies is that after giving "Slumdog" the bum's rush, Warner Bros. spent millions running a best picture campaign for "The Dark Knight," the highest-grossing film of 2008, which still ended up being largely ignored by Oscar voters, who failed to give it a best picture, best director or even a best original screenplay nomination. I have no illusions about my abilities as a potential studio chief--it is a demanding job that requires an incredible set of business skills--but it's still hard to imagine a studio, no matter how crowded its schedule was, not moving heaven and earth to find room to release a great film. I mean, if you're not in the business of embracing pictures like "Slumdog Millionaire," exactly what kind of business are you in anyway?
Why are the studios abandoning the Oscar business? Keep reading:
The sad truth is that most studios today don't have the patience, the artistic desire or the skilled manpower to release a film like "Slumdog." My guess is that Warners, having unloaded all of its specialty divisions, both Picturehouse and WIP, eyed its little gem (made for a paltry $14 million) and said--even if we put in months of painstaking work, it's at best a double (industry parlance for a modest hit). Like most studios today, Warners is an assembly line, built to swing for the fences, eager to make mega-hits like "The Dark Knight" or "Harry Potter," which not only make far more money but feed the studio's valuable ancillary markets.
Warners is not alone. 20th Century Fox has little in the way of artistic ambitions, preferring to hire no-name directors, leaving the Oscar game to its Searchlight subsidiary. The same goes for Disney, which is happy to let Pixar take home a best animated film statuette and let its tiny Miramax subsidiary, which spends a fraction of the money it did when Harvey Weinstein was at the helm, play in the awards sandbox. Even Sony, which used to avidly pursue awards, has largely given up, preferring to pursue more commercial goals. "I've made movies that I tried to win Oscars with and it doesn't work," Sony studio chief Amy Pascal told me recently. "When you try too hard, he's a pretty elusive little guy."
Of this year's best picture nominees, only two were made at major studios: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," co-financed by Paramount and Warners, with Paramount distributing, and "Frost/Nixon," which is distributed by Universal Pictures. "Slumdog," along with "Milk" and "The Reader," were financed outside the studio system or by specialty companies. More importantly, if you look at the recent best picture winners, they are invariably made by fiercely independent filmmakers who rarely take their cues from the studio system.
The Coen brothers, who directed last year's winner, "No Country for Old Men," are so leery of Hollywood that producer Scott Rudin had to cajole them into even coming to town for a few glad-handing events. The same goes for Martin Scorsese, a lifelong New Yorker who directed "The Departed," the winner in 2007. Paul Haggis, who directed "Crash," the 2006 winner, lives here, but as a director operates just as far away from the studio system as Scorsese or the Coens. Clint Eastwood, who won in 2005 with "Million Dollar Baby," is the ultimate outsider, making his movies with the same crew in the same quiet fashion, brooking little interference from any studio suit.
This year's crop of best picture nominated filmmakers is just as independent, "Frost/Nixon's" Ron Howard being the only one old-pro studio hand in the bunch. "Benjamin Button's" David Fincher makes studio films, but just ask any executive who's tried to persuade the filmmaker to change a frame of film--or cut 15 minutes out of his epic-length films. Fincher is the boss. You could say the same about "The Reader's" Stephen Daldry or "Milk's" Gus Van Sant, who have happily operated outside the studio system for most of their careers.
Great movies are not made by committee. They are made by strong-willed filmmakers attracted to unconventional stories. But even more importantly, as you can see in virtually every frame of "Slumdog Millionaire," they are the product of risk-taking, of the willingness to experiment and the courage to leap into the unknown. The same law applies in politics as in art. In the midst of today's Obama-mania, people tend to forget what a long shot his presidential gamble was, easily as much of a long shot as the gamble Danny Boyle and his backers took heading off to India to make a movie in the tumultuous, crowded streets of Mumbai. It's a gamble few of today's bottom-line movie studios are willing to take, but as today's Oscar nominations have made very clear, with the risks come the rewards.