OFF THE CARPET: Underdog season

Posted by · 10:50 am · September 28th, 2009

Hal Holbrook in That Evening SunIt suddenly occurred to me when I got a screening invite last week to “That Evening Sun,” a potential awards prospect for lead actor Hal Holbrook, that the film actually had a distributor: Freestyle Releasing.

Freestyle is a boutique company that doesn’t have a lot on deck, but it reminded me of how spread out this year’s product seems to be across the spectrum of Hollywood distribution, and one more indication of 2009 as perhaps the year of the underdog.

It’s a generalization, sure, but when heading into the season the frontrunners of the race are a modest character-driven dramedy and an impassioned work of indie art, I think it’s safe to say the trains that could are drawing a line in the sand.

I recognize the former is a studio-funded piece with one of the industry’s biggest stars in a leading role, but it fits because, like the director’s last film, it was a discovery even to the studio, one that can suddenly be groomed for awards.

This idea of eschewing the titans of an awards season could be stretching into the business of things as companies like Overture Films, Summit Entertainment, Apparition, Paladin, Monterey Media, Freestyle, etc. are beginning to claim significant portions of the consideration pie…at least in this calm before the storm.

Others have been here for years, of course.  IFC Films always makes its play.  Magnolia Pictures tends to be in the conversation.  Oscilloscope came pretty close with a great coming out last year (and will no doubt be in the thick of it again).

The dependents that haven’t been swallowed by their parent companies have made their hay in the awards season, from Focus to Sony Classics to Searchlight, but I remain very enthusiastic, and perhaps overly optimistic, that in an economy such as this, the competitive market has opened up a number of options.

The bottom line here remains the almighty dollar: If these companies can’t monetize and establish significant profit margins, half of them could be gone in two or three years’ time.  But for now at least, everyone seems to have a chip and a seat, to steal a poker phrase.

Abbie Cornish in Bright StarThis feeling is obviously amplified by the Academy’s (and PGA’s) move to 10 nominees, a decision to which I was vocally averse.  While I still maintain the new paradigm cheapens the meaning of an Oscar nomination, I will say that the timing couldn’t have been better for a company like, say, Apparition, which has a very real shot at a Best Picture nomination for “Bright Star” or, should it be released, “The Tree of Life.”

And the obvious poster child for this is Summit’s “The Hurt Locker” (though one can’t help but wonder whether an awards campaign there would be on steady ground without the box office of the “Twilight” films).

The studios, of course, will be in the hunt as usual.  And though budgets are restrained, they will still have deeper wells than these other companies, but the balance of the 10 might actually be a nice antidote to their dominance if only because the indie sector (which is being declared dead, perhaps rightly, from a business standpoint) is still very much alive in the awards frame.

The prestige of awards has been a source of legitimacy (and ultimately income) for independent filmmaking that has kept the machine going in lieu of pulling the plug.  But that paradigm, too, is being questioned more and more.

It goes without saying: There’s lots still to come.  The Weinstein Company (hardly dominant) has a classic Oscar push on the way in “Nine” (though, conversely, “A Single Man” is also in the stable).  Warner Bros. and the late-year Clint Eastwood show is on the way.  And the 10 could, as mentioned numerous times, find itself busied with glossy studio product across the board, eradicating everything mentioned in this column.

Anthony Mackie in The Hurt LockerRegardless of that, I nevertheless can’t recall another year where there were so many companies in the fray.  A quick glance at our studio-sorted Contenders section reveals 31 players.  That’s a big number, and sure, many of them will fall by the wayside.  But it wasn’t long ago that the awards discussion wouldn’t last beyond Universal, Miramax, Dreamworks, Focus and Warner Bros.

Lionsgate’s win in 2005 was somewhat significant in that it proved an alternative to that lineage was possible in the winner’s circle.  Fox Searchlight’s victory (finally) last year was significant, too, because it was the first non-Miramax dependent victory (though Focus came very close in 2005).

Perhaps eras are ending and new ones are dawning.  Perhaps things are merely in flux and the ship will be righted (i.e., back to studio dominance) in no time.  But in the glow of an underdog season (and the shadow of a troubling economy), it’s difficult not to root for an upset to the status quo.

Just ask any Lions fan.

Predictions have been updated in the sidebar.  Check out the Contenders section for the latest movement.

*CORRECTION APPENDED: This column stated earlier that Dogwood Entertainment was the distributor of “That Evening Sun,” but it is actually Freestyle Releasing.  Dogwood is the production company.

→ 28 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Off the Carpet

28 responses so far

  • 1 9-28-2009 at 11:25 am

    j said...

    Capitalism jumped by Bones, probs thanks to just-okay reviews, ahead of Apparition.

    Interesting Baldwin jump – putting both of Streep’s men this year in T5 of same category. He did just win another Emmy…

    500 back, ew. I hope Ponyo>Meatballs though latter has American, based-on-beloved-book, and box office advantages.

  • 2 9-28-2009 at 11:33 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    o ok kris, so what your saying is where the wild things are will win best picture, right? hehe

  • 3 9-28-2009 at 11:43 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    kris are you at all suprised at a serious man’s tomato score so far?

  • 4 9-28-2009 at 11:45 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Word to (500) in Original Screenplay. As for Adapted, I wonder if Tom Ford (and co-writer, natch) could take Nine’s spot, since musicals aren’t often favored by screenwriters (Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd..both just snubs, imo) and Nine is no Chicago. But it’ll depend.

    Baldwin is an interesting prediction, if the Emmy love could translate. Idk though, It’s Complicated, to me, screams of the annual just-okay Christmas chick flick, a la Marley & Me, as opposed to another Something’s Gotta Give. But perhaps, perhaps….

    Love the article though, and thanks for bringing Holbrook to our attention. I love the cast of That Evening Sun: McKinnon, Goggins, Carrie Preston from True Blood, Barlow Jacobs from Shotgun Stories. Awesome all around.

  • 5 9-28-2009 at 11:47 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Edit: Well, that figures! Just as I click submit, I notice that you did, in fact, switch-out Nine for A Single Man. Nice. I’m digging this.

  • 6 9-28-2009 at 11:49 am

    Loyal said...

    The year of the underdog is quite the stretch. But you also seem to think so yourself, spending 3 paragraphs explaining it.

    I think the year of the women is a more fitting title.

    In what universe is a film executive produced (in name only) by one of the most powerful person on the planet considered an underdog?

    Or another film that’s a follow up to one that made nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide and stars one of the biggest actors in Hollywood? Everything about Up in the Air has been carefully calculated by Paramount, of course they made it with Oscar in mind.

  • 7 9-28-2009 at 11:50 am

    Silencio said...

    Thinking about all these indie companies, my first thought was “man, think how much they could do if they consolidated their resources…” but then realized that would defeat the purpose of their existence, heh.

    I like underdogs, yeah, but I prefer the ones with staying power. We’ll see who sticks around.

  • 8 9-28-2009 at 11:54 am

    The Other James D. said...

    I think this year is looking particularly awesome as far as the Director category is concerned. It may be premature, but we could either have our first woman Best Director or our first black Best Director. Either way, it’s about time.

  • 9 9-28-2009 at 11:56 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Random: Forgot Dixie Carter when cheering for TES’s cast.

  • 10 9-28-2009 at 11:57 am

    red_wine said...

    I find Anne Thompson’s harbinger of doom stance very convincing. The good films or the arty films as the general audiences calls them, the audience is simply unwilling to pay to see them. Bright Star, Hurt Locker inspite of great reception will fare with miserable box-office numbers.

    Seriously whats the use of making these films if there is not really an audience for them. The Oscars should really step up to the plate now and have an Independent Spirit kinda slate if they are to save the bold/alternative type of film-making away from the mold of big studios. Awards seem to be the only gratification these films can have which in turn can slightly augment monetary returns.

  • 11 9-28-2009 at 12:13 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    THL, miserable? I’m not sure about the specifics, but I think it did well. It was an indie budget and it banked +$12 million on limited-to-expanded releases. For the indie features, that’s laudable.

  • 12 9-28-2009 at 12:25 pm

    Daniel Crooke said...

    I trust your predicting skills, Kris, but I wonder why you include Inglourious Basterds in contention for so many categories, including Best Picture, and yet you don’t include Tarantino even in your “Other Possibilities” category for Best Director. I know you weren’t in love with the film, but does Tarantino really have less of a shot at a nomination than Michael Mann for Public Enemies? Or Lars von Trier for Antichrist? Grant Heslov for The Men Who Stare at Goats? I’m just a bit confused. Would you mind clearing this up?

  • 13 9-28-2009 at 1:53 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Bright Star” NEEDS to be nominated. There’s a real woman directed film that actually deserves it. And cinematography is unbeatable. A photographer’s dream.

  • 14 9-28-2009 at 2:13 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Loyal: it’s meant more from the distrib stanpoint, as outlined clearly throughout the piece. But it’s not such a stretch on the films either. Your point about Oprah makes my point, though. She became involved late in the game. The fact that a small, unique film like Precious can attract her attention and become one of the stories of the season, in THAT universe, yeah, proves my point.

  • 15 9-28-2009 at 2:14 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Also, you’re clearly ignorant of the realities of Up in the Air.

  • 16 9-28-2009 at 2:24 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Daniel: That’s actually a mistake. He should be in the mix there. I’ll amend.

  • 17 9-28-2009 at 3:28 pm

    head_wizard said...

    Already mentioned but why would Cloudy with Chance get it over Ponyo?

  • 18 9-28-2009 at 5:14 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Just playing around with things. Next week it’ll probably be Princess and the Frog. The third spot is very much up for grabs.

  • 19 9-28-2009 at 7:59 pm

    Loyal said...

    Is Paramount no longer distributing Up in the Air Kris? That’s huge news.

    I’m still having a hard time understanding how a film distributed by Paramount starring George Clooney that’s written and directed by Jason Reitman, Oscar nominee, who’s previous film (also an Oscar nominee) made nearly $250 Million worldwide, is now an underdog. Quite strange.

    The fact that Oprah and Tyler Perry are executive producing Precious, that she’s dedicating a week of programming on it, means, wait for it, that’s it’s no longer the little engine that could Kris.

    Underdog – noun

    One that is expected to lose a contest or struggle, as in sports or politics.

    One that is at a disadvantage.

    How exactly are either of those two films underdogs again?

  • 20 9-28-2009 at 8:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


    There is nothing traditionally Oscar bait about these films when considering merely the films themselves. Which is…my point.

  • 21 9-28-2009 at 9:38 pm

    j said...

    Plus, from the February before Slumdog won, it was underdog. When the Oscars came, it had won everything in sight. If an underdog wins, that doesn’t negate the fact that it was an underdog.

    Up in the Air & Precious are traditional underdogs. Back in February, did people think they’d lead the pack? No. That’d be Nine and Invictus, with much, much greater pedigree in cast and crew as well as baity subject matter.

  • 22 9-28-2009 at 11:04 pm

    John said...

    Good post. I suspect you’re right about the distributors.

    Funny how That Evening Sun is suddenly on everyone’s radar out of nowhere. Awards Daily ran a huge rave for the film Sunday too. Guess it’s because everyone’s getting those press screening invites.

  • 23 9-29-2009 at 1:01 am

    Glenn said...

    James D, Lee Daniels is also openly gay. So while I don’t think that’s a first, for the first black director to win to also be gay is quite something. It would probably also be a reason for Oscar naysayers to boohoo it. “they didn’t give him the award because he made a great movie, but because he’s two minorities in one!” etc. :/

  • 24 9-29-2009 at 2:35 am

    j said...

    Winning musicals My Fair Lady & Gigi had gay (or arguably bi, I suppose) directors.

    I looked it up, and only one director has ever directed 3 Best Pictures; he happens to also have the most Best Director noms ever (by a margin of 4) with 12 – William Wyler. Which makes me kind of doubt that Invictus with four-Director-nom’d Eastwood will win. He himself has a better chance; 3 directors have won Best Director thrice, two of them having only 5 or 6 Director noms altogether.

    Also, Scorsese is one nom away from directing the 3rd-most acting Oscar nominations ever (the most is again Wyler)…which for the next race bodes well for Leo & Michelle, among others.

  • 25 9-29-2009 at 4:45 am

    Loyal said...

    Unlikely it was your original point Kris since you didn’t use the word Oscar bait in the article. Is it the underdog season or is it the season of nontraditional Oscar Bait?

    I think things are becoming confused because underdogs can be Oscar bait, have been Oscar bait in the past. There’s nothing revolutionary in the course of the two films in question.

    And J, bringing Slumdog into the conversation as an example is about 2 months premature. Up in the Air and Precious are only “leading the pack” hypotheticallyspeaking. The rest of the pack remains mostly unseen.

    In definitely agree about Summit and Apparition, well done there Kris, but two films don’t make a movement. Or title of a article.

    Regardless, fun lively discussion as always :)

  • 26 9-29-2009 at 8:23 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Again, the two films weren’t the focus of the piece. Therefore not an indication of the trend, just an interesting peripheral aspect of the idea being put forward.

    It’s not really that arguable unless you just want to be argumentative over semantics, but whatever. I guess crab fishermen are scoffing at this silliness, too…

  • 27 9-29-2009 at 12:17 pm

    Loyal said...

    Always with the crab fishermen Kris.

  • 28 10-02-2009 at 9:24 pm

    James D. said...

    Having just seen Bright Star, I am sad to see it removed from your list. It had it’s dull moments, but it would be a deserving nominee.