Telluride has been buzzing since last night’s first screening of Steve McQueen‘s excellent slavery drama, 12 Years A Slave. One site which shall remain nameless was so overcome that the writer already just about declared the Oscar race over and done. “Guess we don’t have to go to Toronto now,” said a publicist here with another contender. One blogger stopped me on the street today after I saw the film and asked, “So do you agree with us (bloggers) the actor race is done?” he said in referring to star Chewitel Ejiofor‘s towering and dignified performance as the slave Solomon Northup, who lived to tell his harrowing tale and write a book about it in 1853. As I said yesterday, hyperbole is a big part of any festival like this and intelligent moviegoers are so thirsty for Oscar-quality adult movie fare they might have a tendency to go overboard with praise. But it’s a disservice to a very fine but challenging film like 12 Years A Slave to build up such high expectations no movie could possibly live up to it.
As I exited the packed 650-seat Herzog Theatre, I ran into Fox Searchlight co-President Nancy Utley, who was there gauging reaction to her film, which they open in LA and NY on October 18 and then roll out slowly. She agreed it is a film that should be “discovered” but, obviously happy with the ecstatic reaction so far at its first two screenings, added that this film needs special handling. “It’s a movie that will depend on critical reaction and awards play to really tell people that despite tough subject matter it’s a film they must see,” she said.
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Even though Fox Searchlight co-presidents Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley have turned “challenging films” like Slumdog Millionaire, Black Swan, Crazy Heart, Once, Juno, and 127 Hours into awards-season successes, they are the lowest-profile indie moguls you will find. At a time when they are steering two Best Picture nominees — the Alexander Payne-directed The Descendants and the Terrence Malick-directed The Tree Of Life – they tell Deadline about the struggles, glory and disappointment that is part and parcel of the indie distributor’s mission of finding audiences for prestige films. When it works, it’s wondrous. Slumdog Millionaire, a $15 million film that was nearly relegated to a direct-to-video fate by Warner Bros, won eight Oscars including Best Picture, and grossed $141 million domestic and $378 million worldwide; Black Swan, a $13 million film that flatlined several times during the 10 years it took to get made, grossed $107 million domestic and $329 million worldwide and won Best Actress for Natalie Portman; Once, an obscure Irish film that cost $150,000 to make, won Best Song and grossed $9.4 million stateside and $20.7 million worldwide; Crazy Heart, a $9 million film about a drunk singer, won Best Actor for Jeff Bridges and grossed $39 million domestic and $47 million worldwide; the $7.5 million Juno won Best Screenplay for Diablo Cody, and grossed $143 million domestic and $231 million worldwide. Here, they lay out how it’s done and why voters should consider The Descendants and The Tree Of Life for Best Picture and other honors.
DEADLINE: Fox Searchlight has eight nominations, with two Best Picture candidates. Make a case why Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a worthy best picture winner.
UTLEY: The Descendants is a remarkably beautiful and accomplished film that is in the vein of Oscar movies from a little bit further back, like Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms Of Endearment, even On Golden Pond or To Kill A Mockingbird. It is in the sort of subtle character-based, humanistic, realistic story-telling tradition. Sometimes it’s a little frustrating because our movie isn’t flashy, it doesn’t have a lot of showy or bling kind of elements in it. It’s highly naturalistic. But I think those kind of movies are important to moviegoers because they reflect their lives and issues. This is a movie that is going to stand the test of time. People will be watching this movie in 10 years, 20 years, in 30 years. That’s an important part of what should be considered in Best Picture.
GILULA: It’s also a film that has really resonated all the way from the rarefied world of the film critics and journalists out to the mainstream: the public. The major studios are making almost none of those kinds of films anymore and it’s not easy for us either. But the fact is that the material is so good, and you have one of the very best directors and some of the best actors telling what on paper is a very simple story but achieves the highest level of the art. Read More »
EXCLUSIVE: After opening Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in the U.S., Fox Searchlight presidents Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula have acquired the U.K. rights to the film from Bill Pohlad’s River Road Entertainment, which financed the film. They’ve dated the film for July 8 opening in the U.K. The film, which stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, opened right after it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Its four screen average of $93,230 per theater beat Searchlight’s launch of Black Swan. The film has added eight markets and will add another 12 this week to a total of 22.
“We knew this was an amazing film from the moment we saw it,” Gilula and Utley said. Pohlad added: “Fox Searchlight has been an extraordinary partner distributing our film in the United States, so we’re thrilled to have them release The Tree of Life in the United Kingdom, allowing international audiences to experience Terry’s beautiful and affecting masterpiece.” Pohlad produced the film with Sarah Green, Pitt, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill.
I saw the film at its Cannes premiere, where I think I actually glimpsed Malick as he took in the cheers. Much like Pohlad said in an interview we did about the long road to bring that film to the screen, it is one of those movies where you can’t help but factor your own baggage from your upbringing and your experience of raising your own … Read More »
When I met with Fox Searchlight presidents Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley at the Cannes Film Festival, it seemed clear that they were not going to take part in one of the most aggressive acquisitions market that Cannes has seen in years. But not only did they walk away with the Palme d’Or prestige badge that will help Terrence Malick’s visionary The Tree of Life find its way when Searchlight releases it in theaters beginning Friday, they also greenlit the first film by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris since Little Miss Sunshine. The new film, He Loves Me, is a reunion. Besides being back in the Searchlight fold, they’ve set as star Paul Dano, whose career was launched by Sunshine. Dano will be paired alongside his girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, who wrote the script. The film also reunites Dayton and Faris with Sunshine producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. Jeff Bridges is being courted to play another role. After Little Miss Sunshine won two Oscars and was a Best Picture nominee, Dayton and Faris were courted like crazy by studios and became attached to a number of projects that didn’t pan. It has been five years since the release of that film, but they start production in July. Read More »
London-based Ingenious Media, the private equity fund which backed Twentieth Century Fox’s Avatar, has struck a deal with Fox Searchlight to make between 2 to 3 movies in the $10M-15M range. Ingenious could inject up to $14 million annually into the deal, providing 20%-30% equity per movie. Fox Searchlight will guarantee U.S. distribution, the Holy Grail for most UK indie producers. Both companies worked together most recently on 127 Hours, Never Let Me Go, and the forthcoming The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which Fox Searchlight will release in the Fall. Ingenious has backed more than 30 Fox movies but until now under a loose arrangement, financing between 5 and 10 of Fox Filmed Entertainment’s movies each year. Recent investments include Gulliver’s Travels, Unstoppable, The A-Team, and Percy Jackson.
James Clayton, CEO of Ingenious Investments, tells me he first approached Fox Searchlight presidents Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley and production president Claudia Lewis back in November about formalising their relationship. “The UK independent sector has been going through a very tough time I told them I think there’s something more ambitious we can do in the UK. Given our position, we get to see pretty much every UK project in development. And Fox Searchlight wanted to make a greater commitment to the UK business.” The new deal, notes Clayton, takes advantage of “Fox Searchlight’s great taste, superb marketing and the economics of global distribution [which] are much more interesting from a financing perspective than … Read More »
Fox Searchlight has acquired the Terrence Malick-directed The Tree of Life from Bill Pohlad’s River Road Entertainment. Though the film might be an awards season magnet with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn starring, the distributor is flush with those kinds of films already, and will release in 2011. At the Toronto International Film Festival, Searchlight will fete 127 Hours, Black Swan, Conviction and Never Let Me Go. Read More »