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The Winner: Offbeat Films the Studios Won't Touch

Movies: 'The Postman' and 'Babe' ride a trend away from traditional films. One was helped by massive publicity, the other by loving fans.


First there were three. Now there are two. Will one of them still be around on March 25?

When the pre-Oscar handicapping got into gear earlier this year, a trio of unlikely films emerged as long-shot candidates for best picture nominations. Two of them, "The Postman (Il Postino)" and "Babe," mocked the odds and won the academy's favor, while "Leaving Las Vegas" was less successful. Why did it fail while the others succeeded, and what does the overall success of all three (16 nominations all told) mean about the Oscars and the film community they nominally represent?

The last question is easier to answer, because it becomes more apparent year after year that academy voters are not any more pleased with the bread-and-butter products of the industry than most critics. Yes, traditional middle-of-the-road epics like "Braveheart" and "Apollo 13" still get all the nominations they can handle, but once they're gone, most of the votes go to the kinds of offbeat pictures that studios either refuse to finance or don't consider the core of their mandate.

The result is a situation in which companies like Miramax (11 nominations for five films) and Gramercy (six nominations for two films) do better than 20th Century Fox and TriStar, neither of whom managed any nominations at all. In effect, Oscar voters are going for the films the studios no longer know how to make, which explains the big fuss over the Australian-made "Shine" at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

Given that trend, why did some films benefit while others did not? No single answer covers them all, but each film's path shows the varying factors that can influence the nomination output.

The success of "The Postman" (five nominations, including four of the most prestigious in picture, director, actor and screenplay) is the latest tribute to the marketing savvy and determination of Harvey and Bob Weinstein and their Miramax crew.

This is not to take anything away from the pleasures of that film or the remarkable performance by its star, Massimo Troisi. But it's safe to say that: A) No one seeing that film early in its run would have predicted as much as a single Oscar nomination; and B) No one but Miramax could have engineered such a feat.

But when Harvey Weinstein falls in love with a film, all bets are off. It's not merely that he spends money and energy on publicity and promotion, he spends out of all proportion to reality or even a likely payoff, as those who remember his championing of the underwhelming "Hear My Song" can attest.

With "Il Postino," he was backing a strong candidate, and his insistent barrage did a pair of critical things: It put a spotlight on the film, reminding people that they'd liked it, and, perhaps even more important, turning the picture into an event. It made voters feel that rather than throwing away their vote on a whim they might be part of a historic groundswell that could make a difference.

A similar sort of empowerment, but one that happened without the benefit of a massive publicity campaign, is the story behind "Babe." One of the least ballyhooed of studio releases, "Babe" was a film whose fans, at least initially, formed a kind of silent majority, as convinced of their own partisanship as of the fact that not enough people could care enough to make a best picture nomination happen.

Rather than publicity, it was the spotlight of awards that probably convinced "Babe" partisans to go for it. The film began appearing on 10-best lists, it won best picture from the prestigious National Society of Film Critics, it even pleased the notoriously fussy (yes, I'm kidding) voters who hand out Golden Globes. Over the last few weeks, you could sense "Babe" partisans around town realizing they had a chance, which encouraged them to act.

So what about "Leaving Las Vegas"? It had its share of publicity and more than its share of critical awards. And it did manage nominations for actor, actress, directing and screenplay. What happened to best picture?

The answer demonstrates that as much as academy membership has changed, evidenced by opening the Oscars to smaller films like "Postman" and "Babe," some things remain the same. Its age bias still skewers toward the high end of the scale, and reports from the film's academy screenings indicated that the key older segment of the audience simply found "Las Vegas" too downbeat to support across the board.

Two categories that have caused controversy in past years, the nominations handed in by the foreign film and documentary committees, stirred up less of a fuss this year, but there were still things to take note of.

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