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Early pageant hopeful

Angling for an edge with Oscar, Fox Searchlight starts sending out `Little Miss Sunshine' screeners.

October 13, 2006|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Every step of the way, Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" has challenged convention. It sold for a record $10.5 million at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Released in the middle of summer, it has become an enduring national hit. And now, it is trying to enter territory where comedies rarely venture -- the Oscar race for best picture.

Fox Searchlight made "Little Miss Sunshine" the first screener of the awards season this week, sending the movie to about 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. (Those are, of course, the bodies that vote for the Oscars and the Golden Globes, respectively.)

"We wanted to be first because, as an academy member, I know how exciting it is when the first few screeners hit the mailbox," said Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight's chief operating officer. "And I know how quickly they can pile up."

More to the point, Fox Searchlight hopes to make "Sunshine" a potential best picture nominee, looking to break with long-standing tradition regarding the academy's top prize. Though there are exceptions -- "Annie Hall" won best picture in 1978, and Searchlight garnered a nomination for its 2004 release "Sideways" -- comedies tend to be long shots when facing more serious contenders.

The rush to kick off the "Sunshine" awards-season push is also notable because the movie, after a long-platform release that began in July, is still going strong in theaters. It only recently dropped out of the weekly Top 10; this weekend, it drops from playing at 825 theaters to 506.

Utley also seemed unconcerned about the possibility of leeching away box office receipts. "It's a very small number of people that we sent it to, compared to the amount of people in Los Angeles or New York or the other cities we're still playing," she said.

Added Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theaters, which is still showing the movie: "Screeners have been around for so long that it's just part of the system."

He added that the early days of the awards season can also offer an upside for exhibitors. "Distributors are spending a little bit more on advertising than they necessarily would based on box office figures alone.... The increased advertising does attract more ticket buyers alongside the people who vote for the various awards."

So far, "Little Miss Sunshine" has grossed more than $55 million at the U.S. box office, making it the second most popular release ever for Searchlight, behind only "Sideways," which topped out at $71 million.

Last year, Sony Pictures Classics got the jump on the screener race when it sent copies of "Junebug" to awards voters by the end of September. The strategy appears to have paid off, as the film garnered a variety of critics' prizes and costar Amy Adams was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

Searchlight next plans to send "Sunshine" screeners to all 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America (a first for the distributor) and the 2,000 members of the nominating committee for the Screen Actors Guild. Assorted other technical guilds and critics groups will be receiving their copies as Searchlight replenishes its supplies of watermarked DVD screeners. Screeners will soon be sent out as well for Searchlight's other awards hopefuls: "The Last King of Scotland," "The History Boys," "Thank You for Smoking" and "Notes on a Scandal."

As to the true, long-term value of being first in the screener race, Utley is optimistic: "People just notice it because the big pile hasn't started yet."

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