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'Slumdog' strikes it rich with 8 Oscar wins

The film's eight trophies -- including best picture, direction, adapted screenplay and cinematography -- cement the reputation of Fox Searchlight as a champion of work that Hollywood won't risk.

February 23, 2009|John Horn

"Slumdog Millionaire" -- a love story that combines artistic ambition with broad commercial appeal -- won a leading eight Oscars on Sunday night, including the best picture trophy.

While the film's triumphs at the 81st annual Academy Awards marked an amazing outcome for a movie filled with subtitles, scenes of torture and a Bollywood dance sequence, the wins also cemented the reputation of distributor Fox Searchlight, which has become Hollywood's top advocate of the kind of daring works that movie studios have all but abandoned.

Director Danny Boyle's fictional account of a Mumbai orphan's surprising winning streak on India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" also won Oscars for direction, adapted screenplay, cinematography, editing, original score, original song and sound mixing.

The wins for the film -- produced by a British company, co-financed by a French distributor and made by a largely Indian cast and crew -- dramatized the global compass reading of contemporary movie production, as other top Oscar winners showed.

The best supporting actress winner was Spain's Penelope Cruz for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"; Australian actor Heath Ledger was posthumously named best supporting actor for "The Dark Knight"; and British star Kate Winslet won best actress for "The Reader." The only acting winner with a U.S. birth certificate: Sean Penn, who played the title character in "Milk."

Host Hugh Jackman opened the broadcast with a song and dance routine about the economic recession, and though he didn't reference Hollywood cost-cutting specifically, belt-tightening was very much a part of the Oscar ceremony backdrop.

In a show business shakeup that has cost scores of film executives their jobs and left numerous movies in limbo, studios are scaling back not only on provocative dramas but also on the companies they established to produce and distribute them.

In the last year, Warner Bros. closed its two specialty film divisions, Warner Independent Pictures (the original distributor of "Slumdog Millionaire") and Picturehouse, while Paramount closed the doors of its Paramount Vantage unit. ThinkFilm, a leading distributor of nonfiction films, has vanished, and the Weinstein Co. has scaled way back.

At the same time, the big movie studios are steering clear of highbrow literary dramas, aiming their resources at mass-appeal works including family-friendly animation, superhero stories and established franchises such as James Bond and Harry Potter.

As others have ditched movies that require patient marketing to build grass-roots audience interest -- "Slumdog Millionaire" debuted in just 10 theaters last November and didn't reach its widest national release until last weekend -- Fox Searchlight has become Hollywood's unequaled home for films made outside the normal studio channels.

A tiny cog in Rupert Murdoch's global News Corp. media conglomerate, Fox Searchlight not only was able to steer "Slumdog Millionaire" to its multiple Oscar wins, but also turned it into a solid box-office hit, with domestic gross set to pass $100 million.

"It's a triumph for this kind of film," Boyle said backstage, minutes after he thanked Fox Searchlight from the lectern of the Kodak Theatre.

By far the most successful of the studio-owned specialty film divisions, Fox Searchlight had never before won the top Oscar, although it had best picture finalists three of the last four years with a varied slate of original, audience-pleasing works: 2007's "Juno," 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine" and 2004's "Sideways."

While the best picture prize will make a nice ornament for Fox Searchlight's lobby, the trophy also serves as a validation of the company's patient, disciplined approach to making and distributing movies from outside the studio system -- even as the company's peers are folding their tents.

Some of these companies were done in by profligate spending and steep overhead, which Fox Searchlight has consistently avoided. The company refuses to pay its actors more than $500,000 -- often a tiny fraction of their standard, multimillion-dollar salaries -- and carries a staff of about 75.

"I believe that size, in some ways, is the enemy of creativity," said Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s president and chief operating officer, who launched the Fox Searchlight division more than 15 years ago. "The less money you risk, the more risks you can take. It gives you a chance to take more shots."

Fox Searchlight was formed in 1994, and its early returns were unremarkable. But in the company's third year, the division released the hit British comedy "The Full Monty" (written by "Slumdog Millionaire's" Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy). Peter Rice, a Fox production executive, took over Fox Searchlight in early 2000, and the company and its core team -- marketing head Nancy Utley and distribution chief Steve Gilula -- flourished.

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