They are now the leading contenders for the top Academy Award -- and although "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" could hardly be more different in plot, style, spirit and budget, they epitomize the increasingly perilous path artistically ambitious movies face in Hollywood.
Thursday's nominations for the 81st annual Oscars brought a leading 13 nominations to "Benjamin Button," while "Slumdog Millionaire" collected 10 nominations, with each shortlisted for best picture, director and adapted screenplay. The recognition marked a significant, though not unexpected, triumph for two films that have faced overwhelming odds -- one movie was more than two decades in the making, and the other was nearly abandoned by its original American distributor.
"This gives me so much hope," said Paul Federbush, who acquired domestic distribution rights to the $14-million "Slumdog Millionaire" for Warner Independent Pictures before Warner Bros. closed the division in May. That temporarily put the release of the often-gritty fable about an Indian game show contestant on hold until Fox Searchlight, a division of 20th Century Fox that has become Hollywood's most accomplished distributor of independent films, stepped in last fall to release the picture.
Federbush, who has been unemployed since Warner Independent shut down, was speaking from Mumbai, where news of "Slumdog Millionaire's" nominations was announced at the start of its raucous Indian premiere. "I still believe in the strength of a story and that a great movie can break through no matter how many challenges are in the system," he said.
That optimistic sentiment was echoed by screenwriter Eric Roth, who overhauled a laconic 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story into "Benjamin Button," a skillfully crafted epic largely shot in New Orleans about a man who ages in reverse. Since the 1980s, the project had passed through the hands of numerous directors, producers and studio executives before Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. took the leap with director David Fincher and in 2006 decided to make the $150-million film.
"It's risky financially and it's risky creatively," Roth said of movies like "Benjamin Button," which, even though it stars Brad Pitt, cannot be easily parsed into a 15-second television spot. "It's just more difficult to make movies that are not easily explained. But part of the Hollywood tradition is to make something you're really proud of -- it's not just about selling shoes."
Yet the movie studios are all part of global conglomerates. And although they may contribute only a few percentage points of income to the parent company's bottom line, the studios are held to rigid overhead and profit projections, which in turn have made highbrow dramas -- particularly those dwelling on difficult subjects -- more of a gamble than ever before.
"Increasingly, taking risks on movies like this is becoming harder and harder," said "Benjamin Button" producer Kathleen Kennedy. "But it's coming out at a time people want to go see movies that are emotionally uplifting, that explore the human condition. The timing on it was great, but getting there has been a long journey."
Like almost every American business, Hollywood is retrenching, cutting not only staff but also its commitment to movies that aren't based on comic books, familiar franchises and recognizable pop culture characters with built-in sales hooks. In the last year, the studios closed down three divisions -- Warner Independent, Picturehouse and Paramount Vantage -- dedicated to producing and distributing artier fare, and the 2009 movie slate is stuffed with far more sequels and remakes than thought-provoking dramas.
If Hollywood is headed in one direction, Oscar voters are not following, as they largely passed over one of last year's most accomplished crowd-pleasers -- failing to nominate the blockbuster "The Dark Knight" for best picture. Instead, in addition to "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Benjamin Button," they selected for best picture the war crimes drama "The Reader," the presidential debate story "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk," the biography of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk. The winner will be announced Feb. 22 at the Oscar ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.
None of the best picture nominees had an effortless path to the screen, and several have been tough sells with audiences. "It's an uphill fight to get people to see a movie they think is about the Holocaust," said Donna Gigliotti, a producer of "The Reader," which also had nominations for its lead actress (Kate Winslet), director (Stephen Daldry), adapted screenplay (David Hare) and cinematography (Chris Menges and Roger Deakins). "What the nomination does for us is to create attention -- and people will go see the movie."