In the span of less than a day, independent film cognoscenti on both coasts have declared the teeny drama "Winter's Bone" a top film of the year. The bleak tale set in the Ozark Mountains grabbed seven nominations Tuesday for the Spirit Awards including best feature, just hours after taking home the best-film crown Monday night at the Gotham Awards in New York.
But can the underdog turn those indie kudos into Oscar gold?
Last year at this time, the Gotham Awards named "The Hurt Locker" its top winner, the first time in the show's history that it tapped an eventual Oscar best picture. In contrast, last year's Spirit nominations favored "Precious" and "The Last Station," both of which were recognized at the Academy Awards but were not the big victors of the night. ("Precious" took home two Oscars — for supporting actress and adapted screenplay.)
This year, many of the possible big Oscar competitors weren't eligible for Spirit Awards consideration because their budgets ran over the $20-million limit or, as in the case of the Colin Firth-starrer "The King's Speech," they aren't American productions.
And once the studio big boys, such as "The Social Network," the Coen brothers' "True Grit" and "The Fighter," compete on the same playing field, it will be interesting to see whether "Winter's Bone" can hold its own.
The biggest challenge for Roadside Attractions, the distributor of "Winter's Bone" — which first piqued critics' interest at this year's Sundance Film Festival — is to get the movie to the top of the stack of DVDs in motion picture academy members' homes. With the film having taken in only $6 million during its theatrical run that began in June, it's unlikely many Oscar voters have seen the R-rated drama. Screeners were sent out a month ago.
Roadside Attractions got a taste of Academy Awards glory when 2004's fast-food expose "Super Size Me" was nominated for best documentary. Last awards season, its Japanese dolphin-hunting doc "The Cove" won at the Oscars. This year, in addition to "Winter's Bone," Roadside is angling for awards recognition for "Biutiful," another tough drama starring Javier Bardem as a father who makes a living off of Barcelona's crime-riddled underbelly.
Compared with the big studios, the company has a much more limited budget for awards campaigns.
Roadside executives declined to comment for this story. But awards campaign experts said that while the indie awards are helpful for a little-seen critical darling like "Winter's Bone," they are hardly a surefire predictor of who's going to walk away with the top Oscar prizes come Feb. 27.
"All awards of merit help," said Oscar consultant Tony Angellotti, who is working on Disney's awards campaign for "Toy Story 3." "But it is the compiling of these awards, from many groups, that suggest continuity and unity, that matters most. If [voting among the different groups] is fractured, then it doesn't have the same play."
Another Oscar consultant, who asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize working relationships, said, "The Spirit Awards are not the Golden Globes or [Screen Actors Guild Awards] in terms of the precursor of what's going to happen. But it is a good indicator of the film that could sneak in, the critics' darling that's too fabulous to ignore."
"Winter's Bone" may face an uphill climb, given its bleak plot line centering on a teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence) who must find her drug-dealing father in an effort to keep her family intact. That kind of story could be a tough sell, especially if it's competing with lighter fare such as "The Social Network," about the founding of Facebook, or even the lesbian family dramedy "The Kids Are All Right," which received five Spirit nominations.
"The only thing the Spirit Award nominations do is compel voters to watch the DVD, which is no small feat," said another Oscar consultant, who also asked not to be identified. In addition to best picture, "Winter's Bone" was also nominated for best actress, best screenplay, best director, best supporting actor, best supporting actress and best cinematography.
Other movies receiving a bump from Film Independent, the organization behind the Spirit Awards, include the Fox Searchlight films "127 Hours," about a hiker trapped in the Utah wilderness, and the ballet thriller "Black Swan." Both received best picture, actor/actress and director nominations.
"Rabbit Hole" also received nominations for its performances from Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart playing grieving parents, as well as a director's nod for John Cameron Mitchell, best known for the 2001 cult hit "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
Aaron Schneider's directorial debut "Get Low," about a town's hermit staging his own funeral, was rewarded with a first feature nomination, in addition to a nod for supporting actor Bill Murray. But star Robert Duvall was left off the list.
Perhaps the most surprising film to gain recognition from the Spirit nominations was Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg," which was named in the best picture category, as well as best actor for Ben Stiller and best actress for Greta Gerwig.
"Greenberg," which grossed only $4 million at the box office when it opened this summer, has been mostly ignored by prognosticators closely watching the Oscar race.
The 26th annual Spirit Awards will be held Feb. 26, the night before the Oscars, in Santa Monica with comedian Joel McHale hosting.