Clockwise: Jessica Chastain in "Tree of Life," Elizabeth Olsen… (20th Century Fox / Paramount…)
Though many are befuddled this year by the new Oscar math, perhaps unable to parse just how many votes it will take to land a best picture nomination or anticipate even how many nominees there will be, one recent regular equation looks to hold firm: One indie film plus one fresh ingénue equals nominations.
Last year there was Jennifer Lawrence with "Winter's Bone." The year before that, there was Carey Mulligan in "An Education." Then think of Ellen Page in "Juno" or Amy Adams in "Junebug." The Oscars love a pretty new face, especially when the attention for the actress helps raise the overall profile of her movie.
This year has no shortage of fresh faces looking to help push their pictures into the award race, largely emerging from January's Sundance Film Festival. Leading the pack is Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman desperate to regain her sense of self in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and Felicity Jones, who in "Like Crazy" plays a young woman in love trying to overcome distance and the tug of time to hold on to an intimate connection. Also in the equation is Adepero Oduye as a young woman struggling with coming out to her family in "Pariah." And, though slightly older, actress Jessica Chastain has a veritable buffet of films that could gain traction during award season with her roles in "Take Shelter," "The Help" and "The Tree of Life."
"If you look at the last few years at the academy, there's always sort of one film that people support for one reason or the other and a lot of it has to do with discovery, discovering new talent," said Andrea Sperling, a veteran indie producer on the awards merry-go-round for the first time with "Like Crazy," the Grand Jury Prize winner this year at Sundance. "It's like everybody kind of discovers that person together."
For someone like Olsen, who made five films last year and just so happens to be seeing "Martha Marcy" land first with audiences, the entire process has been something new. She headed into the film's snowy Sundance premiere without anticipating the avalanche of attention heading her way.
"This is my first experience releasing a movie, so I had nothing to compare it to," said Olsen. "I was just naively going into the festival not knowing what would come out of it. When we were there, things changed a few days into the festival, people started taking my picture as I was walking down the street, and that never happened the first three days of the festival."
That media attention is something many smaller films literally can't buy. So when outlets pick up on a specific performer — like the fact that Olsen is the younger sister of onetime child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, for example — and want to feature that actress in fashion spreads, feature articles or on chat shows, it benefits the film overall.
"It's just sort of this thing that happened," said Antonio Campos, a producer on "Martha Marcy May Marlene," of the media fascination with his film's star. "It's a beautiful combustion of her traits and qualities, and we can't calculate that stuff beforehand; we were just focused on getting the best actress for the role and making sure the film was good. The way everything has played out with the media and the way audiences perceive her is incredible, it's something we couldn't have predicted but has worked very much for the film."
Though the seemingly obvious equation of the indie plus the ingenue makes for appealing copy and an easy-to-tease-out idea, the practical realities of award campaigning don't always bear it out.
"Awards campaigns may be based on what's happened before, but in general each year is different and the movies are different and everything is different," said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, the company that released "Winter's Bone" last year and saw it through to not only a lead actress nomination for Lawrence but also nominations for best picture, supporting actor and adapted screenplay.
"I think it's journalists and awards bloggers and all these people who look for an easy handle, 'OK, that's the Jennifer Lawrence slot.' But I don't know that the academy voters are totally taken in by that."
So, though it would seem that Olsen and Jones in particular should just get in the ring for an indie ingénue death match — who wouldn't pay to see that? — the folks in each corner would rather not think of it that way.
"I think each film speaks for itself," said "Like Crazy" producer Jonathan Schwartz. "I don't see us competing against any other film. I don't really see it as an either/or situation."