HOLLYWOOD – They are now the leading contenders for the top Academy Award – and while “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. 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 U.S. 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 film, stepped in 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 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.”