On a warm night last fall, crowds of movie fans pressed against police barriers outside the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and dozens of photographers strained toward the celebrities making their way down the red carpet, among them the Oscar-laureate leading man Sean Penn, the impossibly handsome breakout star James Franco, the major young acting talent Emile Hirsch, the cult director Gus Van Sant and even the host city’s Kennedy-esque mayor, Gavin Newsom. “Half of Hollywood is here tonight,” said one astonished industry veteran, spotting such pillars as CAA chieftain Bryan Lourd and Steven Spielberg’s longtime producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy.
The occasion was the world premiere of Milk—Van Sant’s biopic starring Penn as gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk—and the attendant hoopla was meant to create buzz around a potential awards-season contender. Even before its release, Milk was emerging as a favorite in Hollywood’s year-end prestige race, the annual competition for grown-up audiences and Academy voters that begins after Labor Day and culminates on Oscar night, and the San Francisco party sounded the opening salvo of a well-organized, well-funded campaign.
But more striking than Milk’s storyline—or even the spectacle of its butch Hollywood actors slipping into fey San Francisco characters—is that it got made. The film came to life after screenwriter Dustin Lance Black gave his script to Van Sant and the director said he’d like to shoot it. Partially financed by Groundswell Productions, a company headquartered in Beverly Hills far from any studio lot, Milk’s entire $20 million budget would not have been enough to buy the above-the-line talent in Paramount Pictures’ $175 million The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, or Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, a $130 million epic for 20th Century Fox starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
Although almost every fall season sees some quirky crowd-pleaser or critics’ favorite break through the general din of the studios’ heavily marketed blue-ribbon releases—remember 2007’s Juno?—this season a host of small, independent films are making big noise. Like Van Sant, Danny Boyle, Darren Aronofsky and Mike Leigh have all swapped generous budgets for wide creative freedom to make the kinds of movies that would baffle the studio bean counters. Compared with grandiose productions like Australia that are backed by transnational media conglomerates, this year’s indie favorites are practically handicrafts.
Even with Penn set to star, Milk “barely got a go,” says Van Sant, recalling how when he first started looking for money, the entire Milk team consisted of himself, Black, producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen (Oscar winners for American Beauty), and Penn. “With no Sean, that ‘barely’ might have turned into a ‘no.’”
And if you think a film about a murdered gay politician is a stretch, try Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which makes extensive use of Hindi dialogue and stars actors with unpronounceable names. Yet giddy reviews and brushfire word of mouth generated phenomenal box office returns in the first weeks of its release. (In December the National Board of Review named Slumdog its movie of the year; the film also earned a Golden Globe nomination for best picture and a nod from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for best director.) Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, made by a director so fiercely independent that he likely refuses to speak to Hollywood studio executives even by phone, also features no-name actors and an English working-class milieu. It, too, has generated Oscar speculation owing to a mesmerizing lead performance by Sally Hawkins, who won a Golden Globe nomination. Aronofsky’s The Wrestler stars once infamous has-been Mickey Rourke—a suicidal casting choice by conventional Hollywood thinking. Aronofsky was told repeatedly that Rourke was too “unsympathetic” to headline a film, with one executive adding that the actor had already used up his comeback shot in 2005’s Sin City.