‘Millionaire’ is choice for year-end winner

Horn is a Times staff writer.

It’s the movie Warner Bros. didn’t want to distribute. And now everybody else wishes they had a piece of “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The Internet is filled with Oscar-obsessed pundits preoccupied by the tiniest bits of awards trivia and Academy Award prognostications. But when discussing the merits of the upcoming slate of contending movies, little consideration is given to the most important show-business questions of all: Will anybody actually go see these films, and do they have a chance of making money?

Rather than fixate on whether Kate Winslet has a better prize shot with “Revolutionary Road” than “The Reader,” we decided to ask a dozen industry insiders a different question: From all of the season’s most prominent highbrow titles, which movie do they wish they owned, and which are they glad they don’t?

Our panelists -- prominent studio executives, producers and marketers -- weren’t allowed to vote for a movie they helped make or distribute. And in the hopes of getting the most candid answers possible, the voters were allowed to speak anonymously, lest a filmmaker never want to work with them again.


The rankings weren’t guided solely by a film’s prospective box-office gross, but its return on investment, a calculation that includes production costs, marketing expenses and actor-director-producer profit participation. Finally, the list of eligible titles was limited to movies that either have not come out or have only just been released -- in other words, you couldn’t ask for a piece of “The Dark Knight.” The list of eligible films was “Australia,” “Defiance,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Seven Pounds,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Reader,” “Doubt,” “Milk,” “The Wrestler” and “Gran Torino.”

The good news first: Fox Searchlight is the envy of the town. All but three panelists said they wished they had a piece of “Slumdog Millionaire,” which several voters said could be this year’s “Juno”: an art-house release that, buoyed by consistently rave reviews and budding award attention, could cross over into the mainstream.

Three panelists said director Danny Boyle’s Indian game-show drama could gross $40 million or more -- a robust showing by a film costing about $14 million. Even though “Slumdog Millionaire” is playing in only 10 theaters, its early ticket sales are remarkable, with an average per-screen gross in its Nov. 14 opening weekend of more than $36,000.

But it wasn’t those initial numbers that impressed our panel. Instead, it was the enormous good will and lightning-in-a-bottle passion that Boyle’s film has sparked ever since it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. The critical support, our panel said, will not only generate reams of free publicity (in the form of top 10 lists and the like) but also make the film into a cultural event -- you need to have seen it to be cool.


“Slumdog Millionaire” was set to be distributed by Warner Independent Pictures, but after Warner Bros. closed its specialty film division, the studio sold the movie’s domestic distribution rights to Fox Searchlight. Warners will split the film’s local costs and proceeds with Fox’s art-house division after Fox Searchlight pockets a distribution fee.

The other movies receiving favorable votes: “Seven Pounds” (never underestimate star Will Smith, even in a movie that’s this serious, the supporter said); “Gran Torino” (just as he did with “Million Dollar Baby,” director-star Clint Eastwood can be counted on to deliver a late surprise, its backer said); and “Milk” (the Proposition 8 debate has made this movie about the slain gay activist particularly timely, and Sean Penn’s starring role looks strong, the voter said).

The panel was widely divided over which holiday awards movies face the most obstacles turning a profit.

Several smaller, literary adaptations were singled out not because they won’t draw backing from critics and awards voters but because their subject matter may be too problematic for a population craving painless escape.


Two people expressed concern over the box-office potential of writer-director John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his play “Doubt,” while two others worried that director Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” and its story of a troubled marriage (even with reunited “Titanic” stars Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) may be too upsetting for a wide swath of the audience.

Even though “Seven Pounds” collected a vote of support, it also drew one mark down, with the naysayer worrying that Smith’s star power couldn’t overcome a movie in which he plays a very different kind of hero. Another voter said Ed Zwick’s “Defiance” was a tough sell thanks to its Holocaust story line.

The remaining pessimistic six votes were split evenly between two expensive, highly ambitious dramas from original filmmakers: David Fincher’s reverse-aging fable “Benjamin Button” and Baz Luhrmann’s cattle-drive romance “Australia.”

The challenge for Paramount’s “Benjamin Button,” one voter said, was that the film was not only expensive (about $175 million) but long, with a running time in excess of two and a half hours. To make money, in this executive’s thinking, the film would have to match the global returns of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which grossed more than $500 million worldwide.


Fox’s “Australia” isn’t quite as costly (about $130 million), but it, too, faces its own tough obstacles, several voters said. The film’s marketing materials, two voters said, have been confusing (is it a comic romance, an epic western, or both?), and while star Hugh Jackman has helped sell a ton of “X-Men” tickets, he’s less proven when not playing a superhero.

Finally, the success of both “Benjamin Button” and “Australia” hinges on the backing of older female moviegoers. And they may be taking their kids to “Bolt” or “Bedtime Stories” or enjoying a girls’ night out with “Four Christmases” or “Marley & Me” -- movies that are not on anybody’s Oscar radar.