Burbank sisters set sights on Oscar for 'First Grader'

When you are competing with the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, Clooney and Brad Pitt for an Oscar, it can be tough to get any attention, but the producers of the film “The First Grader” had a surprising secret weapon for their film: two young actresses from Burbank.

When 11-year-old Allie and her 8-year-old sister Olivia saw the film, they were touched by its inspirational theme. They approached their father Darin Shea and asked him to help with the support of their newly formed Shea Family Foundation.

“Those girls are hard to say no to,” laughs Darin Shea. “I was so impressed with how passionate they were about this film. They really wanted to make sure the message got out there.”

Based on the true-life story of an 84-year-old Kenyan man who struggles to earn his right to a free education, even if that means sitting in an elementary class with 6-year-olds, “The First Grader” was a hit with audiences at several film festivals around the world but floundered at the box office when it was released in the U.S. last May, grossing only $332,000.

It was a long shot for awards consideration and the films distributor, National Geographic Entertainment, refused to mount a pricey campaign. “They felt it wouldn’t be worth it,” says one of the film’s producers, Richard Harding. “We really thought all hope was lost until Allie and Olivia saw our film.”

“I must admit I was not really aware of how important the whole awards season can be,” says Darin Shea, an information technology entrepreneur who moved his family from Arkansas to Burbank two years ago to support his children’s acting ambitions. “All we knew is that we wanted to help this film and this is the best way we could do that.”

With the funds provided by the Shea Family Foundation, Harding and producing partner Sam Feuer were able to mail out 15,000 DVD screeners to voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well as other guilds and various film critics groups. They also placed ads in trades, displayed outdoor billboards and mall posters around town. While studios with deep pockets can spend millions to help sway voters, “The First Grader” — with a considerably lower budget of less than $100,000 — still managed to create quite a ripple. It was shortlisted for the Gotham Independent Film Audience Award, received an International Press Academy Satellite Award, four Black Reel Award nominations and a Best Actor Award from the Black Film Critics Circle. “I think everyone in Hollywood knows us now,” laughs Harding.

And Allie and Olivia have become familiar faces to industry voters. They personally introduced the film at all the screenings that were held prior to voting. “They became so popular that we had people asking for them,” says Harding. “I think it really touched people that these girls were up there telling them how they felt about this film.”

“This is something we really wanted to do. I love the fact that it tells people to never to give up on their dreams,” says the lively spoken Allie Shea.

The girls, who attend Miller Elementary in Burbank, also wanted to inspire children their own age to see the film. They introduced screenings held at Palisades High School and and Westlakes High School. “I think today everyone is watching films like “Twilight” when they could be watching films like this,” says Allie. “We want to spread the message out there that instead of watching another pointless but good movie, why not watch a good movie that has a point.”

Darin Shea couldn’t be prouder of his daughters. “When we made the decision to move here, we wanted to make sure that no matter what success our children have we want them to maintain the family values we instilled from an early age,” he says. “That’s why we felt it was important to start our foundation. We want to be able to support these kinds of films.”

“The First Grader,” which is now available on DVD, is competing in eight categories for the Oscars — best picture, screenplay, soundtrack, song, cinematography, supporting actor for Oliver Litondo, who gives a moving performance as the illiterate tribesman Maruge, and best actress for Naomie Harris, who plays the benevolent school principal who helps him achieve his dream.

Whether “The First Grader” can pull off a David versus Goliath feat when the Oscar nominations are announced on January 24 remains to be seen, but Darin Shea feels it was well worth the investment. “We are happy that we have been able to raise the awareness of the film,” he says.

His daughter Allie is planning to rise early to hear the announcement of the nominations. “We are really hoping it gets nominated,” she says. “But even if it’s not nominated, this has been a lot of fun and it was for a good cause so it was definitely worth it.”

KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at tulichk@aol.com.

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