Can Presidential politics actually boost the profile of an under-the-radar Oscar hopeful? That could be a scenario the multitudes of awards consultants working on Summit Entertainment’s summer indie, A Better Life starring Demián Bachir might consider as they try to draw voter attention to this well-reviewed June release which grossed less than $2 million in its domestic release. Because the film puts a very human face on the hot button issue of illegal immigration. This is really a touching father-son story about an undocumented Los Angeles laborer trying to forge a better life for his kid while keeping him away from gangs. Its reps hope to gain recognition not just for the pic but also for Bichir in an uphill campaign against much higher profile Best Actor contenders like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gary Oldman, Ryan Gosling and others. Year-end recognition from critics groups could really help Bichir and this film which now stands at 86% positive on Rotten Tomatoes. Summit’s 2009 Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker also was a low grosser and a June release — but saw its Oscar stock soar when it started winning those critics awards.
At what was billed as a DVD release party this week, but which really served as an awards season campaign kickoff, I noticed several Academy members in attendance. The packed event at Culina in Beverly Hills had lots of political talk, much of it about the GOP presidential debates where candidates are engaged in tough ‘kick em out of the country’ rhetoric on the subject of illegal immigrants in America. A Better Life director Chris Weitz told me he’s outraged by the way politicians are using the plight of undocumented workers to score political points during the Republican debates. He says the whole experience of making the film has really “politicized” him in a way he hadn’t imagined.
From the presidential race to the Oscar race, A Better Life has longer odds. “What can we do to help this film?” one frustrated awards consultant asked me while noting the stiff competition out there. It’s a frequent question I hear from awards campaigners who usually employ parties, Q&A screenings, and getting its lesser known stars (in the U.S. at least) out there on the awards “circuit”. But I say Oscar strategists just might want to look no further than the Hollywood-bashing GOP for some ironic help. After all, Republicans are giving immigration lots of TV time almost weekly during their contentious debates. Tagging on to presidential politics might be one way to keep the film talked about and relevant, even in the shadow of the all the big Academy Awards contenders to come in the last two months of the year. Summit smartly employed that strategy with The Hurt Locker when it hit the Oscar trail by emphazing its topicality and credibility after initially marketing it as a suspenseful war movie.
A Better Life‘s star, Bichir, is a major name in Mexico and also a co-star of Showtime’s Weeds (and, in fact, co-star Mary Louise Parker flew out to host the party in honor of the film Wednesday night). Bichir told me that he and Weitz had just come back from the Morelia Film Festival where the movie made its Mexican debut and it was interesting to see the locals’ reaction. It was a very good one, he explained, since this is a rare Hollywood attempt to put a human face on what undocumented workers go through. It helped that the film uses both Spanish and English languages. Bichir is planning to star in a Spanish stage version of Swimming With Sharks and play Kevin Spacey’s role. Even with that gig he’ll keep on the awards circuit for A Better Life as much as he can in the next few months (in the same way Marion Cotillard did in her successful Best Actress campaign for La Vie En Rose) to bring attention to this little-film-that-could.
A Better Life had been in development in one form or another for 25 years, originally starting with producer Paul Junger Witt and picking up other producers along its long road to the big screen. These include actress Jami Gertz (with partner Stacy Lubliner) and Christian McLaughlin who were all at the DVD launch telling tales of the journey and hoping that the film gains traction this awards season. The pic a few weeks earlier was the first serious Oscar contender to send out screeners to the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members and other voting groups. Summit COO Erik Feig told me he’s very proud of A Better Life and hopes people will continue to discover it. Clearly, though, Summit is not going to spend the kind of dollars that bigger movies have in their Oscar campaign war chests to chase after votes. So it is going to take a grass roots-type campaign to keep A Better Life alive.