Even though Fox Searchlight co-presidents Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley have turned “challenging films” like Slumdog Millionaire, Black Swan, Crazy Heart, Once, Juno, and 127 Hours into awards-season successes, they are the lowest-profile indie moguls you will find. At a time when they are steering two Best Picture nominees — the Alexander Payne-directed The Descendants and the Terrence Malick-directed The Tree Of Life — they tell Deadline about the struggles, glory and disappointment that is part and parcel of the indie distributor’s mission of finding audiences for prestige films. When it works, it’s wondrous. Slumdog Millionaire, a $15 million film that was nearly relegated to a direct-to-video fate by Warner Bros, won eight Oscars including Best Picture, and grossed $141 million domestic and $378 million worldwide; Black Swan, a $13 million film that flatlined several times during the 10 years it took to get made, grossed $107 million domestic and $329 million worldwide and won Best Actress for Natalie Portman; Once, an obscure Irish film that cost $150,000 to make, won Best Song and grossed $9.4 million stateside and $20.7 million worldwide; Crazy Heart, a $9 million film about a drunk singer, won Best Actor for Jeff Bridges and grossed $39 million domestic and $47 million worldwide; the $7.5 million Juno won Best Screenplay for Diablo Cody, and grossed $143 million domestic and $231 million worldwide. Here, they lay out how it’s done and why voters should consider The Descendants and The Tree Of Life for Best Picture and other honors. 

DEADLINE: Fox Searchlight has eight nominations, with two Best Picture candidates. Make a case why Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a worthy best picture winner.
UTLEY: The Descendants is a remarkably beautiful and accomplished film that is in the vein of Oscar movies from a little bit further back, like Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms Of Endearment, even On Golden Pond or To Kill A Mockingbird. It is in the sort of subtle character-based, humanistic, realistic story-telling tradition. Sometimes it’s a little frustrating because our movie isn’t flashy, it doesn’t have a lot of showy or bling kind of elements in it. It’s highly naturalistic. But I think those kind of movies are important to moviegoers because they reflect their lives and issues. This is a movie that is going to stand the test of time. People will be watching this movie in 10 years, 20 years, in 30 years. That’s an important part of what should be considered in Best Picture.
GILULA: It’s also a film that has really resonated all the way from the rarefied world of the film critics and journalists out to the mainstream: the public. The major studios are making almost none of those kinds of films anymore and it’s not easy for us either. But the fact is that the material is so good, and you have one of the very best directors and some of the best actors telling what on paper is a very simple story but achieves the highest level of the art. (more…)