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How 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' became a surprise Oscars powerhouse

By Peter DebrugeMovies - 16 January 2015 1:34 PM | Updated 10:32 AM

How 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' became a surprise Oscars powerhouse

Oscar voters don't tend to have long memories, but this week they proved that 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', a film that debuted nine months ago, had lingered in their minds long after the credits rolled.

The story of a concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his pupil (Tony Revolori) who become entangled in a struggle over a painting hadn't been expected to be a major awards contender, primarily because it had been out of theaters for so long. But it bucked the odds, nabbing a leading nine nominations, including bids for best picture and director for Wes Anderson.

Fox Searchlight, the indie label behind the whimsical comedy, maintains that time was on the side of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'.

"It was a strong and resonant film that stood the test of time," said Nancy Utley, president of Fox Searchlight. "It's not a movie you watch and forget about. It's a movie that stays with you."

Because the film had been on home entertainment platforms since last summer and is now showing on HBO, voters had more opportunities to see it, Utley argues.

"It can be difficult for voters to work their way through the big stack of screeners they accumulate in the last few months of the year," she argued.

Utley's fellow Fox Searchlight president Steve Gilula said the company was primarily concerned with finding an audience, not attracting awards attention. It opted for a March release because there were not many arthouse films vying for attention at that time of year. The strategy paid off. Globally, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' has earned US$174.6 million (S$231 million), more than double Anderson's previous high-water mark, US$71.4 million (S$94 million) for 'The Royal Tenenbaums'.

"It's a great movie, and if you believe movies are great, they're great 12 months a year," said Gilula.

The picture itself, with its examination of pre-war opulence and narrative sophistication, is a throwback to Ernst Lubitsch's urbane comedies -- a bit of cinematic hat-tipping that may have resonated with Oscar voters.

"It echoes the great Hollywood movies of the '40s and '30s," said Gilula. "It evokes what it means to have one world pass by."

Despite having made such seminal films as 'Rushmore' and 'The Royal Tenenbaums', Anderson achieved just his first nomination in the director category with 'Grand Budapest'.

"Wes is the ultimate auteur," said Utley. "When you look at any frame of a Wes Anderson movie, you know exactly whose hand is doing the work. It seemed a travesty he hadn't been recognized in the director category before, so it's satisfying and well deserved."

It made for a festive morning at the Fox Searchlight offices. The studio equaled 'The Grand Budapest Hotel's' haul with nine nods for another one of its own, 'Birdman', a satire of superhero culture, and scored acting nominations for Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in 'Wild'. In what was a record day for the company, Fox Searchlight racked up 20 nominations, beating its previous high of 12 in 2008.

"We're all crazy type-A people here," said Utley. "We're always running, running, running and constantly on the go. It's nice to take a breath on a day like this and realize that all this work is paying off for these films and filmmakers."

Across the list of nominations, it was an unusually strong showing for indie film labels after recent years saw a surge in the number of major studio contenders. That may not be a long-term trend.

"It's absolutely cyclical," said Gilula. "It's more about the production cycle and when filmmakers are ready with a picture. It swings back and forth."