“An Education”: A David vs. Goliath Oscar race

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What do you do if you’re the producers of a small, independently made Academy Award-nominated best picture when the competition seems like Goliath to your David?

If you’re the producers of An Education,” you look at the other pictures and marvel: there’s “Avatar,” the biggest box office hit of all time; “Inglourious Basterds,” marketed by the always Oscar-savvy Harvey Weinstein; audience favorites “Up” and “The Blind Side” and critics’ darlings “The Hurt Locker,” “Precious,” “Up in the Air,” “A Serious Man” and “District 9.”

Finola Dwyer, who with Amanda Posey produced “An Education,” said you have to be thrilled to be included among pictures like these. Still, she recognizes the challenges ahead if her film is going to win the Oscar.

Dwyer recalls being at a panel discussion recently held by the Producers Guild of America where the producers of “The Hurt Locker” and “Up in the Air” were seated on one side of her and the producers of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Avatar” were seated on the other.

“You feel sandwiched in the middle,” Dwyer laughed. “It was like being on some game show.”

But the feeling was “great” nonetheless, Dwyer acknowledged, to be included in such a powerful, eclectic mix of films being honored this year.

“It’s just a real thrill and a real honor to be in that company, to be alongside those movies,” she told HollywoodNews.com. Instead of intense rivalry, Dwyer said she found “great camaraderie” among all the nominated producers.

But how much of a chance does “An Education” really have in this Oscar race, when “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” appear to be the odds-on favorites for best picture with maybe “Inglourious Basterds” and “Up in the Air” also tossed into the mix?

Dwyer knows that box office success coupled with critical acclaim are key to winning over Oscar voters. “An Education,” which was released in the U.S. last October, has grossed only $9.6 million in North America, but the film has yet to open in most non-English-speaking countries, including France, Spain and Japan as well as South America.

“You need to be a commercial success as well as a critical success,” Dwyer said. “So, it will be interesting to see what the Academy chooses to recognize this year.” She noted that “Avatar” has certainly “broken the mold” when it comes to worldwide box office success. When “An Education” first came out, “Avatar” hadn’t yet been released so no one knew how big it would be.

Still, she’s happy that “Avatar” has ignited so much audience interest in cinema.
“We need audiences to have a sort of appetite to get going to cinema, going to the movies, and not just tent-pole movies,” Dwyer said.

To be sure, the Oscar race may not be as hopeless for “An Education” as it appears.
In recent years, Academy voters have bestowed best picture statuettes on small, character-driven movies that captured the public’s imagination, films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby.”

Although “An Education” cost less than $10 million to produce and contains no recognizable stars, “Slumdog Millionaire” featured a cast of nobodies.

In the face of tumbling TV ratings and mounting criticism that audiences weren’t familiar with many of the nominated films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences expanded the best picture category this year from five to 10 films, going back to how it was decades ago.

Dwyer said Sony Picture Classics, which released “An Education,” isn’t following the same road “Slumdog Millionaire” took in its successful Oscar run.

“The “Slumdog” guys were out in Los Angeles for months on end,” she said. “We haven’t done that to that extent.” But she added that Sony Classics is wiling to “spend money well and carefully” in marketing the film.

What “An Education” also has going for it Carey Mulligan.

The young British actress whose impressive debut as “Jenny” captivated critics and audiences alike, has reaped a truckload of best actress nominations, including the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, the National Board of Review, the London Critics Circle Film Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. She also won best actress at the British Independent Film Awards, received the Hollywood Film Festival’s Hollywood Breakthrough Award, and picked up awards from various critics’ groups including Chicago, Dallas-Forth Worth and Toronto.

Dwyer said it was certainly risky to cast a veritable unknown actress like Mulligan in the film. “People are always looking at it and saying, ‘Is this going to be a sure thing? Well, there are few things that are sure things. You put big stars into tent-pole movies and they are pretty guaranteed (to make them hits). In films like “An Education,” she added, it is important to cast actors who are good in the characters they play.

The film by Danish director Lone Scherfig is based on a screenplay by Nick Hornby from a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber,

“An Education” is the story about a 16-year-old girl in 1960s suburban London and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy (Peter Sarsgaard) nearly twice her age. The film also stars Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson.

The film has certainly won over the critics, with 95% positive reviews listed on the Rotten Tomatoes web site.

“I guess we’re the sort of small, outsider, non-American film for the year,” Dwyer said, “but it just feels that we’re there for a lot of reasons and are honored and thrilled to be in the company we are in.”

About Robert W. Welkos

Executive Editor: Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the entertainment industry for 15 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. During this span, he wrote extensively about the movie industry from turmoil in the executive suites, the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and box office hits and bombs to visits to movie sets as well as profiles of top stars and A-list directors, cutting edge features on the newest indie films and visits to famous film festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Prior to entertainment, Welkos worked as a reporter and assistant city editor in The Times’ Metro section where he undertook major investigations for the paper as well as covering breaking news and writing in-depth features. Before joining The Times, he worked for the Associated Press in Reno, Nevada, and City News Service in Los Angeles.

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  • February 15, 2010 | Permalink |

    Carey Mulligan is an amazing actress

  • February 15, 2010 | Permalink |

    I agree with Felicity, she was amazing in this movie, I can’t wait to see what else she comes out with

  • February 16, 2010 | Permalink |

    Shes was absolutely amazing in this movie 🙂

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