Who are you calling a slumdog? Over the past month or so, Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire has undergone an extraordinary transformation from Oscar underdog to front-runner. The $13 million indie concerns a Bombay street urchin (Dev Patel) who uses a stint on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to capture the attention of a long-lost love (Freida Pinto). It has sailed past serious obstacles — a starless cast, a story told mostly in Hindi — and won four Golden Globes, taken in more than $60 million in worldwide grosses, and now snagged 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
That’s quite an achievement for a movie that once seemed doomed. Last May, just as Boyle was finalizing his cut of the film, his American distributor, Warner Independent, was shut down amid corporate downsizing at Warner Bros. (whose parent company, Time Warner, also owns Entertainment Weekly). Suddenly Slumdog was at the mercy of a studio whose tastes hewed more to the comic-book realism of The Dark Knight than the hardscrabble realism of Slumdog. When Boyle screened his film for Warner’s top brass, according to sources close to the negotiations, the executives didn’t see enough financial upside to investing in Slumdog beyond the $5 million they’d spent on the U.S. rights. (Warner reps declined to comment for this story.) Fearing their movie might be dumped quietly in theaters in March 2009 (or worse, go straight to DVD), the filmmakers were heartbroken. ”I had just come off the film Sunshine, which was a disaster,” says Boyle, referring to his 2007 effects-driven sci-fi movie that grossed less than $4 million domestically. ”And I was going to follow it up with a film that may not even get released. I thought, ‘Oh, this is it. It’s time to get another job.”’
Slumdog’s prospects grew brighter last summer when dedicated Warner Independent staffers started lobbying Warner Bros. president of production Jeff Robinov to submit the movie to the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Producer Christian Colson was making the same plea. ”It needed to be negotiated because, from a business perspective, what good would it do them to have it at a festival eight months before they were going to release it?” he recalls. ”We pushed very, very hard to get it into the festivals.”
In the end, Robinov agreed and the plan worked. ”At Toronto, people were coming up to me saying it had changed their lives forever,” says veteran indie exec Bob Berney, who briefly flirted with releasing Slumdog through his also-defunct Warner-based Picturehouse label. ”People were telling me they were going to quit their job and move to India. Then all these amazing things happened [for the film], which mirrors the movie. It’s a real fairy tale.”