With films like “Birdman” and “Boyhood” dominating the conversation, Harvey Weinstein's prediction that “The Imitation Game” will win the Best Picture Oscar might be looking a little shaky as the awards season heads into its final lap. But in the final analysis, the mission was accomplished as he dropped a considerable amount of money ($7 million) to acquire the picture out of the European Film Market and has already ushered it to over $100 million in box office receipts and counting. That's largely because the independent film has maintained a significant presence throughout the season, ultimately racking up eight Academy Award nominations.
There was a time, however, when the project was set up at Warner Bros. with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio attached. It could have been a very different scenario. But financier and producer Teddy Schwarzman says he always felt like it needed to be made outside the studio system, and he put his name in the hat early.
“I was probably one of 20 companies that made an offer and never had the opportunity at that time to sit down with [producers] Nora [Grossman] and Ido [Ostrowsky],” Schwarzman says. “And so I just continued to track it. I read the announcement saying that it was progressed to a production deal and a year later it got put into turnaround. So I just raised my hand very aggressively and sat down with the team and pitched a vision for making the film with them, and we really clicked. I think that it was an interesting time for the film because the script had such a spotlight on it but now had gone through a bit of a hiccup.”
In hindsight, “it feels like it sort of happened exactly as it was supposed to,” Ostrowsky says of the failed Warner Bros. experience. “When we were at the studio, it's not that it felt wrong or right. It's just now looking back, and we've had both experiences, it makes perfect sense that it ended up coming together independently without any other consideration other than getting the story right and trusting the source material and trying to honor Alan Turing.”
Adds Grossman, “At the time, it felt right, and we were gathering information. This is our first experience. But I think our time at the studio prepared us to make the decisions we made when we decided to go independently.”
Weinstein had an interest in the project every step of the way as well, and when he saw footage at the European Film Market, he was sold without even having to see a completed film. “I got to watch a few minutes of footage of Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Keira [Knightley] and I just thought they had the right tone,” Weinstein says. “I think you could read this script, as we had, and if you just didn't have an actor who skirted the line between being incredibly unsympathetic and sympathetic at the same time, the movie is a disaster.”
As luring as the prospect of a savvy distribution partner like Weinstein might have been, however, the man does have a reputation for altering films. It's generally in the interest of making them more appealing to a wider audience, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but “Harvey Scissorhands” always looms over decisions like this.
“I think there was probably an initial concern, but he was so passionate about the film and the material and the story, we felt safe collaborating with him,” Grossman says.
“The Weinstein Company had been interested in the project for a long time and they tried to acquire it at the same time I was bidding for it,” Schwarzman says. “They tried to acquire it from me right after we had acquired it, in fact. I sat down with Harvey during the shoot and he tried to buy it there. So the level of passion and enthusiasm and belief in what we were doing was evident across the board. And in reality, we really wanted them to buy the film because it just felt like the type of material that The Weinstein Company would really know how to market and release.”
Ultimately, Schwarzman adds, Weinstein in fact went out of his way to let the filmmakers retain final cut. “He certainly had a handful of notes after we showed him our second-to-last cut of the film,” he continues, “but then we took those notes without being defensive or protective and tried them out internally. We weren”t required to show him any of their implementation, but we just came back to him with, you know, 'This one was a good note and these four weren't.' It was collaborative without being controlling.”
But while a guy like Weinstein has been through the Oscar ringer countless times over his career – molded it into a cottage industry that serves his business model, in fact – Grossman and Ostrowsky are experiencing the tempest for the first time. And a prestige, some might say Oscar-baity project like “The Imitation Game” makes for one serious trial by fire.
“I think what”s caught me off guard, and it's definitely not a complaint, is the sheer volume of it – like the number of events,” Ostrowsky says of the circuit. “We feel so thrilled to be honored by a lot of different awards and groups, [but while] it looks like it's all sort of fun and glossy – and there is that element to it – there's just a lot to take on.”
Grossman puts a finer point on it. “We're happy that we're here, but also sleep-deprived,” she says.
Find out whether “The Imitation Game” can turn any of those eight nominations into Oscar gold at the 87th annual Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 22.