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Oscars Give Big Boost to 'Indies,' Women, and Quirky Stories

As movie lovers and producers alike continue to weigh lessons from the 69th Oscarcast Monday, several themes are tipping the scale:

Smaller-budget films made by independent filmmakers will get a boost out of the sheer number of nominations and statuettes won by non-major studios, from the nine-Oscar best-picture, "The English Patient," to the best original screenplay, "Sling Blade," written by Billy Bob Thornton.

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The push to cast women in more interesting, nontraditional roles - usually a contentious issue with many actresses at Oscar time but not this year - will receive some needed attention, if not momentum.

And the cause of quirky, offbeat, and regional stories that may not appear at first to have broad audience appeal will get more serious consideration by movie executives at all levels, inside Hollywood and out.

"The success of 'The English Patient' is a vindication of a belief that [producer] Saul Zaentz and I had four years ago when we read a book that we fell in love with," says Anthony Minghella, who won best director for "The English Patient."

Backstage after his acceptance speech, Minghella recounted four years of despair in getting the movie to the screen - from lack of funding up front to studio rejection of completed footage. Noting a relative dearth of film experience behind him - he had made only two small films - Minghella says the ambitious scale of the film made backers "apprehensive and perhaps rightly so.

"I thought it wouldn't get made, and I'd be fired [from the project]," he says. "We thought we'd find no one at the end of a long, complex, and ambitious tunnel. It is marvelous that it has found its audience and been critically well received."

Likewise for Billy Bob Thornton. The first-time Oscar-winner says he felt like an underdog before his film, "Sling Blade," was completed by a small New York production company called Shooting Gallery. Now he says he is emboldened to use the same company for two more screenplays that, like "Sling Blade," will also be based in the rural South.

"I would encourage other writers to go the independent [production company] route, because commercial studios only seem to want to make movies about lynchings in the South," he says. "That's not all that's happening down there."

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Frances McDormand, who won best actress for her portrayal of a pregnant, Midwestern cop in "Fargo," credited the "extraordinary group of women with whom I was nominated" as evidence of progress in women's roles.

"We five women were fortunate to have the choice, not just the opportunity, but the choice to play such rich, complex, female characters, and I congratulate casting directors for making decisions on qualifications and not just marketing value," she says.

Saul Zaentz described how production on "The English Patient" had to shut down when Twentieth Century Fox, which had supported the film early on, decided it wanted more commercial casting to ensure box-office success. The studio reportedly had wanted Demi Moore as the female lead. (Kristin Scott Thomas was instead cast in the role.)

But Zaentz, who won this year's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for a career that includes previous best picture Oscars for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus," says he pressed ahead, believing in the vision of director Minghella.

"I had seen his first film ["Truly, Madly, Deeply"] and realized he understood structure, actors, promotion, originality, writing, humor - not just jokes." Zaentz likened his trust to someone who would let the Dutch master-painter Vermeer - known for small canvases - attempt a bigger one. "Would I let someone with such talent try a bigger canvas? Of course."

Zaentz says the 69th Oscar ceremony represents the maturing of a nascent independent film movement. "The movement is not very old yet, and the cream is rising to the top," he said. "What will now happen is these guys will get more money to make pictures they have been dreaming about."

* For a complete list of Monday's Academy Award winners, see Page 2 of today's Monitor.

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