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"Beasts" comes to Oscars with tiny budget, first-time director

Director Benh Zeitlin and actress Quvenzhane Wallis react as they arrive at the National Board of Review Awards in New York January 8, 2013.
Director Benh Zeitlin and actress Quvenzhane Wallis react as they arrive at the National Board of Review Awards in New York January 8, 2013.

By Ronald Grover

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Beasts of the Southern Wild", nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, is one the most unlikely contenders ever for Hollywood's top honors.

Produced for just $1.5 million by a collective of first-time filmmakers who bunked in a fishing shack during the shooting, it is considered a long-shot to win the top Oscar, but it has already set a new standard for thrifty filmmaking in an industry that routinely spends 100 times more for a major picture.

"It's the perfect combination of art and commerce, but the commerce was made a lot better because of that price," said Fox studio chairman Jim Gianopulos, whose Fox Searchlight Pictures unit distributes the film in the United States.

The film, set in the swamps of Louisiana near New Orleans, portrays the fierce pride and intimate, if dysfunctional, culture of a community on the furthest margins of society.

The stars are a hard-drinking father and his young daughter, played by the now nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, whose performance made her the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee.

The film was created by Benh Zeitlin, a 30-year-old first-time director who set up his studio in the abandoned Connecticut racquetball court that he had used for his senior thesis film at Wesleyan University.

"I'm not sure they knew what we were doing in there when we set up to make the film," said Zeitlin. "I think they thought we were just making short films."

The crew he assembled became Court 13 pictures, named for the court, and it describes itself on its website as a collective of "madcap artists and animators" who work on one another's projects.

Zeitlin also ranged far outside the usual list of Hollywood names in casting the film, using first-time actors, including Wallis and Dwight Henry as her father.

The crew were all paid the same salary as the director, said producer Paul Mezey, and will share in whatever profits the film makes. So far, it has generated $12 million in domestic ticket sales and is not yet profitable, he said, after Fox deducts its marketing and other costs.

The crew traveled Louisiana to shoot the film, where they stayed in what they called the "Crash Pad", a fishing cabin behind a gas station with 12 bunk beds.

Zeitlin said the group "became scavengers" to make the film. They used lumber from houses that were being torn down, and changed the script where needed to make props out of things they found on the streets.

The lead financier of the effort was Cinereach, a non-profit organization that mostly backs documentaries.

"They usually give out $30,000 to $50,000 grants for an artist's exploration and discovery of his gifts," said Mezey. "When they read the script, they paid for nearly all of it."

Cinereach had become interested after seeing Zeitlin's thesis film, an eight-minute short called "Egg", and "being blown away by Benh's vision, his touch, the almost poetic way he crafted the film", Mezey said.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, and then lured Fox Searchlight to distribute the film in the United States. The production retained the foreign rights, and has sold many of them.

"It was surreal, like something from 'Alice in Wonderland'," Zeitlin said of the Oscar nominations. If he wins, he would be the youngest director every to lug the statute home.

(This story corrects name of production company in paragraph 8 and of actor in paragraph 9 in Feb. 21 story)

(Reporting By Ronald Grover; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Pravin Char)

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