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Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Oscar prospects for 'Once's' songs already studied

the LA Times By Sheigh Crabtree, Special to The Times May 29, 2007

Will "Once," the recently released Irish film, turn into this summer's indie hit? It's showing early promise.

Starring Glen Hansard, the lead singer of Dublin's the Frames rock band, as an Irish street singer and his sometime musical collaborator, Marketa Irglova, as a classically trained pianist who sells roses on the street, the film opened May 18 on just two screens, both in L.A., to an abnormally high $30,000-per-screen average. An unvarnished ode to musical discovery, "Once" expanded to 20 screens in 13 cities over the Memorial Day weekend, averaging $21,626 per screen.

Then there's the music.

The "Once" soundtrack, featuring Hansard and his songs, was released last Tuesday. Within hours it charted on the top 100 soundtracks sales on iTunes, and by Friday it had climbed to No. 3 in soundtrack sales. The album is doing equally well on Amazon.com (as high as No. 3), at Barnesandnoble.com (No. 6), and the soundtrack's MySpace page is rapidly picking up friends.

"Once" landed in theaters with a lot of street cred, having won the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award for best dramatic film. It has since earned critical raves. In a classic limited theatrical release pattern often used to nurture the prospects of smaller films, it is slowly being rolled out to 150 screens in major U.S. cities through mid-June. The hope is that it will build enough word-of-mouth and box office returns to play through the summer against the big blockbusters, according to Nancy Utley, head of marketing for Fox Searchlight, "Once's" distributor.

Now the soundtrack and its singer-songwriter team are starting to be prepped for an Oscar run. In an unusual twist, the soundtrack was discovered, at least in this country, before the movie. When Glen Brunman, a Sony Soundtrax music exec, bought the music rights in mid-January, he hadn't seen "Once." The film hadn't won any festival prizes, nor did it have a distribution deal. He stumbled across it while poring over indie music and movie blogs.

"Bloggers and film critics were writing love letters to this movie," he recalled. "What was unusual, from my perspective, is that they were focusing on the songs and the music."

He fired off a blind e-mail about the soundtrack rights to the movie's production company in Ireland. A brief e-mail reply included the cellphone number for the film's executive producer, who was at Sundance. "Once I tracked the filmmakers down, I just grabbed on and never let go," Brunman said.

Not long after, Fox Searchlight picked up the film's North American distribution rights for the bargain-basement price of $500,000, according to an executive involved with the acquisition. (The film cost about 130,000 euros).

"When Fox came in, that gave me added confirmation that I wasn't hallucinating," said Brunman, who was in a similar situation a couple of years ago when Sony Music Soundtrax and Fox Searchlight collaborated on Zach Braff's "Garden State," which made $36 million worldwide against a $2.5 million production budget. Perhaps even more than the film, the soundtrack became a pop culture touchstone, with 1.3 million copies sold.

By way of comparison, the most albums "Once's" bootstrapped star, Hansard, has ever sold is around 40,000. And the soundtrack from Fox Searchlight's surprise hit from last summer, "Little Miss Sunshine," sold roughly 30,000 CDs, although music plays a much less vital role in that family comedy. As word of mouth continues to build through the summer, Brunman hopes that radio begins to play "Once's" songs and that late-night and daytime television bookers will ask Hansard and Irglova to perform.

Sony and Fox Searchlight have equally high hopes for the film, its original music, the filmmakers and cast, but just a week or two into release, nobody is quite sure how far it can go. Utley said that seeing what turns up at prestigious film festivals, like Toronto and Telluride, this fall will help the studio determine "Once's" Oscar chances.

"It's impossible to predict what word of mouth produces," Brunman said. "None of us wants to force anything. The movie and music are so powerful, we think it will find its audience and they will determine its fate."

In the meantime, before leaving for a long Memorial Day weekend, Utley and her group at Fox Searchlight convened for a small listening party to determine which songs they might submit to the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Oscar consideration. To be eligible, a song must consist of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the film.

Each of "Once's" 13 songs was written solely for the movie, according to a Fox Searchlight spokesperson. However, four of the songs first appeared on "The Swell Season," an album Hansard and Irglova released last August. It was eight months after the film wrapped production, following a 18-day shoot in January 2006. Two songs also appear on the Frames' current album, "The Cost."

In a parallel album-released-before-movie conundrum, Kathleen "Bird" York's Oscar-nominated song "In the Deep," written for Paul Haggis' 2005 indie "Crash," was originally released on her 2003 album, "The Velvet Hour." Despite competitors' suggestions to the Oscar music branch that York should be disqualified for writing the song for the album and not the film, Haggis assured the academy that York had written the song for "Crash" but because of production delays on his film, she released her album and the song before the film made it to theaters.

That year Three Six Mafia won the original song Oscar for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow." The sight of Three Six Mafia members in baseball caps, T-shirts and jeans clutching their Oscar onstage before startled academy members, is indelible.

Should the music from "Once" win over the hearts of the academy, the former Irish street busker with his ramshackle guitar standing onstage at the Kodak Theatre alongside his shy, teen-age Czech companion would look perfectly out of place too. for the latest news, tour dates and info about the frames visit: claire@theframes.ie www.theframes.ie

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