NEW YORK >> There’s never a bad time for a film company to land 20 Oscar nominations, but the timing is especially good for Fox Searchlight.
Thanks to Guillermo del Toro’s full-hearted monster romance, “The Shape of Water,” and Martin McDonagh’s gleefully profane revenge drama, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Searchlight led all studios in Tuesday’s Academy Award nominations. The haul, which ties Searchlight’s previous best showing, comes as the Walt Disney Co. is purchasing 21st Century Fox, Searchlight’s parent company, for $52.4 billion.
Proof of the value of the 24-year-old specialty stalwart, an awards-season regular, might not have been necessary for Disney. But it doesn’t hurt, either.
“It’s very gratifying on that front,” said Stephen A. Gilula, co-president of Searchlight with Nancy Utley. “The representatives at Disney, what they’ve said publicly and what we’ve heard privately is: They are truly excited about the films Searchlight does. They are very aware of our legacy over all these years. But in addition to that, it’s great to see that our core business plan still works.”
Searchlight’s core business remains, in a sense, an old-fashioned one: filmmaker-driven movies released into theaters and propelled by critical acclaim and word of mouth. And it’s still very much working. Aside from their awards success, the modestly budgeted “Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards” have done well at the box office.
“The Shape of Water” has grossed $30.4 million domestically, though it will have its widest release yet this weekend and has most of its overseas rollout to come. “Three Billboards” has taken in $31.9 million domestically and $54.2 million worldwide. It, too, will increase its theatrical footprint this weekend.
Though much attention Tuesday went to Netflix’s company-best eight nominations, the biggest winner in the Academy Award nominees might have been business plans like Searchlight’s. Other specialty outfits also triumphed, including 14 nominations for Universal’s Focus Features (“Phantom Thread,” ”Darkest Hour”) and six for Sony’s Sony Pictures Classics (“Call Me By Your Name,” ”Loveless,” ”A Fantastic Woman”).
A24, the youngest company of the bunch and one without a major studio’s backing, also strongly followed up its 2017 success (the best-picture winning “Moonlight”) with seven nods. They were led by Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” though Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” disappointed with a single nomination for Willem Dafoe.
“In a more challenging world that’s been written about ad nauseam, our primary business is making films for theatrical audiences,” said Gilula. “That whole process of working with filmmakers who are passionate about that raises our chances as opposed to walking into a festival and hoping to find a lottery ticket on the ground — and that’s much harder these days.
Both “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water” were in-house productions for Searchlight, which has in recent years put more focus into growing its own movies rather than acquiring them at festivals. Gilula spoke by phone as he was departing the Sundance Film Festival. He spoke highly of the talent on display there but unenthusiastic about the movies up for sale.
Searchlight has guided several films to best picture wins before, including “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” in 2015, “12 Years a Slave” in 2014, and “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2009. Arguably its stiffest Oscar competition in those years has been the Weinstein Co. Following the ouster of the disgraced Harvey Weinstein, the Weinstein Co. landed zero nominations Tuesday for the first time in more than a decade.
This year ties Searchlight’s previous best year, in 2015 when it had “Birdman,” ”Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Wild.” But its top contender last year, “The Birth of Nation” — which Searchlight bought for a record $17.5 million at Sundance — was derailed after a 1999 rape allegation surfaced against director and star Nate Parker.
“The last few years, we haven’t reached those levels,” said Gilula. “You ask yourself: ‘Jeez, was that the peak of our experiences?’ And it wasn’t. It means that our business works and it can work. Great filmmakers can still make movies for audiences in theaters. And I think Disney appreciates that, and they see us as providing a number of films that they’re not really focused on.”
Disney scored 10 nominations Tuesday, but their contenders — “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” ”Coco,” ”Beauty and the Beast” — are much more big-budgeted and are competing in less major categories.
20th Century Fox had seven nods of its own, pushing the studio’s overall total to 27. That included Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers drama “The Post” (best picture, best actress for Meryl Streep), the first adapted screenplay nod for a superhero movie in the Wolverine sequel “Logan” and two animated film nominations: “Ferdinand” and the much-mocked “The Boss Baby.”
“Each of these films represented risks taken, and all involved were rewarded for that courage. We couldn’t be more proud to be in business with these incredible filmmaking talents across our studio,” Stacey Snider, chairman and chief executive at 20th Century Fox Film, said in a statement.
Disney’s purchase of Fox is still pending regulatory approval, which could take more than a year. Representatives for Disney declined to comment for this story.