One of the happiest places to be on Oscar nominations morning had to be a condo in Park City, Utah, where the Fox Searchlight executive team, entrenched for the Sundance Film Festival, celebrated their 20 nominations—the most of any company.
Searchlight’s fantasy romance The Shape of Water collected the most nominations of any film, 13, and its revenge saga Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri earned seven, with both movies making it into the best-picture race as well. The strong showing comes as Searchlight faces uncertainty—a rarity in the stable company’s 24-year history, as the Walt Disney Co. moves forward with a planned acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s film and TV divisions.
“All the signals we’ve gotten point to the fact that Disney is happy if this deal goes through to have Searchlight be part of it and keep doing what we do,” said Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley, speaking by phone Tuesday morning after the nominations were announced. “They appreciate the quality of our films. We feel reassured.”
Both of Searchlight’s Oscar-nominated movies reflect an evolution in the company’s strategy in recent years, emphasizing in-house productions over acquisitions. In 2017, homegrown movies comprise more than 70 percent of Searchlight’s slate, up from about half that three years ago. “It’s thrilling for us to have two movies we produced from scratch with the filmmakers,” Utley said. “Both of them are so distinctive and unique.”
Both movies have been performing well at the box office, with The Shape of Water at $30.2 million domestically since its December 1 release and Three Billboards at $31.9 million domestically since its November 10 release. Utley said the company plans to expand them both this weekend, going up to 1,500 screens on The Shape of Water and 1,200 on Three Billboards.
The Searchlight team watched the nominations over “a big breakfast and a lot of yelling and screaming,” Utley said, and shared a phone a call with Shape of Water writer-director Guillermo del Toro, who was hopping on a plane to Tokyo for the rollout of his film in Japan, and e-mail with Three Billboards writer-director Martin McDonagh.
Though Fox Searchlight is a perennial Oscar race player, “I don’t think anybody gets used to this,” Utley said. “It’s such a nerve-racking and exciting process. It never gets any less anxiety-producing. I didn’t cry this time, though.”
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