January 23, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

Who are you calling a slumdog? Over the past month or so, Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire has undergone an extraordinary transformation from Oscar underdog to front-runner. The $13 million indie concerns a Bombay street urchin (Dev Patel) who uses a stint on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to capture the attention of a long-lost love (Freida Pinto). It has sailed past serious obstacles — a starless cast, a story told mostly in Hindi — and won four Golden Globes, taken in more than $60 million in worldwide grosses, and now snagged 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

That’s quite an achievement for a movie that once seemed doomed. Last May, just as Boyle was finalizing his cut of the film, his American distributor, Warner Independent, was shut down amid corporate downsizing at Warner Bros. (whose parent company, Time Warner, also owns Entertainment Weekly). Suddenly Slumdog was at the mercy of a studio whose tastes hewed more to the comic-book realism of The Dark Knight than the hardscrabble realism of Slumdog. When Boyle screened his film for Warner’s top brass, according to sources close to the negotiations, the executives didn’t see enough financial upside to investing in Slumdog beyond the $5 million they’d spent on the U.S. rights. (Warner reps declined to comment for this story.) Fearing their movie might be dumped quietly in theaters in March 2009 (or worse, go straight to DVD), the filmmakers were heartbroken. ”I had just come off the film Sunshine, which was a disaster,” says Boyle, referring to his 2007 effects-driven sci-fi movie that grossed less than $4 million domestically. ”And I was going to follow it up with a film that may not even get released. I thought, ‘Oh, this is it. It’s time to get another job.”’

Slumdog‘s prospects grew brighter last summer when dedicated Warner Independent staffers started lobbying Warner Bros. president of production Jeff Robinov to submit the movie to the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Producer Christian Colson was making the same plea. ”It needed to be negotiated because, from a business perspective, what good would it do them to have it at a festival eight months before they were going to release it?” he recalls. ”We pushed very, very hard to get it into the festivals.”

In the end, Robinov agreed and the plan worked. ”At Toronto, people were coming up to me saying it had changed their lives forever,” says veteran indie exec Bob Berney, who briefly flirted with releasing Slumdog through his also-defunct Warner-based Picturehouse label. ”People were telling me they were going to quit their job and move to India. Then all these amazing things happened [for the film], which mirrors the movie. It’s a real fairy tale.”

The Prince Charming in this story is Fox Searchlight, which forked over $2.5 million for the project around the time it made its festival debut. The studio had concerns about the film’s commercial viability, but it also had a long history with Boyle (28 Days Later, Millions, and Sunshine) and a visceral response to an early screening. ”You felt you’d seen a revolutionary film,” says Peter Rice, president of Searchlight, which got plenty of Oscar love for Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, but has never had a Best Picture winner. ”So we sat around and said, ‘What shall we do?”’

Fox Searchlight ultimately believed in Slumdog enough to invest an estimated $25 million to market the film and build an Oscar campaign. Before it was released, the studio held 197 special screenings across the country. Now Searchlight is continuing to woo Academy voters with Q&A sessions that capitalize on Boyle and Co.’s guileless appeal. ”They’re so grateful and happy and uncynical — just like the movie,” says Searchlight COO Nancy Utley. ”It makes you feel good to be around it.”

Of course, there have been plenty of scrappy nonstudio films — Brokeback Mountain, for one — that made it into Oscar’s final five but wound up as the little indies that…couldn’t. This time it may be different. The combination of the movie’s love-conquers-poverty plot and indie-conquers-studio backstory has helped Slumdog win the affection and, possibly more importantly, the sympathy of voters. ”Every actor, director, and crew person knows what it’s like to place their dream in the hands of a person in a position of power and be turned away,” says one veteran Oscar campaigner who works for a competing studio. ”It’s an industry full of rejection, and everyone feels like they’re constantly coming from behind. The Academy loves an underdog story.”

Best Picture Contenders

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Total Nominations: 13
Domestic Box Office to Date: $104 million

Total Nominations: 5
Domestic Box Office to Date: $9 million

Total Nominations: 8
Domestic Box Office to Date: $21 million

The Reader
Total Nominations: 5
Domestic Box Office to Date: $8 million

Slumdog Millionaire
Total Nominations: 10
Domestic Box Office to Date: $45 million

Source: Box Office Mojo

120 minutes
Anil Kapoor,
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Complete Coverage

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