Can Fox Searchlight Shine in 08 Without the “It” Indie Comedy?

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It’s been a tremendous few years for Fox Searchlight, the studio with the most “little indie that could” credits to its name in recent history. Now that full Oscar season is in full swing again, Fox Searchlight must be hoping to create similar viral buzz for its two big 2008 features, Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler, than it has for past underdog hits Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, and Napoleon Dynamite. We can expect to hear tons about the Wrestler-exclusive Bruce Springsteen track and see the pretty young female lead from Slumdog on red carpets soon enough–but will that match past Fox Searchlight success at getting blockbuster numbers for its festival-darling films?

So far, they can’t complain–Slumdog Millionaire is everywhere, even though quite literally, it is out almost nowhere yet. Even without any recognizable faces or Diablo Cody-like zingers, the film has resonated with critics and has brought in impressive per-theater averages (plus has us rooting for a best picture nod).

But The Wrestler might pose a greater threat to the Fox Searchlight magic touch. The Darren Aronovsky vehicle looks nothing like a cheery stroll in the park, and it’s not just because The Moldy Peaches aren’t playing in the background. We’re bizarrely excited for the movie, looking forward to the Mickey Rourke/Marisa Tomei courtship and Aronovsky’s velvety Americana shots. But none of this sounds easy to turn into a Youtube sensation (although a first-look scene was released today, and it’s great).

Perhaps past Fox Searchlight campaigns have just had it easy–it’s not hard, after all, to come up with a Juno-themed hamburger facebook gift or to get an amazing ensemble cast to travel in a yellow Volkswagen van. But this year’s two best bets for Searchlight aren’t quirky comedies, and this might hurt their chances at a widespread reach–and, in turn, diminish the buzz behind their underdog Oscar success.

Luckily for the studio, real-life Mickey Rourke might just be all the comedy that The Wrestler lacks on paper. As he continues to do press for the film, it might get harder and harder to look away (“You want to walk into a restaurant and have people say: ‘There’s Mickey Rourke. He was great in “The Wrestler.” ‘ You don’t want them jumping out of windows”) and harder and harder to resist his grotesque comeback. We think Slumdog‘s got it in the bag–with such a spectacular script and cinematography, an indie doesn’t need to also have the stars and the bright color scheme to bring in the critics and the audiences. (For example, last year Fox Searchlight also distributed Once, a surprisingly popular release whose soundtrack was its primary draw).

As for The Wrestler, it might get tough to get it rushing towards blockbuster success. But for a downer story about an aging wrestler with an estranged daughter and a meaty Mickey Rourke, we think so far it’s doing better than some might expect.