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Passion Plus Timing Makes Magic Formula for 2017 Oscars

Scene from "La la Land" (Photo: Dale Robinette)

This year's Oscars is filled with projects fueled by passion and deeply-held personal visions that prevailed over skepticism, funding troubles and
conventional wisdom.

For favorite "La La Land," which took director Damien Chazelle six years to get made, and indie challenger "Moonlight," made on such a tight budget the cast and crew shared one trailer, the tortured path to the Academy Awards has
only added to their allure.

Other recent films like Martin Scorsese's "Silence" was 28 years in the making, while Warren Beatty flirted for two decades with the idea of "No Rules Apply."

They were notably snubbed in awards season and at the box office, however, as was Ben Affleck's personal project "Live by Night."

Hollywood awards watchers say that may have little to with the skill and commitment of the filmmakers. But certain passion projects and their creators found a way of breaking through to audiences at what turned out to be the just the right moment, years after they were first conceived.

"Timing is everything on these movies and how they resonate. It's about passion but it's also about being in the right place at the right time," said Pete Hammond, awards columnist for

Cast and crew of "Moonlight" poses backstage with their award for Best Motion Picture - Drama at the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, CA Jan. 8, 2017.
Cast and crew of "Moonlight" poses backstage with their award for Best Motion Picture - Drama at the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, CA Jan. 8, 2017.

"Moonlight," the tale of a young black man struggling to grow up in an impoverished Miami neighborhood, was drawn from the personal experiences of director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney.

"No one was doing it for the paycheck," said "Moonlight"s Oscar-nominated supporting actress Naomie Harris. "We didn't have a publicity budget, it was all word of mouth and us doing interviews."

Despite such hardships, the unsentimental view of bullying, drugs and gay issues arrived just as Hollywood was clamoring for movies about modern, black stories rather than "maids and slaves" fare. "Moonlight" has eight Oscar nominations.

The film shows "a very specific place and point of view and I think people right now want to experience genuine and authentic stories," Jenkins said.

Fantasy comes knocking

Meanwhile, "La La Land," a new, romantic musical with old world charm but a not-so-happy ending, is favorite to take the best picture Oscar on Sunday after getting a leading 14 nominations.

Six years ago, "the idea of making an original Los Angeles-set movie was an utter fantasy," said producer Fred Berger, while accepting a Golden Globe last month, thanking voters for "ignoring conventional wisdom."

After a bitter U.S. election campaign and a slew of sudden celebrity deaths in 2016, escaping it all with a musical has proved appealing.

"Musicals have been very successful at times when the country is in a state of depression or war. When the nation is not in a good place, musicals explode," said Craig Zadan, who with Neil Meron produced Oscar-winner "Chicago" in 2002.

Waiting does not always have a happy ending.

Beatty directed, produced, wrote and starred in his film about Howard Hughes. But his dream project failed with audiences who may have felt they knew enough about the eccentric business and film tycoon from Scorsese's acclaimed 2004 film "Aviator."

Also, after a 15 year-absence from movie screens, many people under 30 had barely heard of Beatty.

Affleck channeled his love of 30s and 40s gangster movies to write, direct, produce and star in "Live by Night." But critics said it fell short of celebrated films of the same genre like "The Godfather," or the recent TV series "Boardwalk Empire."

Variety said poor box office resulted in a $75 million loss for movie studio Warner Bros.

With "La La Land, Chazelle also used an old form, but he infused it with a modern love story about ambition and artistic compromise.

"That's the big difference in making it successful. Chazelle hit the zeitgeist because he knew he had to make it something for audiences today who would respond," said Hammond.

"It has the passion behind it but it also has something that people can relate to and that's the magic formula," he added.