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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - What if there were no independent film business? There might be no "Slumdog Millionaire," no "Little Miss Sunshine," no "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" or "The Blair Witch Project."
There might be no Ryan Gosling or Maggie Gyllenhaal or Quentin Tarantino.
No "Winter's Bone" or Jennifer Lawrence.
What, you ask. Who?
Those are the same questions audiences asked about "Swingers" in 1996, but no one wonders now when thinking about that film and its key players, actors Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau and director Doug Liman.
Whether moviegoers remember "Winter's Bone," its director Debra Granik or the movie's lead actress, 19-year-old Lawrence, awaits how the movie plays at box offices over the next few months and whether it can gain critical attention that puts it in Hollywood's 2010 awards race.
But two things are for certain. One, amid a dearth of good summer movies from major studios, "Winter's Bone" is among the best reviewed films in theaters and two, like so many indie movies these days it proved hard to find money to make.
"We got really lucky," admits Granik. "But also there are people who care about American art, it's not just the commerce of movies. They are curious about how to keep that part of the American film culture alive. The small, the scrappy, the marginal, the regional."
"Winter's Bone" is all those things. Made at a budget around $2 million, the movie's story is a bleak human drama revolving around a small group of people living in the rural Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri who are involved in making a form of crystal methamphetamine, commonly called "crank."
One of them, a teenager named Ree (Lawrence), is told she and her younger siblings will be evicted from their home unless she can find her dad, who has disappeared. So, Ree sets out on a journey through her community to find her lost dad.
What she uncovers is a web of secrets within a close knit community, and what emerges is a tale of one young woman's determination in the face of enduring hardship.
Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips said it "sets a stern suspense narrative against a blessedly unconventional cinematic backdrop." Of Lawrence, he wrote: "It's for performances like this that moviegoers find themselves taking a chance on a title that doesn't have a fast-food tie-in."
"Winter's Bone" earned the Grand Jury Prize for best drama and a screenwriting award at this past Sundance Film Festival, and it has scored a 92 percent positive rating on review website rottentomatoes.com.
On its U.S. debut last weekend, the movie enjoyed a strong per theater average of $21,000 at box offices in four theaters. It rolls out to 14 U.S. cities on Friday.
By any account, making an indie movie has been difficult since 2008 when financing all but dried up and several major distributors went out of business. But lost in many tales of gloom and doom in U.S. art houses is that the overall box office has been solid, and investors can make money.
"Good indie movies can and are getting made, and good indie movies can and are succeeding at the box office," said Tom Ortenberg, who runs film consulting firm One Way Out Media.
"My feeling on the changing marketplace over the last couple of years...there's always room for a good movie. Where the bottom is falling out is in the marginal movies," he said.
That is good news for Granik and Lawrence, who fought for the role of Ree because, she said, she believed in the value of a dark human drama at a time when big studios are, mostly, cranking out family films, comedies and comic book action.
"In my head, I thought, this isn't what America wants, but it's what they need. It's unrelenting, it's gritty and it's real," Lawrence said. "I went to Sundance, hoping some people would see the movie, hoping some people would like it and it was a surprise hit," she said. "You got to take chances."
Editing by Jill Serjeant