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How Julianne Moore won an Oscar for a little-seen film

LOS ANGELES – When Julianne Moore stepped up to the podium to collect her best-actress Oscar, it was for a film few outside of Hollywood have seen.

The actress with trademark red hair won the Academy Award for her performance in “Still Alice,” as a woman struggling to cope with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The movie has taken in just $8 million at the North American box office, less than any film that’s produced a best actress since Jessica Lange won for “Blue Sky” in 1995, according to Rentrak Corp. Moore, 54, used her acceptance speech to highlight the plight of Alzheimer’s patients.

“So many people with this disease feel isolated and marginalized,” Moore said. “And one of the wonderful things about movies is they make us feel seen and not alone.”

Moore not only won, she was the odds-on favorite going into Sunday night’s event. How she and distributor Sony Pictures Classics got there, against Reese Witherspoon, Rosamund Pike, Felicity Jones and Marion Cotillard, shines a light on the strategies film studios use to identify potential winners – and profit from their success.

“Still Alice” stands to benefit more than any other film from its Oscar-night win, according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst with Rentrak.

The trip to the Oscars started in September, when “Still Alice” was screened at the Toronto Film Festival. Moore plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor with three grown children who starts to forget words and is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the beginning of a frightening and heartbreaking struggle.

Her performance immediately generated speculation in the trade press that the movie could deliver a best-actress Oscar for any distributor that snapped it up. That’s just what Sony Pictures Classics did.

The label had worked with Fort Bragg, N.C.-born Moore before, as well as directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who made 2006’s “Quinceanera.”

“The minute we saw the film – it was the first screening in Toronto – we literally felt the movie had to be ours,” Sony Pictures Classics co-President Michael Barker said in an interview. “We literally felt that Julianne Moore had a shot at the Oscar.”

Much went the producers’ way. As the Hollywood Reporter pointed out, the best-actress field at that point had only one “slam-dunk contender” in Witherspoon, who played a woman on a journey of self-discovery in “Wild.”

And Oscar voters have a track record of recognizing actors who have taken on the challenge of playing characters with mental or physical disabilities, as evidenced by such movies as “Children of a Lesser God,” “Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump” and “My Left Foot.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has also rewarded actors who have nearly won previously. Moore fit the bill, with four nominations without victory for best actress or supporting actress – including 2003, when she was a finalist in both categories for “The Hours” and “Far From Heaven.”

“We always felt that Julianne Moore, her time would come when she would win the Oscar,” Barker said. “We just felt it was one of those moments.”

To be eligible, the film had to be released commercially in 2014. “Still Alice” would be up against the year-end rush of prestige films, so studio decided to delay a broad release and opted for a one-week qualifying run in December.

It opened in six cities on Jan. 16, the day after Moore was nominated for the Oscar, going from 12 theaters to 84 to more than 500. The film expanded by 265 this past weekend, reaching 765 locations and adding $2.2 million to its total.

“All the Oscar buzz is exposing this little film to millions,” said Jeff Gomez, chief executive officer of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a movie marketing consulting firm.

“Still Alice” garnered 90 percent positive reviews from critics tracked by Rottentomatoes.com. The film cost an estimated $5 million to make, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. That doesn’t include marketing costs or the cost of the awards marketing campaign.