LOS ANGELES — "The Artist" is a dream for film fans, a dilemma for movie-marketing executives.
In an age of widescreen 3-D, rainbow-colored, star-driven spectacles, how do you sell a black-and-white film shot in a 2-D boxy format, with no A-listers and barely a word of spoken dialogue?
There's only one answer. Make people love it so much they do the selling for you, talking it up as one of the freshest, cleverest and sweetest nights out at the movies they've had in a while.
A throwback to the silent-film era, "The Artist" has been winning over audiences since premiering at last May's Cannes Film Festival and could become the first serious silent contender at the Academy Awards since the earliest years of the Oscars.
A couple of years ago, French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius felt utterly alone thinking that a silent movie might have a place in today's digital cinema era.
"It's something I had in mind for a long, long time, but it's very hard to find the money," Hazanavicius said at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "The Artist" also played. "It was like a fantasy. Oh, my dream would be to produce a silent movie. And people would say, 'Yeah, yeah, but in real life, what do you want to do?'"
Then came Hazanavicius' two "OSS 117" spy spoofs, both hits in France. With fresh box-office clout, he pitched his silent-movie idea to producer Thomas Langmann.
"Everybody thought I was crazy, and then I found someone more crazy than I was," Hazanavicius said. "He said, 'OK, let's do it.'"
Hazanavicius recruited French star Jean Dujardin, his "OSS 117" leading man, for the title role of "The Artist," 1920s Hollywood silent-film sensation George Valentin, whose fortunes abruptly slide as the sound era takes over.
As George tumbles from the top to the bottom, rising talkies star Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius' wife, Berenice Bejo), becomes a guardian angel trying to look out for her former idol.
Shot in Los Angeles, "The Artist" grandly recreates old Hollywood and beautifully weaves from comedy to melodrama, lively action to clever dance numbers. Almost all of the scant dialogue is told the old-fashioned way — through title cards — but "The Artist" is far from silent. The film features a gorgeous, jazzy musical score and brilliant sound effects that pop from the speakers during otherwise hushed sequences.
While Dujardin and Bejo are relatively unknown to U.S. audiences, the supporting cast includes such Hollywood regulars as John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell and Penelope Ann Miller. The film also co-stars a scene-stealing canine, Uggie, a Jack Russell terrier who is George's constant companion and co-star in his big-screen silent adventures.
"The Artist" picked up Harvey and Bob Weinstein as executive producers, whose Weinstein Co. is distributing the film domestically and aiming to do what the brothers do best — attract Oscar attention that can make a mainstream hit out of an art house film.
"Marketing is strictly word of mouth. It's almost impossible to market, but I do think that everyone who sees it falls in love with it," said Erik Lomis, head of distribution for Weinstein. "I think it's a picture that can play everywhere, and I think it will play everywhere. It's just going to take some time to gestate in the market place."
The film already is a hit in France, where it opened in October. It debuts Friday in four New York City and Los Angeles theaters, and Weinstein will gradually roll it out to the rest of the country during the buildup to the Jan. 24 Oscar nominations.
"The Artist" has a strong shot at a best-picture nomination in a field that could include such heavy-hitters as Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," George Clooney's "The Descendants" and Brad Pitt's "Moneyball."
Charles Chaplin continued making silent films into the 1930s, and other filmmakers occasionally have tried it, notably Mel Brooks with his 1976 comedy "Silent Movie." But a feature-length silent film has not competed for best picture since the late 1920s, when "Wings" and "Sunrise" took the top honors at the very first Oscars and the acting prizes went to performers in silent films, Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor.
Even with an over-abundance of strong performances for the upcoming Oscars, "The Artist" might have acting prospects, too. Bejo's Peppy is a charming spitfire, while Dujardin won the best-actor prize at Cannes for "The Artist," a role that allowed him to emulate some of his early film heroes.
"There were lots of influences I took from, for example, Gene Kelly or someone like Douglas Fairbanks," Dujardin said. "Also, what I have to offer is very instinctual. I just let it go. ... Almost a fantasy, like imagining how would I be if I was kind of a big star, a little infatuated with myself at the end of the '20s, who's kind of extremely enthusiastic and at the same time happy. At the same time, a little naive. There's also a slight schizophrenic side to him."
"The Artist" arrives during a holiday crush of comedies, action flicks, family films and other Hollywood blockbusters that have colossal advertising budgets behind them.
Hazanavicius hopes audiences come out for his quaint little silent film, but it's now up to fans to do the talking and persuade other people to turn up.
"It's not really my problem. I made the movie I wanted to see, and now I've seen it and I'm happy with it. If people want to come, they will come. If they won't, I can't go in the house of everybody and say, 'You, go to see a black-and-white silent movie!' I'm not Stalin. It's a free country," Hazanavicius said.
"I'm sure that people are scared. Everybody was scared from the very beginning. But they have to trust themselves, and they will enjoy it, if they come."