An international gold standard

LA Times

As the Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday in Los Angeles, a director in Croatia will be holding his breath. There's a jittery producer in Morocco and a sleepless director in Iran who will feel the same anxiety, desperately hoping their movies will be mentioned following four magical words: "And the nominees are . . . ."

On Oscar nomination day, filmmakers across America will be tuned in to hear who made it to the finals, but perhaps those with the most at stake will be in the foreign-language film category. To them, a nomination could result in a theatrical release, financing for their next movie, respectability at home--and perhaps a career in Hollywood.

This year 45 countries qualified to submit their films--tying last year's record number of entries. The competition ranges from countries like Ecuador submitting its first film ever ("Dreams From the Middle of the World") to such wildly popular films as Taiwan's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," as well as more obscure yet well-received films such as Iran's "A Time for Drunken Horses."

Critics and observers have complained that this was a weak year for quality English-language films, but the opposite seems to be true of the foreign films. Unlike in past years, some of the films have already found distribution in the U.S. and a few have achieved considerable box-office success, particularly "Crouching Tiger," which has become the all-time foreign-language box-office champ in the U.S.

A foreign-language Oscar nomination is "helpful in getting your next movie financed and selling territories to get your movie around the world where it hasn't sold," explained John Lesher, an agent with United Talent Agency who represents director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose film "Amores Perros" (Love's a Bitch) is Mexico's entry. Lesher also represented Brazilian directors Walter Salles ("Central Station," a 1998 foreign-language film winner nominee) and this year's nominee, Andrucha Waddington for "Me, You, Them."

"Also it's a tremendous honor and big deal to your home country. Even though it's hard to get these movies distributed in the U.S., it's even harder around the world and so a nomination might help give it that extra push," he added.

Iranian director-producer Bahman Ghobadi is hoping a nomination for "A Time for Drunken Horses" will give him a return on his investment. The scale is incredibly modest by Hollywood standards. His movie, about the bleak lives of Kurdish smugglers on the Iran-Iraq border, cost $130,000 to make and so far, has taken in only about $100,000.

Even in Iran, a country whose leadership once called the U.S. "the Great Satan," an Academy Award nomination is a source of pride.

"There is not one kid from any village or a peasant who has never heard this word 'Oscar,' " said Ghobadi, speaking by phone from Iran. "When I was a child we were always hearing about this Oscar thing, which I never knew what it was. Then when I entered the movie world, I realized what it was. Now that I think about it, it is like a dream coming true. For the past two weeks I've been up all night."

So far, Lot 47 released Korea's "Chunhyang," and Sony Pictures Classics has picked up not only "Crouching Tiger" but also Vietnam's "Vertical Ray of the Sun" and Brazil's "Me, You, Them." USA Films is distributing Hong Kong's "In the Mood for Love," while Lions Gate will distribute "Amores Perros"; Canada's "Maelstrom" was acquired by Arrow Entertainment; France's "The Taste of Others" will be distributed by Miramax; and Offline Releasing and Shooting Gallery picked up "A Time for Drunken Horses." Several other films, including Croatia's "Marshall Tito's Spirit" and Morocco's "Ali Zaoua," are negotiating distribution deals.

Countries with established film industries like Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands have well-oiled film commissions that lobby on behalf of their product--hiring publicists to promote the film, hosting screenings and vying for high-end distributors. In past years, many European consulates hosted lavish parties with academy members to show their films and meet the stars. That practice was outlawed by the academy two years ago.

For these countries, getting an Oscar nomination is not as important as finding a good distributor who is willing to put marketing muscle behind the film, said Luciana Castellina, president of Italia Cinema, a promotion agency for the country's films.

"Our experience is that at most U.S. festivals, people love Italian films, but that has no relation whatsoever with what happens in the market," she said in a telephone interview from Italy. "They just do not get into the commercial network. This is why being picked up by Miramax is much better than getting an Oscar."

But in countries with developing film industries, recognition by the academy is like a seal of approval that could be critical to the film's life span. Martha Sosa, producer of "Amores Perros," said a nomination would be an important symbol for the country's fledgling independent producers who are trying to mount a viable film industry. Mexico has not had a film nominated for an Oscar since 1975 with "Letters From Marusia."

"Having the academy recognize the value of the film would be very important for us politically," said Sosa, who co-founded the production company Altavista Films. "It's been [many] years since [Mexico] has been invited to that party, and so it would be a huge push for us. We are just starting to build this industry brick by brick and so this would give us a lot of hope. Outside recognition opens more doors for us."

Just getting a spot on committee is tough

But getting noticed among so many entries is a feat. And what makes it more difficult for foreign filmmakers is the academy's strict rules regulating the foreign film selections.

More than 600 academy members are eligible to vote on the foreign film selection committee. However, they must see at least 12 of the 15 films they are assigned on the big screen, either viewing them at one of the two academy screenings for each film or presenting an affidavit stating where and when they saw it. (Academy members voting for best picture are not required to see the film before they vote. They are also allowed to see it on video.) Once they have proven they have seen the films on the big screen, they are sent ballots.

The members vote for a film on a 6-to-10 scale resulting in an average that comes up with the top five films. Once the top five are selected, the members must see all of those again, vouching that they saw the films in theaters, before they can vote for a winner.

The time-consuming nature of the foreign film rules has tended to skew the audiences to an older crowd. Producer Mark Johnson, chairman of the academy's foreign-language film committee, said he has made it his mission to recruit younger members to the committee.

"My primary goal is to get as many newer, younger members into our committee so we can have a truer representation of contemporary film [sensibilities]," said Johnson, who has chaired the committee since 1999.

Johnson said he worries that the demographic makeup of the committee might make a nomination more difficult for the more hip, edgy films. Take, for example, last year's controversy over Germany's "Run Lola Run," which was applauded by critics and moviegoers alike for its avant-garde, unconventional style, and yet was overlooked by the academy. Perhaps this year's most challenging film is "Amores Perros," which has been lauded by critics worldwide but has also been targeted for its graphic violence and rapid, intense shooting style.

"I was disappointed that we did not nominate 'Run Lola Run' and [the 1998 Danish film] 'The Celebration,' " Johnson said. "That is why it's important to recruit young, active members in the film community today. I'm hoping this year's selections represent what is going on in movies currently, not just the traditional."

The specialized nature of the foreign film committee also makes life more difficult for the army of publicists hired by distributors and select countries to get the word out. With a regular Oscar campaign, publicists can hit most mainstream publications, including newspapers, television and the trades or send tapes to the academy members and make phone calls pushing for their films. With the foreign films, they are mainly limited to advertising the location and time of the screening and reminding members that they must submit their request for a ballot by a certain date.

"It's a difficult campaign," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. "It's as complicated as the Florida election. Not all the academy members vote, so you want to get as many of the ones that vote to see the movies in the theater. Every year is a different challenge to try to get the voters to see all the movies."

And hype doesn't necessarily make right with these voters.

"This is a small, select group," said Neil Friedman, president of Menemsha Entertainment World Sales Co., one of the few American firms specializing in buying foreign-language films. "It's a very quiet, very private group--it's not Hollywood per se. They do this because they love this kind of cinema and they are really voting based on what they appreciate.

"If anything, they are the type of people who are looking to discover something, so the underdog has a good chance. I think if you overhype them, they run in the opposite direction."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad