Oscar Briefly Lifts Foreign Lingo Pics, Plus “Pleasures” Unknown
by Anthony Kaufman
“The Oscar doesn’t necessarily go to the richest distributor,” explained Emily Russo, co-president of Zeitgeist Films, which is releasing this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film, “Nowhere in Africa,” the story of a German-Jewish family who wait out World War II in Kenya. The film beat out such big hitters as Miramax’s upcoming “Hero,” directed by the famed Zhang Yimou, and Samuel Goldwyn Films’ widely seen “The Crime of Father Amaro.” “Nowhere in Africa” is the first Oscar win for the 15-year-old boutique distributor. And according to Russo, it won’t be their last.
Asked whether or not Zeitgeist could now compete with the mighty Miramax, she said, “We’re in the same world now,” citing the film’s box office position the weekend after the awards (number 26, in front of the Disney subsidiary’s “Gangs of New York” and “City of God”). Last weekend, “Nowhere in Africa” continued to expand, staying firm at the 26th spot (right behind “Daredevil” and “The Hours”). This coming Friday, according to Russo, the film will jump to at least 50 screens across the country and the number of prints will leap to 70, more than twice the original run. (In Germany, distributor Constantin Film re-released the film on 100 screens. Proud Deutchland hasn’t had an Oscar winner since Volker Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum” in 1980.)
Russo says the film’s release was specifically timed to capitalize on its Oscar chances. When the company had a sense that the film would be Germany’s submission for the foreign-language category, Zeitgeist planned for a March theatrical opening. Zeitgeist also got a little help from the film’s sales agent, Bavaria International, which helped fund the Oscar campaign for “Nowhere in Africa.”
With a full-time staff of only seven (including Russo and co-president Nancy Gerstman), Zeitgeist needs all the help it can get. The company is upping its advertising presence and hiring an outside the company to help handle the increased business.
It’s a pivotal moment for the mini-distributor as they prove to the international arthouse market that they can cultivate the U.S. release of a small film by Abbas Kiarostami as well as a specialized movie with wider appeal. “I think this [award] will put us in a better position to compete,” said Russo, noting the film’s success will not only help Zeitgeist’s bottom line, but also boost its already solid reputation. “It may make us more interesting to sales companies and help us to acquire a bigger film,” she said.
But Russo is quick to reiterate that money doesn’t always make the winning bidder. “It’s not always about being able to ‘beat’ the other distributors,” she explains. “It’s about recognizing a film’s potential and having vision for that film. ‘Nowhere in Africa’ had been offered to all the major studios and they didn’t buy it.”
The Oscars also gave renewed life to Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her,” whose absence from the foreign lingo competition, Russo admitted, paved the way for the success of “Nowhere in Africa.” The first Spanish-language film ever to win an Original Screenplay award (surpassing frontrunners such as “Far from Heaven” and “Gangs of New York”), Sony Pictures Classics’ “Talk to Her” gained an extra 68 screens after its win, along with an additional gross of over $334,000. But after four months already in release, “Talk to Her” is leveling out; in the second weekend after the awards, attendance figures slipped 29 percent, reaching pre-Oscar proportions.
Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki’s Best Animated Oscar win for “Spirited Away,” beating such high-profile American-made movies as “Ice Age” and “Lilo and Stitch,” also breathed temporary and unprecedented new life into the film’s release: post-Awards, distributor Disney expanded the run from 7 to 711 screens. According to Variety, the nearly $1.8 million in box office surge represented an increase of 35,132 percent. But Disney’s theatrical commitment to “Spirited Away” ends soon: On April 15, according to a Disney spokesperson, the theatrical distribution will abruptly expire in order to make way for the film’s DVD and video release.
Disney’s strategy makes sense: the effects of an Oscar win usually doesn’t last: (see “Eyes on the Prize; For Foreign Language Films, Sometimes an Award is Just an Award”.) But imagine the possibilities if Zeitgeist and Sony Classics could multiply their print runs by the hundreds for a mere two-week period.
Or New Yorker Films, for that matter. They could use that kind of muscle for the U.S. release of Chinese renegade Jia Zhangke’s irreverent art-pop masterpiece “Unknown Pleasures.” Slow to come out of the gate, the Cannes and New York Film Festival critics’ favorite opened March 26 at New York’s Cinema Village, with subsequent dates scheduled only for San Francisco (April 11), Portland (May 2), St. Louis (May 30) and an appearance at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. (They have been unable to book L.A’s Nuart as of press time). Despite gushing press coverage, the film’s first week in release only drew a little more than $5,000 in sales, while the second week dropped to under $2,000. According to New Yorker’s Rebeca Conget, this Friday the film will remain playing in a single 3:20 p.m. afternoon slot in New York, for probably no more than another week.
The third and most accessible of Jia’s oeuvre (“Xiao Wu” and “Platform”), “Unknown Pleasures” combines the urban ennui, capitalist satire, and hapless slacker-protagonists of his previous works with a hip, po-mo self-reflexivity (“Pulp Fiction” is evoked more than once) and global-political prescience (“Are the Americans bombing?” one character asks). As good as it is, said Conget, “I think it falls under the category of ‘festival film’ and ‘critics film’ — the kind of film we like to buy, but for some reason, it’s just not working,” she continued, with a hint of exasperation. “Maybe the audience is changing. I just don’t know.”
One possible reason, said Conget, is that a small foreign-language film like “Unknown Pleasures” has been pushed out of arthouse theaters in favor of specialized pictures like “Chicago” and “Laurel Canyon,” leaving already crowded calendar houses like Boston’s The Brattle and Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque as their only option. Fortunately, like Disney, they have ancillary rights. If you can’t make the 3:20 p.m. show next week, New Yorker Films will eventually release all three of Jia Zhangke’s films on DVD and video.