The World Vies for Oscar; Strategizing in the “Screener”-Free Foreign Category
by Anthony Kaufman
There’s one Oscar category where the “screener ban” wouldn’t make a bit of difference: Best Foreign Language Film. This year, as in every year, as stated in the Academy Awards bylaws, “Viewing Foreign Language Film entries on videocassette or DVD will NOT qualify a member for voting purposes in this category.” (The rule stands both for before and after the final nominees are decided.) So while the studios, their specialized companies and the independents continue to hammer out the myriad ways to get their films seen by the Academy, the category for best foreign film continues to be a bastion of respectability, restricted to the silver screen, and free of politicking and marketing tricks, right?
Not so fast. While many agree that the Foreign Language category is perhaps the least prone to manipulation, there’s still a lot of strategizing and a lot at stake, for the filmmakers, for the countries, and for the distributors. In fact, for the record-breaking 55 countries with film submissions this year, the prestige alone is worth a hearty fight, not to mention the potential increased foreign and domestic sales values.
Publicists are hired, receptions are held, private screenings are scheduled, ads are purchased in the special foreign Oscar issues of the trade magazines, and buzz is circulated. Harvey Weinstein has already been widely quoted as saying that Miramax’s Cannes market acquisition, “Twin Sisters” (Netherlands’s submission) is going to be the next “Nowhere in Africa,” winner of the award in 2003. And all of this is even before the five nominated films are announced on January 27th.
“There is a campaign, pre-nomination, that can be mounted,” says Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm, which recently announced its acquisition of Mongolia’s first ever Oscar submission, “The Story of the Weeping Camel.” “It involves equal measures of voodoo, espionage, and classic P.R.,” he says. “We will be doing all of this, I assure you.”
Fredell Pogodin, an L.A.-based publicist, is handling at least three potential foreign-language Oscar contenders, all with U.S. distribution, Palm Pictures’ “Reconstruction” (from Denmark), IFC Films’ “Kitchen Stories” (from Norway) and United Artists’ “Osama” (from Afghanistan). A veteran of the Oscar campaign, she says there are many strategies in place during the preliminary screenings to sway Academy voters, everything from simply lobbying members to gauging responses from an Academy screening, and deciding whether or not to stage additional showings. “You can choose not to have supplementary screenings, because you know you have a high average on your first screening,” she says.
And for a country like Afghanistan, where no official organization exists (let alone a stable government), it’s up to the domestic distributors to step up with a plan. UA’s Jack Turner notes, “We will be the only ones able to campaign for ‘Osama’ as there is no Afghani board able to provide any substantial lobbying support.”
When there is an official organizing body, major political jockeying is commonplace. This year, Italy was host to controversy when Italian filmmaker Pupi Avati withdraw his “A Heart Elsewhere” from the race, to protest the adding of some 112 new members to the organization that handles the voting, according to Variety. In the final tally, “I’m Not Scared” (a Miramax acquisition) from previous Foreign Language award-winner Gabrielle Salvatores (“Mediterraneo”) was the easiest choice over more subtle possibilities like Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Facing Window” (a Sony Pictures Classics acquisition) and Marco Bellocchio’s “Good Morning Night.”
In France, the nominating commission also played it safe with Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s “Bon Voyage,” a big-budget French studio “comic romp” (also acquired by Sony Classics). Despite lukewarm box office in France, the prestige picture has Oscar written all over it — recognizable stars Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu, not to mention that Rappaneau’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” was nominated in 1991 for the foreign language category and won an award for best costume design. Smaller-budgeted highly touted (and some argue better) French fare such as Andre Techine’s “Strayed” and Claude Chabrol’s “Flower of Evil” did not make the glossy cut.
A different kind of politics entered into Iran’s choice for Oscar consideration. The country’s official entry, Parviz Shahbazi’s “Deep Breath,” is a small unrelenting film about disaffected Iranian youth, duly punished for their transgressions. The more logical choice would have been “Crimson Gold,” the latest from Jafar Panahi (known for his acclaimed award-winners “The White Balloon” and “The Circle”). But the film, which won prizes in Cannes and Chicago, is banned in Iran.
Close-watchers of the foreign language category will notice the conspicuous presence of another controversial film: Elia Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention,” entered by a country of some dispute, Palestine. Last year, charges of racism and right-wing politics were leveled at the Academy for its apparent barring of the film from the selection. AMPAS spokespeople tried to assuage critics that the reasons were purely bureaucratic: the film was never officially submitted because it did not meet such eligibility requirements as being selected by a properly constituted committee and did not get released in its home country. (For 2003, such criterion was met.)
Similar problems face Armenia’s submission this year, “Vodka Lemon” from Iraqi-born Kurdish director Hiner Saleem. Disqualified on the basis that the film failed to meet the Academy’s eligibility criterion #3, which states, “The submitting country must certify that creative talent of that country exercised artistic control of the film,” Saleem’s latest film may have better luck next year under another nation’s banner, say, the United States of Iraq?
Other shutouts this year include Margarethe von Trotta’s “Rosenstrasse” (recently acquired by Samuel Goldwyn), bypassed in favor of Germany’s favorite “Good Bye, Lenin!” (Sony Classics); India, which withdrew from the race all together, citing a lack of award-worthy contenders; and Chinese entries “Purple Butterfly,” “Zhou Yu’s Train” and “Green Tea,” picked over by Chinese decision-makers in favor of the epic western “Warriors of Heaven and Earth” — currently a hot property among U.S. arthouse distributors.
The chance at an official nomination slot has acquisition execs actively “making offers on films that have been announced as official Academy entries,” acknowledges one buyer. In addition to “Warriors of Heaven and Earth,” distribs will no doubt be seeking available titles such as Russia’s entry (and top Venice winner) “The Return,” Sweden’s “Evil,” Spain’s Civil War drama “Soldados de Salimina,” from that country’s proven talent David Trueba, Bosnia’s Locarno winner “Fuse,” Israel’s “Nina’s Tragedies,” and Czech entry, “Zelary,” being sold in the U.S. by Menemsha’s Neil Friedman, a rep with some success selling foreign-language nominees in the past such as “Divided We Fall” and “Son of the Bride” to Sony Pictures Classics.
So which films will take the final coveted spots? With Byzantine voting procedures, anything can happen. How else to explain last year’s nominee “Zus & Zo”? Films are divided into three random groups, according to industry insiders, to allow the members of the Foreign Language Academy Committee a more digestible number of films to swallow. (They must see at least 80% of the films in their group for their votes to count.) But if one selection includes mainstream heavy-hitters from Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, along with contemplative critical favorites like Turkey’s “Distant” and Taiwan’s “Goodbye Dragon Inn,” how can the latter two compete, in all fairness?
While it may be “one of the most level playing fields,” as Fredell Pogodin says, don’t be surprised if this year’s nominees look something like a specialized studio battle between Sony Pictures Classics entries “Good Bye Lenin!” (Germany) and “Bon Voyage” (France) and Miramax acquisitions “Valentin” (Argentina”), “The Barbarian Invasions” (Canada), and “I’m Not Scared” (Italy) or, as Harvey once vowed, “Twin Sisters” (Netherlands).