For the uninitiated, the Producer's Guild Award is one of the awards season’s most anticipated events, celebrating the best in producing work for the year. Considered a predictor for the Best Picture Oscar, a nomination for this marquee awards season honorary could certainly help boost awareness for any film – especially an independent film.
It was announced yesterday that Angelina Jolie's directorial debut, In The Land of Blood And Honey, will receive the PGA's prestigious Stanley Kramer Award, which honors "a motion picture, producer or other individual, whose achievement or contribution illuminates provocative social issues in an accessible and elevating fashion."
However, what is essentially a foreign film (which centers on a love story between a Muslim Bosniak woman and a Christian Serbian soldier, who meet during the Bosnian war) would not have been eligible for the award if its characters spoke in the language that was used during the period the film takes place (which would have made for a more realistic picture) – Serbo-Croatian. Why? Because the PGA rules stipulate that, while they will accept foreign films, the films must be in the English language to qualify for awards consideration – a problem director Jolie avoided (whether knowingly or not) by shooting 2 versions of the film: one in English, the other in Serbo-Croatian.
Unfortunately, shooting 2 versions of a film in different languages (whatever the motivation) is a luxury that few can afford – especially if you're an indie filmmaker, and all the resource limitations that come with being one. Thus, it should be no surprise that this PGA foreign films rule is one that indie producers feel should be reconsidered; specifically, recently, veteran award-winning independent producer Karin Chien penned "An Open Letter To The Producers Guild of America," questioning the PGA rule that only English language films qualify for awards consideration.
Karin produced an award-winning film (Sundance, Indie Spirit) called Circumstance (set in Iran, with Farsi being the language spoken throughout), which she submitted to the PGA for awards consideration. Given the PGA's rules as I already noted, the film was rejected – not because of its quality (or lack thereof), or its substance; but because it's in a foreign language. This action inspired the letter Chien wrote, which has been picked up by a few other outlets.
The letter is embedded below for you all to read. But not just as an FYI; this PGA rule is illogical. It doesn't make a lot of sense to state that foreign films are indeed welcomed and will be considered for awards consideration, but then add the caveat that they be in the English language! They're foreign films! English is a language spoken by about 1 billion people in a world populated by almost 7 billion. The conflicts this rule creates should be obvious without me having to further explain. As Chien notes in her piece, the rule is an archaic one, and could open the PGA up to charges of xenophobia.
If foreign films are acceptable and eligible for awards consideration, it should go without saying that the likelihood those films will feature characters speaking in a language other than English, will be very high! They may as well just close the category to foreign films altogether, OR change the rule to include foreign-language films.
This could very well affect a film that you're working on right now, or plan to produce in the future. And, to be clear, this rule doesn't just apply to films set in a foreign land; the PGA will not accept films in languages other than English. So a wonderful film like Andrew Dosunmu's immigrant tale, set in New York City, Restless City, wouldn't qualify.
Other critically-acclaimed films we've written about on this site, from Kinyarwanda to Life, Above All, wouldn't qualify either, even though they were both released theatrically in the USA.
The exposure that winning a PGA award, or even just being nominated for one, can provide for a *smaller* film in need of a boost in audience awareness, is quite significant; meaning this shouldn't be taken lightly.
Here's Karin Chien's letter:
FROM KARIN CHIEN, Producer of CIRCUMSTANCE
Recently, a film I produced with Melissa Lee and Maryam Keshavarz, Circumstance, was submitted for the Producer's Guild of America's awards consideration. Circumstance is a hard film to categorize: It's a story of teenage love and personal freedom set in Iran, filmed in Beirut, edited in Chile, finished in France, and financed primarily by US sources. And the film is in Farsi. We knew we were a long shot to be nominated, but we were still excited by the prospect. Producing is often thankless and invisible work, and awards that solely recognize a producer's contribution are few and far between.
That excitement ended when I received an email from the PGA's Director of Arbitrations & Legal Affairs on December 1. It informed us "unfortunately under the current rule structure, we are unable to accept foreign language films at this time."
I wrote back to clarify Circumstance is not a foreign film and received this reply: "We do accept foreign films, as long as they are in the English language. The PGA Rules state that only English language films qualify for awards consideration."
In the email was attached the regulations for 2012 Award Eligibility. Sure enough, the first paragraph stipulated "the motion picture must … be an English language production." The rule allows foreign films to qualify, if they are in English and have a US distributor. So the deciding factor in our film's eligibility came down to the language spoken by our film's fictitious characters.
It's possible this rule is a holdover, but from when? It was over a decade ago when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon broke the $100 million box office mark for foreign language films. Does the language of a movie mean more to the PGA than the nationality of the producers, or the movie's primary audience?
This rule also meant important independent films by important independent producers have been neglected by the PGA's 4,000+ members. Films like Sin Nombre produced by Amy Kaufman, Treeless Mountain produced by Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Ben Howe, and Maria Full of Grace produced by Paul Mezey wouldn't qualify. Interestingly, Sin Nombre, Maria Full of Grace, and Circumstance all premiered in the US section of the Sundance Film Festival, where the films won audience and directing Awards.
Independent producers do not make films to win awards. But producers know how much a nomination, not to mention a win, can contribute to a film's life and its audience. Awards legitimatize an indie film for an audience, and awards make a difference when Jane Moviegoer is deciding what to spend $12 watching at the theater.
And award eligibility fluctuates constantly. Recently the Motion Pictures Sound Editors union changed their foreign film category to a foreign-language category, in recognition of US members who create incredible sound design on foreign cinema. Globalization is no longer a buzzword. That was the 90s. Now it's just a fact of financing, consumption, and every facet of business. For example, more than 70% of the American film industry's grosses come from foreign markets. And in LA County, where Hollywood and the PGA are based, 56% of households speak a language other than English. It's time to wake up to the new world order.
The PGA's English-only stipulation is at best, an outdated, archaic rule. And at worst, it opens the PGA up to the charge of xenophobia.
The PGA's mission statement starts with "The Producers Guild of America is the non-profit trade group that represents, protects and promotes the interests of all members of the producing team."
PGA, whose interests do you represent?
Post-script note: We sent emails a week ago questioning the English-only rule to the PGA's Director of Arbitrations & Legal Affairs, the Chair, the Vice-Chair, the now defunct Independent Committee at the PGA, and are still awaiting a substantial response.
Karin Chien is an independent producer of 10 American feature films, and the winner of the 2010 Independent Spirit Producers Award. Karin is the founder and president of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of Chinese independent cinema. Karin is not a member of the Producers Guild of America.