From Bangladesh to Vietnam, nearly 100 countries were invited to submit films for this year's foreign-language Oscar race. (The official list of titles will come out this week.) Notoriously, the category is one of the most unpredictable - last year, leading contenders "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" and "Persepolis" were shafted, while entries from Poland, Israel and Russia surprisingly made the final cut. If this year's race may be one of the widest open in years, it may also turn out to be one of the most predictable due to a radical change in Academy regulations as a result of last year's "embarrassment," as one industry insider called it.
For the first time in the category's history, an executive committee of 20 members (from both coasts) will be able to compensate for any omissions in the first round of voting by adding three additional films to the shortlist. Therefore, one would assume, Cannes winners and critical darlings will not be overlooked and the five final nominations will offer fewer surprises.
Typically, predictions in the category are ineffectual, but this year, chances are good that the following titles will at least make the mid-January 9-film shortlist: "The Class" (France), "Everlasting Moments" (Sweden), "Gomorrah" (Italy), "O'Horten" (Norway), and "Waltz with Bashir" (Israel). All five have U.S. distribution as well as some Oscar-friendly hook, whether the fact that "Everlasting Moments" director Jan Troell has already been nominated (in '73 for "The Emigrants"), or "O'Horten" is a diverting geriatric tale ripe for Academy members, or in the case of the remaining three, Cannes plaudits bolstering their chances.
There will be plenty of wild cards, as well, so don't be surprised if Germany's "The Baader Meinhof Complex," Kazakhstan's "Tulpan," Canada's "The Necessities of Life," Mexico's "Tear this Heart Out" or Brazil's "Last Stop 174" (from veteran director Bruno Barreto) also emerge from the fray.
This year's list of submissions, arguably, includes few of the powerhouses of past years, however. 2008 nominees such as Picturehouse's "Mongol" and Sony Pictures Classics' "The Counterfeiters," which won the Oscar, remain the top two foreign-grossers of this year, each making nearly $6 million. For the record, the year's other top foreign titles are Music Box Films' "Tell No One" ($5.5M), Sony Classics' "The Band's Visit" ($3M), Samuel Goldwyn's "Roman de Gare" ($1.9M) and IFC Films' "4 Months, 3 Days, 2 Days" ($1.2M).
But while this year's leading contenders from Sony Classics, "Waltz with Bashir," a weighty animated docu-like film about guilt and war, and "The Class," a verite-style high school portrait, should do well when released in December, they are commercially modest, not likely to penetrate American theaters with the same gusto as an Italian heart-warmer, World War II drama, Almodovar picture or Chinese martial arts adventure.
U.S. audiences will also be seeing fewer of this year's collection. So far, only 11 films have a scheduled U.S. release, nearly half of which are being handled by IFC Films. (IFC has five titles, Sony Pictures Classics has three, while New Yorker Films, Film Movement, and Regent Releasing each have one). Last year, at this time, at least 16 Oscar submissions had U.S. distribution, from at least ten different distributors. With film companies such as Tartan and Picturehouse no longer in existence, and others scaling back or running scared from subtitled movies, foreign-language films continue to be hot potatoes in the States.
Then again, smaller U.S. distributors are eyeing the list of films, and an array of companies are stepping into fill the void. Regent Releasing, for example, just announced it had acquired Iran's entry, Majid Majidi's "The Song of Sparrows," after making an ambitious trio of foreign acquisitions out of Toronto, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata," the animated Israeli film "$9.99" and Brillante Mendoza's "Serbis." "We're ramping up our slate through '08 and '09 and expanding our offerings," says Regent VP of theatrical marketing Jonathan Aubry.
Additionally, Music Box Films has been emboldened by the success of "Tell No One"; Strand Releasing has had one of its better years with Claude Miller's "A Secret" and Germany's '07 Oscar submission "The Edge of Heaven"; and Film Movement, which recently escalated its theatrical activities with the hire of New Yorker Films' Rebeca Conget, had its biggest grosser this year ($240,000) with "The Grocer's Son."
While distributors are skeptical that getting an Oscar nomination--or even a win--for best foreign-language film will boost a film's theatrical performance, companies are still paying attention to this year's submissions. Films such as Kazakhstan Cannes winner "Tulpan," Austria's prostitute love story "Revanche" and Poland's smalltown portrait "Tricks" are among some of the films distributors are eyeing.
"We are definitely looking," says Strand Releasing's Jon Gerrans. "Although I'm not sure it's worth acquiring a title just because it is the country's nomination though. It's a costly gamble with the odds of paying off too slim to be reasonable."
Kino International's Gary Palmucci, however, says he wishes the company had a film in the running. In last year's race, the company handled Israeli nominee "Beaufort"; while the film tanked in theaters, he says the nomination "made a big difference on 'Beaufort's' DVD performance so far: 11,000 units and counting."
Arianna Bocco, acquisitions VP of IFC Films, which is by far the most prolific acquirer right now, says she's actively checking out several new submissions, though being a country's entry, she admits, does little to convince them to purchase a film. "At the end of the day, we will either buy the film or not, because it's a good film," she says.
"We will look at the list when it comes out," agrees Film Movement's Adley Gartenstein, who picked up three Oscar submissions last year and says he's already pursuing a couple of this year's offerings. "If there's a title we haven't seen," he says, "it will make us see it. If there's a movie we've seen and it got lost in the shuffle, we may put it on the top of the heap."
Those films already acquired by U.S. companies have a leg up in terms of angling for an actual Oscar slot. While there's little a distributor can do to sway Oscar voters, says IFC's Ryan Werner, they can push hard to get the word out about a film. "We just try to get them out there as much as possible," he says, noting that the AFI Fest in November can be useful in raising awareness. For IFC's Italian mafia release "Gomorrah," for example, Werner says Martin Scorsese recently hosted a screening of the film. And they're also relying on foreign consulates and other special events to push their contenders.
Because, after all, for the foreign-language Oscar, it's not just about a film vying for the prize, but an entire country's pride at stake. The award may mean little to the average American consumer, but it can prove a powerful symbol for a national cinema.