by Dimitra Kessenides and Stephen Garrett
By now, there is a foreign-language film director (Mike Van Diem) recovering
from a night of Academy Award celebrations whose future, and that of his
film, is about to change. This director won the Best Foreign Language
Film Academy Award, and what this generally translates into is a wider U.S.
release, better ticket sales than it would have gained without the
Oscar, and, as recent press reports and discussions have noted, the
opportunity for this somewhat obscure foreign director to move on to
bigger and better things.
Best Foreign Language Film is an odd category, since the nominated films
are sometimes largely unknown and not yet released in the U.S.. The five films
vying for this year's award were: "Four Days In September" by Bruno
Barreto (Brazil -Miramax); "Beyond Silence" by Caroline Link (Germany -
Miramax); "Character" by Mike Van Diem (The Netherlands - Sony
Classics); "The Thief" by Pavel Chukhrai (Russia-Stratosphere); and
Spain's "Secrets of the Heart" by Montxo Armendariz. Films from each of
these five countries have been nominated at least three additional times
previously in the category's 42-year history (Best Foreign Language Film
was established as a full-fledged category in 1956, according to Academy
historian Patrick Stockstill). In fact, Spanish films have been
nominated 16 times since 1956, and have taken home two Academy Awards.
And if "Secrets Of The Heart" had won a third Oscar for Spain, it
might have help the film's chances of finding a local distributor. It is the
only nominee among the five without U.S. distribution. (The film
will be screened as part of this year's New Directors New Films series
in New York City on April 4 and 5.) At the Academy's annual symposium
on foreign language films, held this past Saturday in Los Angeles,
although Spain's Armendariz didn't address the issue, Mike Van Diem was
very blunt about the effect the nomination has had on
his film, "Character." "After [our debut at] the Cannes Film Festival,
nothing happened for weeks and then months," he recounted. "Nobody
wanted it until the first official Academy nomination screening [in
December] when Sony Pictures Classics bought it after the first hour.
Now it's been sold everywhere [throughout Europe]. You guys saved my
life -- thanks!"
Mark Gill, President of Miramax-LA agrees that nominations and awards
are big factors in how well a foreign language film performs at the box
office. Miramax again had two of this year's five nominees, the
Brazilian entry "Four Days In September," as well as the German film
"Beyond Silence" (1997's "Shall We Dance?" and the award winner, "Kolya,"
both were Miramax releases). Even without the Award, "Shall We Dance?"
from Japan brought in $10 million, according to Gill, a healthy return
on the company's original $250,000 investment.
Miramax picked up "Four Days" last summer and released it the second
week of January (U.S. ticket sales to date are approximately 400,000,
according to Gill). "Beyond Silence" wasn't picked up until early March,
shortly after both the film's participation in the Berlin International
Film Festival and its nomination. "The nomination had a little bit to do
with Miramax picking it up," says Gill, "but more importantly we saw
it in Berlin and liked it." The release date for "Beyond Silence" depended
upon how it fared at Monday's awards ceremony. If it were to win, said Gill,
the film would have opened April 10 -- instead Miramax is expected to
hold off on releasing it until May 29, a telling sign of the premium an
Similarly, T.C. Rice, vice president for distribution and marketing at
Stratosphere Entertainment, notes that while they expect "The Thief" to
perform well at the box office, an academy award is like "frosting on
the cake." Stratosphere planned to move up the release date for the
film if it had brought home the Academy Award. The company is currently
looking at a June release. Stratosphere acquired "The Thief" in early
February, shortly after the award nominations were announced, and after
about six months of negotiations. "This is a powerful film," Rice says.
"And any film ultimately stands on how good it essentially is."
Stratosphere opened its doors in September and has since acquired a
number of both domestic and foreign films, including the Austrian film
"Die Siebtelbauren," and Katja Von Garnier's "Bandits" (a
German-language film). "We look for good movies that we think will
perform well in the market," explains Rice, essentially summing up a
positive outlook for foreign cinema. "If they happen to be in another
language, then they happen to be in another language."