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by Boyd van Hoeij
January 14, 2014 9:47 AM
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Why the Palm Springs Film Festival Has Secret Oscar Powers

"The Broken Circle Breakdown."

Each year, the Palm Springs International Film Festival showcases a large portion of the foreign-language Oscar submissions from all over the world.

The festival, which concluded its 25th year earlier this week, was founded by then-mayor Sonny Bono and has since grown into a world-class festival, attracting talent from across the globe. With over 135,000 attendees, it is now the third-largest festival in the U.S. and the first film event every year (this year’s anniversary edition kicked off Jan. 3).

Bono started the festival to try and prolong the holiday tourist season in the town and, "because of its proximity to the Sundance festival," which focuses on American indie films, "Palm Springs decided to focus on foreign films," current artistic director Helen Du Toit told Indiewire.

Her description of the festival as a kind of "anti-Sundance" echoes a perspective voiced by both industry people and general audiences alike. Though it has an informal industry component, the audience is king. There are no frantic shopping sprees by distributors like in Sundance, though agents, talent scouts and distributors like to come to Palm Springs to get an idea of audience reactions to their foreign titles and to find new directorial or acting talents, most of whom come from overseas.

READ MORE: These Foreign Films Aren't On Your Radar, But They Should Be

Even so, the Oscars, and the awards season in general, also impact the festival’s line-up and events. The Palm Springs Black-Tie Awards Gala, which happened on Jan. 4 this year, attracted the likes of Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Steve McQueen, who were all awarded for their work in 2013. However, that high-profile gathering is quite separate from the festival proper, though the funds it raises -- tables for the star-studded event go for impressive prices -- do go to the Palm Springs Film Society, which organizes not only the January festival but also the Palm Springs Shorts Fest in June and year-round educational programs in the Coachella Valley.

Brian Brooks

The festival itself is more interested in foreign-language films, and this year showed not only all the nine films shortlisted for the foreign-language Oscar, including the FIPRESCI-winning "The Broken Circle Breakdown," recent Golden Globe winner “The Great Beauty” and "The Grandmaster," with their respective directors, Felix Van Groeningen, Paolo Sorrentino and Wong Kar-wai, all in attendance. The program additionally showcased another 43 out of the total of 76 submissions for the category from around the world. The International Critics’ Prize (or Fipresci Award) of the festival goes to films from this section, appropriately named Awards Buzz.

Interestingly, a couple of the selected films, including Germany’s shortlisted "Two Lives," also screened at Palm Springs a year earlier, as a regular foreign film in one of the festival’s numerous other sections. And the section has lost a little of its "buzz" for some titles since the Academy started announcing the shortlist before the festival starts, in December, which means that only the nine shortlisted contenders now see Palm Springs as an absolutely necessary campaigning stop.

That said, the nine titles now receive even more attention from audiences who try to see all the contenders, as evidenced by the Audience Award score for "Two Lives," which was very high last year, “because the Academy and the Palm Springs audiences are very similar and neatly synched,” according to Du Toit. But it was even higher this year, with the artistic director suggesting that "the brand of the Oscars giving a big boost" to titles screening at Palm Springs.

"Because our Black Tie Gala kicks off the awards season and a lot of Academy members live in Palm Springs, it became clear early on that the foreign-language films vying for an Oscar were something we as a festival wanted to really bolster," said Du Toit, who adds that this year’s roster is, according to her, "the strongest lineup in recent memory."

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