Think it's Oscar season? For foreign language films, the campaigning actually began months ago -- when the deadline to submit paperwork for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar dropped October 3. Out of 91 entries, a record-breaking 58 countries made the cut (newbies include Costa Rica, Fiji and Iraq), all of which are anticipating with baited breath for the nominations on Jan. 31. With national pride on the line, not to mention increased value, the Academy's single award for foreign achievement raises significant anxiety overseas -- as well as here at home.
But with the presence of foreign pictures in U.S. theaters at what seems like an all time low, the submission list doesn't hold the kind of excitement that it's had in previous years. There are no public outcries, for example, where's "Talk to Her"? "The Motorcycle Diaries"? "Maria Full of Grace"? After last year's Oscar contenders played themselves out in early 2005 ("Downfall," "House of Flying Daggers," "The Sea Inside," "The Chorus," etc.), the rest of the year has seen a series of weak world cinema runs that neither critics nor audience are rallying behind. But what about the French-produced "March of the Penguins"? Oh, right, the U.S. version was in English.
North American distribution companies are examining this year's list closely, but most of the films have already been seen and either acquired or passed on. Argentine's entry is one exception, "Nine Queens" director Fabian Bielinsky's highly anticipated follow-up "El Aura," which premiered at the San Sebastian Film festival to positive buzz (Variety called it "an engrossing existential thriller") and got lots of eyeballs at the American Film Market last week.
As for controversy, the stir has occurred abroad: Italy raised a fuss after their initial submission "Private" -- which opens in limited U.S. release on Friday -- was rejected. The film is an Arabic language family drama (with bits of English and Hebrew), starring Palestinian actors, filmed in Italy, about the occupation of a Palestinian home by Israeli military forces. But because the film was not in the language of the submitting country, i.e. Italian, it was deemed ineligible -- but not without a fight.
"These rules are inadequate," Italian producer Aurelio De Laurentiis told Variety. "Language no longer necessarily characterizes a national cinematography. Transformations in the global film industry, and in the world in general, have to be considered."
But the Academy wouldn't budge. And currently, according to spokesperson Teni Melidonian, AMPAS has no intentions of revaluating its rules for foreign submissions. "At this point, we don't foresee any discussions about this issue," she says. "We like to see the countries represented in the films. And with 'Private,' you wouldn't have any idea that it was from Italy."
The same fate awaited Greece's submission, "Brides," a predominately English-language film about Greek mail-order brides in the U.S., and Austria's submission "Cache," the Austrian-born Michael Haneke's critically lauded French film starring Juliet Binoche and Daniel Auteuil. Neither country resubmitted pictures. But Sony Pictures Classics, the U.S. distributor for "Cache," isn't letting the setback derail publicity for the film's Dec. 23 release date, heavily screening the film for critics and organizations in the hopes of a top-ten-list blitz.
But AMPAS's resistance to the global economy is bad news for the increasing number of prestigious multi-cultural co-productions that speak in various tongues, from Paul Verhoeven's upcoming Dutch-British-German World War II thriller "Black Book" to Hannes Stoehr's "Night on Earth"-like multilingual mishmash "One Day in Europe."
Other submissions from Nepal ("Migration"), Uruguay ("Alma Mater") and a hotly disputed entry from Venezuela ("1888") were not so lucky, all rejected because they did not meet necessary deadlines. How unfortunate for the Venezuelan film authorities who went out of their way to squash Jonathan Jakubowicz's local blockbuster "Secuestro Express," a Miramax release in the U.S., which the Venezuelan government condemned because of its depictions of violence and corruption in the country. Even the Weinsteins have met their match with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Another Miramax release (post-Weinsteins) "Tsotsi" was among the first foreign-language films to come out strong with "For Your Consideration" ads in the trades. The South African submission has gained traction at festivals from Edinburgh and Toronto, where Miramax picked it up, and the campaigning signals the high-stakes race the category has become for U.S. specialized distributors.
In past years, when foreign language films fared better at the box office, Academy attention was not as vital -- films like "Amelie," "All About My Mother" or "Amores Perros" didn't require Oscar validation, executives have said. And nor have all past winners felt the positive impact of an Academy boost: famously, former foreign Oscar-victors "Character" (1998) and "No Man's Land" (2002) still suffered at the box office.
But as the few foreign language films in release struggle more than ever to compete against bigger specialized (English-language) films, an Oscar nod might be the only thing to push these films into the spotlight. After the 2005 nominations were announced last January, Miramax's "The Chorus" leapt a whopping 785% percent at the box office, and Fine Line's "The Sea Inside," after slipping in January, nearly quadrupled its screen count and more than doubled its ticket receipts.
For the current race, in addition to Miramax's "Tsotsi," Sony Pictures Classics, as always, is pushing hard its own foreign-language pick-ups, "Merry Christmas" (France) and the Dardenne brothers' exquisite "The Child" (Belgium), while ThinkFilm hopes Hungary's Holocaust drama "Fateless," will make the top five, and the Weinsteins, never to be discounted in the category, are taking full-page ads for Chen Kaige's Chinese epic "The Promise."
While every year the foreign language nominations are full of surprises, you can bet that the big indie distributors will be doing everything they can to nab a spot: Their films' livelihoods may depend on it.