WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Eyes on the Prize; For Foreign Language Films, Sometimes an Award is Just an Award
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/02.21.02) -- Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my! Globes and Oscars and Palms, oh no! Every international picture to reach North American shores nowadays seems to have a laurel from some film festival, critic's group, or film organization under its belt. For foreign language pictures -- the often unloved orphans of the U.S. market -- a major prize may be the only thing separating them from complete abandonment. But do awards really have any sway on a film's success in the U.S.?
Last week, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences announced its nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards. Down at the bottom of the list every year, beneath Russell Crowe and Judi Dench, lie the picks for best foreign language film -- an honor with no small amount of prestige, but with what actual impact in the market? "What's great about being nominated," says Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker, who has overseen six of the past nine foreign winners, "is it quite often gives profile to a movie that would not otherwise get recognized."
Barker says that this year's selection is especially notable in that only two of the films are known commodities: "Amélie" (Miramax) and "No Man's Land" (United Artists), while the remaining three are complete surprises: Norway's dark comic hit "Elling" (recently acquired by First Look) and two Sony Classics titles, India's cricket epic "Lagaan" and Argentina's comic family drama "Son of the Bride." Citing past unknowns like Sony Classics winners "Belle Époque" or "Burnt by the Sun," Barker contends that Academy recognition "gives a want-to-see among a public that normally wouldn't give them a chance."
But honors don't always translate to ticket sales. "For films like 'Amélie' or 'Crouching Tiger' or 'All About My Mother' or 'Life is Beautiful' that have all done well at the box office, an award means a certain validation," says Barker, "but it doesn't necessarily tweak box office or video results in any appreciable way."
While past box office reports for films such as "All About My Mother," "Crouching Tiger," "Life is Beautiful" and "Kolya" do show modest leaps in sales in the weeks following Academy wins, many Indiewood distributors don't put too much financial stake on the big prize.
"Oscar nominations historically haven't necessarily meant a whole lot to box office for foreign language pictures," says Tom Ortenberg, President of Lions Gate Releasing, which had "Amores Perros" in the competition last year. "We didn't plan the release around the nominations, so I can't really say if it was of value to us."
Dutch thriller "Character," a foreign language contender in 1998, for example, nabbed the much-coveted prize and still did poorly at the box office. Sony Classics' Barker, who managed the release of "Character," blames the mediocre popularity of foreign winners on overly high expectations. "You have to take each film one at a time," says the distributor.
That sentiment rings true to Bingham Ray. As the new head of United Artists, Ray joined the company with a few titles already in the pipeline. One of the acquisitions, "No Man's Land," had been getting nothing but raves ever since it's Cannes premiere, and Ray was ready for his first breakout hit. A bevy of prestigious awards for the film followed its Best Screenplay win at Cannes 2001: the Los Angeles Critics Association's Best Foreign Film, Audience Awards at several festivals from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale, San Sebastián to São Paulo, most recently Rotterdam 2002, and most notably the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film, beating out the favorite "Amélie" and giving it major positioning for an Oscar.
And yet, "No Man's Land" has not succeeded in the U.S. "Despite our extraordinary efforts and awards the world over, we have found wall after wall of audience resistance," says Ray. The reason for the film's modest business may be a result of the film's nationality; according to Ray, and it's only the second Bosnian Oscar entry in the Academy's history. "There's some degree of precedence that films from this region seem to American audiences either like a history lesson or like medicine," he says.
No matter how many awards "No Man's Land" receives, the film proves that laurels don't guarantee domestic success. "There are some films whose material lends itself to a nomination benefiting them more," says Ray. "Obviously, the more accessible the material already is, the more it will benefit from a nomination in terms of additional box office dollars and revenues through DVD, video and international sales." "Unfortunately, for us, we have been really pushing the rock up the hill," continues Ray. "It's been really frustrating, but I'm not throwing in the towel."
Foreign awards and nominations may actually have more significant impact on industry than audience. "Foreign prizes don't really help that much in the marketing of a film in the U.S.," says Barker, "but it helps get our attention." Barker cites their acquisition of "Lagaan" as a prime example. After an Audience Award at Locarno 2001 and rousing Academy screenings in Los Angeles and New York, Barker says, "it was obvious people were taking to the movie as an epic and it made sense for us to sign on." Barker sees a foreign film's success relying more on critical support. "When a movie is seen at festivals by critics and journalists that matter," he explains, "that's more profound than any prize."
For foreign films and their worldwide campaign for recognition, one thing is certain: many in the industry see last year's non-U.S. output as particularly memorable. Fifty-one countries submitted films for Oscar consideration in 2001 -- the largest number ever entered -- with first-time entries from Armenia ("Slogans"), Kyrghyzstan ("The Chimp"), Tanzania ("Maangamizi") and Uruguay ("In This Tricky Life"). "This is the strongest year since I have been involved in the foreign language category," says Barker. "There were so many pictures that were fantastic and had a great shot at being nominated," he added, citing other award-winning films like Zacharias Kunuk's Genie sweeper "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner" (Canada), Lone Scherfig's Berlin prize-winner "Italian For Beginners" (Denmark), Nanni Moretti's Cannes champ "The Son's Room" (Italy) and Majid Majidi's Montreal and Fajr fest victor "Baran" (Iran). Whether or not any of their awards will translate into U.S. appeal may not matter just yet. "This group of 51 pictures shows a real quality of these country's film industries," says Barker. "And I think that's a really good sign."