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This is What it’s Like to Be an Oscar Underdog: Tim League on “Bullhead”

This is What it's Like to Be an Oscar Underdog: Tim League on "Bullhead"

The last 12 months have been busy for Tim League. The Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse co-founder recently announced plans to open a new theater location in San Francisco. Last fall, his wife gave birth to twins. And this weekend, he’s going to the Oscars.

As the founder of the distribution label Drafthouse Films, League helped shepherd “Bullhead,” the directorial debut of Belgian filmmaker Michael Roskam, to an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Although the gritty crime drama only opened in North America last Friday, its arrival on these shores followed the buzz created by its nomination over a month ago, where it landed a rarified spot alongside such talked-about contenders as “A Separation” and “In Darkness.”

Everyone knows that the Oscars are a game that only certain people know how to play. Even if you figure out the rules, however, getting an actual nomination is never an easy task. In this first person piece, League explains how “Bullhead” managed to muscle its way to the top. — Indiewire editors

I first heard about “Bullhead” at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Stephanie Trepanier from Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal first alerted me to the movie. She had seen an earlier screening and was becoming a one-woman champion of the film. I have known Stephanie for several years and our tastes on movies almost always overlap. When she falls in love with a movie, I know that my love is also about to be pledged. I watched the next screening at the market and, as expected, immediately fell for it hook, line and sinker.

The next hurdle was to obtain approval from the sales agent to play “Bullhead” at our September festival, Fantastic Fest. We are a genre film festival, the largest genre festival in the United States, and “Bullhead” is in no way a genre film.  

Up until that point, “Bullhead” had only played more highbrow “legitimate” festivals: Berlin, Karlovy Vary, etc. When people off-handedly consider Fantastic Fest without digging into our programming, they tend to pigeonhole us as an event that only plays slasher pics, B-movies and films with rubber monsters and robots. We do love those movies too, but I consider our core offering to be movies with exceptional storytelling that happen to tread into somewhat dark territory. “Bullhead” is just such a film and I knew that our audience would respond passionately to it.

We pleaded our case strongly to the sales agent, Celluloid Dreams, and eventually badgered them enough to win them over. “Bullhead” would screen for the first time to a genre crowd at Fantasia and then at Fantastic Fest. 

We flew writer/director Michael Roskam to FantasticFest to be a part of the AMD Next Wave Competition, where it went on to win best actor, best director and best picture at the festival. We use the audience response to films at Fantastic Fest as a barometer when selecting films for our new Drafthouse Films label and the buzz was so strong and unanimous that we knew we wanted to take a chance. On the last day of the festival, we submitted an offer to buy North American rights to “Bullhead.”

Around this same time, the next stroke of good fortune fell for “Bullhead.” The film was named by Belgium as their official selection for Academy Award consideration, beating out the odds-on favorite, the Dardenne Brothers “The Kid With a

Bike.” The Dardenne brothers have been selected to represent Belgium three times prior and “The Kid With a Bike” won numerous awards, including the coveted Grand Prix at Cannes. It was considered by expert handicappers in the Oscar race to be one of the biggest surprises of the nomination process.

We then hired a publicist to handle our awards nomination campaign. Of all the teams we interviewed, Tatiana Detlofson of MEDIAPLANpr had the most compelling strategy and was already a huge fan of the film. Tatiana suggested that instead of taking the traditional route and spending gobs of money on trade ads and gala events, that we position the film as a candidate for the Executive Committee’s choice for the nomination and offer many screenings to members of this committee.

In the wake of Romania’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” 2007 Oscar snub, the rules were rewritten for the foreign language category. A handpicked small executive committee now chooses three of the nine shortlist titles and the final five official nominees are chosen by another committee of only 30 Academy members, in many cases very distinguished, high-profile professionals. The intent of the restructure was to give a shot to edgier films that are not as often considered by the larger voting body. 

The surprising choice of the delightfully odd and daring Greek film “Dogtooth” in 2010 seems to bear out the changes in the process. The specific executive committee choices are never publicized or separated from the other six nominees. 

“Bullhead” screened surprisingly well even with the big committee, but we have no way of confirming whether “Bullhead” was chosen by the executive committee or by the larger voting body. But I can say that our campaign strategy from day one was to vie for what we were internally calling “the ‘Dogtooth’ slot” and remaining confident about our highly accomplished film that to date has nabbed over 31 international festival award wins.

We know that “Bullhead” is still an underdog in this race, but we’ve been an underdog since the beginning. “Bullhead” is a staggeringly beautiful film from a first-time writer/director that has been regarded as a young Martin Scorsese and it also features an incredible performance by Matthias Schoenaerts, who physically transformed, gaining 60 pounds of muscle to play the role.  

We know we have an amazing film that is receiving glowing reviews from nearly everyone who sees it. I’m just saying, don’t count out the underdog yet.

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