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Why the Palm Springs Film Festival Has Secret Oscar Powers

Why the Palm Springs Film Festival Has Secret Oscar Powers

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.

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.”

Though initially the festival showed all submissions, this has become impossible in the last year as the number of submitted films has ballooned to a record 76 entries for the upcoming Oscars, with the section now showcasing some 40-odd submissions, curated by Du Toit and Palm Springs Senior Programmer Alissa Simon, who are considering an even trimmer 30-something lineup in the future.

Also on the Oscar short list this year: “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker,” from Bosnia-Herzegovina; “The Missing Picture” from Cambodia; “The Notebook” from Janos Szasz and “Omar” from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad. All films screened in Palm Springs, suggesting the curatorial instincts of the festival are on the money in terms of predicting what will fly with the notoriously unpredictable and secretive foreign-language committee of the Academy.

“I represent four or five foreign language Oscar submissions every year and they all come to Palm Springs,” said veteran L.A.-based publicist Tatiana Detlofson, who this year represented “The Broken Circle Breakdown” and “Two Lives,” amongst others. “It’s important for the directors because they can meet the trade papers, the local press and some Academy members as well.” The town is a popular retirement place for people from Hollywood, which explains why the taste of the Academy and Palm Springs audiences clearly overlap.

The Norwegian directors of last year’s foreign-language Oscar nominee, “Kon-Tiki,” Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, were accompanied to the festival by Detlofson. For the Norwegians, Detlofson said, the exposure at the festival has led their current success — they are currently working on the next installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Another name Detlofson was eager to mention: Michaël L. Roskam, who directed Belgian nominee “Bullhead,” which was also presented in Palm Springs, and who has since made his Hollywood debut with the upcoming “Animal Rescue” starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace.

Despite these success stories, the publicist does suggest that the festival could do even more to allow the talented foreign directors to mingle with the Hollywood folk, especially the producers and studio folk in town for the Black-Tie Awards Gala.

“Broken Circle Breakdown” director Felix Van Groeningen, a definite Oscar contender previously in Palm Springs with his last Oscar submission “The Misfortunates,” told Indiewire that the festival is a great showcase for foreign films like his, though “it’s sometimes hard to tell the industry and regular audiences apart at screenings. It’s been very nice presenting my films to audiences that would not otherwise see Flemish films, so I can show them something they wouldn’t normally see.”

Just how big a part the foreign-language Oscar contenders have played in the 25-year history of the festival is evidenced by simply looking back at the opening film of the very first festival, in 1990: “Cinema Paradiso” from Giuseppe Tornatore, which went on to win the Oscar and was screened as a special open-air screening this year at the city’s famous Marilyn Monroe statue smack in the center of town.

Du Toit added that six of the seven previous Audience Award winners have gone on to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film. Singling that figure out of 24 years — and taking into account that around 190 features are now screened each year — indicates just how much Palm Springs audiences tend to reflect the decisions of Oscar voters.

This year’s audience award winner was the Indian feature “Lakshmi” from director Nagesh Kukunoor. The film hasn’t been released yet in India and could thus potentially represent the country at the Oscars next year.

As for this year’s contenders, if the Palm Springs audience is to be believed, it’s a neck-and-neck race between “Two Lives” and “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” which had practically identical Audience Award scores, though Italy’s “The Great Beauty” got a boost Sunday when it unexpectedly won the Golden Globe for best foreign film. But as much as Palm Springs provides some reasonable hints, it still can’t predict the future.

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