Tricky timing

Distribs aim to balance nomination heat with domestic B.O. potential

Here’s a rosy indicator of what a foreign-language Oscar nomination means to a distributor: USA Films is currently handling “Rosetta,” a double-winner at Cannes (Palme d’Or and actress), slowly and gradually — as the fragile art film that it is. First stops, New York and Los Angeles. Next stops, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco.

“Right now, it’s the official submission from Belgium for the Academy foreign film committee, but that’s all it is, and we have to treat it carefully,” USA distribution chief Jack Foley says. “It’s just for the most urbane markets now.”

But if “Rosetta” is among the nominated quintet of films out of a field of 47 submitted foreign-language titles? “Then,” Foley adds, “we go out more aggressively, meaning more markets and sooner.”

Indeed, “Rosetta” is an example of the kind of challenging, less overtly audience-pleasing film that stands to gain enormously from an Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences nomination; or, without one, possibly dropping off the charts altogether.

Despite its Cannes pedigree, this harrowing portrait of a desperately surviving working-class girl played poorly in its exclusive two-week L.A. run at Landmark Theatres’ Nuart Theatre, with opening numbers estimated by Landmark marketing VP Cary Jones as “OK,” but with a 50% drop-off in the second week. “Should it have done better than $12,000 on Thanksgiving Day weekend? Potentially, yes,” Jones says.

Landmark didn’t hold it over, and “Rosetta” was suddenly slotted into a limited weekend-morning screening slot at Laemmle Theatres’ Monica 4 Plex in Santa Monica, Calif. But just as it’s impossible to predict a winner in the category — “I was positive that ‘Ma Vie en Rose’ would win in its year, and it wasn’t even nominated,” notes Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker — it’s impossible to be sure that a nomination really will boost a foreign film’s U.S. box office tally.

Here’s a darker indicator of what Oscar may mean: Sony Pictures Classics bought Mike van Diem’s 1997 drama, “Character,” partly on how well it played in early Academy screenings. The distrib knew the pic needed critical support, to a greater degree than most foreign language films. Unlike the critics’ cheers in 1999 for such Sony Pictures Classics films as Tom Twyker’s “Run Lola Run,” Erick Zonca’s “The Dreamlife of Angels” and Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother,” reviews were muted for “Character.”

Despite an unexpected Oscar win, “Character” made a mediocre gross of barely over $1 million.

“Sony Classics did due diligence, pretty much all they could do on ‘Character,’ but couldn’t make it happen,” USA marketing head Steve Flynn says.

“Audiences decide what they want to see,” adds Laemmle vice president Greg Laemmle, “and despite an Oscar, they decided not to see ‘Character.’

“A nomination in and of itself doesn’t mean all that much,” Laemmle continues. “And in that case, and others, an Oscar sometimes has less effect than you’d think. A lot of it has to do with the timing of a release. I’ve seen lots of films that didn’t do any more business with a nomination than without one. If a film is out there and visible at this time of year, and up to the Oscars, its chances are better.”

To add to the unpredictability of the results of an Oscar nom, some films from abroad that failed to be nominated this past year performed vastly better than some that were.

“Run Lola Run,” the German submission that didn’t make last year’s cut, went on to a spectacular domestic run of over $7 million, and even at just under $2 million in U.S. arthouses, the non-nominated “Dreamlife” did very well given its emotionally rough subject matter.

Underlining Laemmle’s point about timing, Miramax’s early 1999 release for Majid Majidi’s well-liked “Children of Heaven” was ideally in sync with its eventual Oscar nomination, pushing it to a domestic take of just under $1 million — outstanding for a film from Iran, whose exploding film industry is just now being discovered by audiences.

By contrast, Miramax was unable to release Jose Luis Garci’s “The Grandfather” until several months after the Oscars (the pic lost to “Life Is Beautiful”). The Spanish film could only eke out a mere $50,000 Stateside.

Barker sympathizes with Miramax, though, recalling that though Sony Pictures Classics purchased Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun” in December 1994, before its foreign-lingo Oscar nomination, it was unable to release the film until the following April — after the Oscar show — because of delays in getting necessary materials from “Burnt’s” Russian producers.

“This is a perennial problem,” Barker says. “It can completely throw off your plans.” Still, he notes, a distributor must have a plan in mind to capitalize on Oscar.

“Distributors in the U.S. are extremely savvy about what foreign films will play and not play, and they know how to stage an Oscar campaign,” says Landmark’s Jones. “But some smaller distributors just lack the resources to stage a full-out campaign, including ad buys, screenings and press contacts.”

In this sense, a less-than-commercial film like “Rosetta” may benefit from USA’s resources, while India’s official entry, Deepa Mehta’s “Earth,” may only go so far with Academy voters under the care of small, New York-based distributor Zeitgeist Films — as dedicated to foreign films as any company.

The fact that “Earth” is one of the few official entries that even has a Zeitgeist, or any distrib, indicates how tough the U.S. marketplace remains for even the most lauded foreign films.

“It’s been great for us this year, with ‘Lola,’ ‘All About My Mother,’ ‘Dreamlife’ and ‘Central Station,'” says Barker. “But 1998 was terrible. You never know, it is kinda like Vegas.”

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