It’s a tight race for foreign fare

Overseas pics get some much-needed attention

Getting noticed in the foreign-lingo Oscar field, with a record 51 submissions, may seem like mission impossible. So it’s no wonder a number of distributors that specialize in overseas pics are putting marketing muscle behind their contenders.

But for every “Amelie” and “No Man’s Land,” with their multiple screenings and Q&As with the directors, there are many more with much lower profiles — to say nothing of negligible promotional budgets — that are lucky if they can send reps to the U.S.

Many hopefuls hire publicists because “there is so much to be reaped with money, glory for the country and glory for the distribution,” says veteran indie pic publicist Fredell Pogodin.

Her eponymous firm is doing publicity for such foreign-language films as Argentina’s “Son of the Bride,” Belgium’s “Pauline and Paulette,” the Netherlands’ “Nynke,” Norway’s “Elling,” Colombia’s “Our Lady of the Assassins” and Sweden’s “Jalla Jalla.”

“Son of the Bride” doesn’t have a distributor and with the disastrous state of the Argentine economy it’s unlikely that its stars will be able to travel to the U.S. However, helmer Juan Jose Campanella is based in New York.

Still, Pogodin says being without a distrib isn’t necessarily a problem. She’s repped films in the past that only obtained domestic distribution after receiving an Oscar nom.

The Acad campaign is different in the foreign-lingo race, where pics have to be seen on the bigscreen; videos and DVDs are of no use. Arranging screenings and publicizing them matters though, and those with mailing lists of nominating committee members have an advantage, Pogodin says.

Producer Mark Johnson (“Rain Man”), chairman of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences foreign-language film nominating committee, says the rules of his panel try to level the playing field. For instance, distrib United Artists sent out DVDs of Bosnian entry “No Man’s Land,” but “all the advertisements and the screeners that are sent out don’t make any difference.”

Seeing is believing

In order to be qualified to vote for nominations, the 300-500 committee members have to sign a statement saying they saw the pics theatrically (see related story).

Besides, having a distributor is not an automatic guarantee of a big push. Consider the case of India’s entry, “Lagaan,” a three-hour 42-minute musical romance with an hourlong cricket match as the crux, which is being handled in the U.S. by Columbia TriStar Intl. TV.

Prexy Michael Grindon says Sony Pictures Classics has several hopefuls, but for his division’s Sony Entertainment Television, this is the lone pic.

“We don’t pretend to be a 500-pound gorilla,” Grindon says. “All we do is present it to the nominating committee. Running around putting advertisements will not help it. If people see ‘Lagaan,’ they’ll love it.”

Thus, the biggest task for many films without distribution is arranging screenings that committee members can attend. Luckily for these works, the annual Nortel Networks Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival falls right in the middle of the prenomination process. Of the 51 pics submitted in the category, 47 unspooled at the fest. The event was started by the late Sonny Bono, who as mayor of the desert resort town just outside of Los Angeles saw it as a means to attract attention to his city.

“A lot of them are in hoping for a Fipresci award,” which can help a film stand out, Pogodin says, referring to honors handed out at fests sanctioned by the international film critics org.

“Lagaan’s’ director, Ashutosh Gowariker, who attended the screening of the film at the Palm Springs fest (held Jan. 10-21 this year), says he’s stressing his pic’s wide appeal, pointing to its audience award at the Locarno film fest and jury award at Norway’s Bergen fest.

He seems pleased by the reaction to his epic-length pic from the screenings that distrib Col TriStar arranged on the Sony lot in L.A. and at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences headquarters in Beverly Hills.

“It was received very well,” he says. “The length (of the pic) is an issue, but not completely. We’re trying to push the film as a musical event.”

Length, Johnson asserts, isn’t as important as quality. ” ‘Gladiator’ was a long movie, but length doesn’t matter.”

Johnson has seen a third of the submissions and hopes to see them all, but adds that’s what he planned last year, too.

“When all is said and done, I think people will be surprised by some of the nominations,” he adds.

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