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Foreign films cross kudo category boundaries

Distribs more aggressive in campaigning for major categories

Spanish helmer Pedro Almodovar’s dual Oscar noms (original screenplay and director) for 2002’s “Talk to Her”– a film that was not Spain’s foreign-language submission that year — put the spotlight on what has become an embarrassing trend at the Oscars: Routinely, well-received foreign-language films have a better chance of getting nominated outside their most obvious category.

According to Sony Classics co-prexy Michael Barker, Almodovar’s go-to U.S. distributor, “This trend has been developing for a long time, although things seemed to have picked up recently. The real question is when a foreign title will win best picture. I don’t think that’s a far way off.”

Already, a number of high-profile titles — including Almodovar’s “Bad Education” and Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries” — for various reasons have been deemed ineligible for the foreign language Academy Award. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be heard from on Oscar night. Since 2000, foreign-lingo films have received one nod for best picture, three for director, and six for screenplay (original and adapted). This year’s field of foreign-lingo contenders is among the deepest in recent memory, and distribs are being aggressive in campaigning for major categories.

“I think there’s going to be an overhaul of the foreign-language committee,” says Fine Line’s exec VP of marketing Marian Koltai-Levine, who was unable to qualify Joshua Marston’s “Maria Full of Grace” as Colombia’s official Oscar entry because its writer-director and producer are American. “The rules will eventually change to reflect the way films are being made today. But let’s not forget what’s important: foreign films are making a big impact on U.S. audiences, and this year’s crop is especially strong.”

Beyond Almodovar, Marston and Salles’ films, other foreign-lingo standouts include Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside” (Fine Line) from Spain; Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (distribbed by Miramax this year but ineligible to compete in any Oscar category because it got a foreign lingo nom in 2002) and “House of Flying Daggers” (Sony Classics) from China; and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement” (Warner Independent) and Christophe Barratier’s “Les Choristes” (Miramax) from France.

Focus co-prexy David Linde, who will be pushing “The Motorcycle Diaries” in multiple categories, thought its multinational cast and crew prevented it from qualifying as any single country’s selection. “The Academy is made up of artists, and they recognize real cinematic achievement when they see it. The proof is in the pudding. This year, it hasn’t just been one film here or there but a whole gamut of compelling stories and performances.”

The Oscar heat has become a selling point for U.S. distribs bidding on foreign titles. “When I bought ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ at Sundance,” says Linde, “the reason the filmmakers chose our deal over higher bids is because we believed the film should be competing for best picture, not just foreign-language film.”

And helmers aren’t complaining. “For us international filmmakers, it’s like we’ve been able to go beyond the world-music section of the record store,” says Salles, who also co-produced last year’s multi-Oscar-nommed “City of God.” “The internationalization that’s been happening at the Oscars for the past six or seven years now, (along) with the public recognition these films have been getting at the box office, has been amazing.”

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