Oscar eyes o’seas talent

Number of non-English pix drawing Acad's attention

LONDON — The Academy Awards used to be like the World Series — a global event in name, but in actuality an entirely North American affair. But in recent years — spiking when Pedro Almodovar nabbed a screenplay award for “Talk to Her” — the Oscar race has opened up to the rest of the world.

This year, a number of non-English pics are making a big noise. Almodovar’s “Bad Education,” Jean- Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement,” Walter Salles’ “Motorcycle Diaries” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” are not eligible for the foreign-lingo category, but they’re all vying for top pic.

“Screening DVDs have lead to a democratization of the Academy Awards and the erosion of their purely American nature,” explains indie veteran Robert Lantos, whose “Being Julia” has nabbed a Golden Globes acting nod for Annette Bening and looks like it may pick up some Oscar traction for the thesp.

Adds Warner Independent topper Mark Gill: “Whereas the studios concentrate on making commercial blockbusters, the independent arms of the studios are geared toward the kind of quality pics that are relevant for the Academy Awards. And the independents make movies all over the world.”

Warner’s indie arm financed Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement,” which wasn’t released in time in France to qualify for the foreign-language Oscar.

Although not repping France, the WWI drama serves as a showcase for Gallic talent including female lead Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”) and the French visual effects houses Les Versailles and Duboi.

French film professionals are also repped in other Oscar hopefuls: Paris-based f/x outfit BUF Compagnie worked on Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was helmed by Michel Gondry and Eric Gautier lensed the Walter Salles’ South American road-trip “Motorcycle Diaries.”

Blighty, too, is among the countries that’s likely to have a substantial presence at the upcoming Academy Awards. Soho’s f/x houses Framestore and the Moving Picture Co. shone in pics like “Troy,” “Alien vs. Predator,” “Alexander” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

U.K. costume designer Sandy Powell applied her skills in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (and worked closely with “Aviator’s” Italian production designer Dante Ferretti) and Jenny Beavan was in charge of designing 20,000 costumes for “Alexander.”

Another costume contender from Blighty is Alex Byrne (“Elizabeth”) for Joel Schumacher’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“Anyone who can make ‘Elizabeth,’ which is set in a particularly unsexy period for women, look as good as Alex did has real talent. She has a very contemporary approach to costume design,” says Schumacher.

U.K. helmer Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake” is in the hunt, while Kate Winslet may get a nod for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and/or Miramax’s “Finding Neverland.”

Like “Phantom,” “Neverland” was shot in and around London and largely cast and crewed locally. Explains the pic’s American producer Richard Gladstein: “It’s absurd to go to a foreign country and bring an American crew. It’s the difference between going to a country and staying in a Four Seasons hotel versus living with locals in an apartment. I believe that difference is easily discernable in the finished film.”

Financial necessities rather than local sensibilities are what brought Kevin Spacey to Berlin to shoot “Beyond the Sea.”

“Usually, shooting in Germany is expensive because of the high cost of labor. But because of the way I structured the budget and because Berlin offers a lot of original ’60s and ’70s locations, shooting here made sense,” says pic’s German producer Jan Fantl.

Germany is also the place where producer Graham King found money to finance “Aviator.”

Munich-based tax fund IMF not only put cash into the Hughes biopic, but also financed Oliver Stone’s $170 million “Alexander.”

IMF topper Aslan Nadery admits that working with two Hollywood legends meant IMF’s influence on creative decisions was limited. “You want somebody like Scorsese or Oliver Stone to realize their vision.”

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