The barbarians are storming the Academy’s gates.
Throughout Oscar’s history, only seven foreign-language films have broken into the exclusive club of picture nominees. These exceptions, including “Grand Illusion,” “Cries and Whispers” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” have been quirky flukes admitted with little historic impact on the category.
This year, however, due to a the dearth of the high-profile, prestige American films that dominate Oscar talk and the appearance of a handful of buzz-generating foreign-language titles with mainstream appeal, Oscar may be scouting abroad to fill at least one, if not more, of its best picture slots.
“I don’t think you can pick five of the best films of the year without picking two foreign films,” says Mark Gill, president of Warner Bros. Independent, whose “A Very Long Engagement” is a frequently mentioned foreign contender.
He continues, “It’s entirely possible that this will be the first year in Academy history when not one but two foreign films will be nominated for best picture.”
Mentioned alongside “Very Long Engagement” as picture contenders are two Spanish films, Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” and Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside”; Zhang Yimou’s Chinese martial arts spectacle “House of Flying Daggers”; and Walter Salles’ pan-Latin American Che Guevara biopic “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
“There’s a real, genuine humanity to all of those movies,” says David Brooks, president of marketing at Focus Features, the U.S. distrib of “Motorcycle Diaries.”
“There are occasionally these very special foreign-language films that break out of the specialized arthouse niche with some message that’s so universal, that it really connects with audiences,” he says about this year’s crop.
The films’ paths to nominations are variously clouded, however, by the complicated eligibility rules and politics of the foreign-language film category that require that every film be put forward for nomination by its home country.
While “House of Flying Daggers” and “The Sea Inside” were chosen as China’s and Spain’s nominees, respectively, the others, for differing reasons were passed over at home. “Motorcycle Diaries” fell between the cracks of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rules stating that for a country to nominate a film, two of the three main roles — writer, director, producer — must be filled by its citizens.
In the case of “Bad Education,” Spain’s film board continued its running feud with the man widely thought to be the nation’s greatest filmmaker, passing over Pedro Almodovar’s latest in favor of “Sea Inside.”
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Very Long Engagement,” which has been met with criticism back home for not being sufficiently French, opened too late at home to qualify for the Gallic slot.
For the distribs of films ineligible for the foreign-language category, being passed over may be a mixed blessing. Academy voters who are fans of a film won’t have the out of believing it will make the foreign-language category if it fails to take a best picture slot.
“It’s definitely a plus for ‘Bad Education’ as a potential best picture nomination that it wasn’t the Spanish entry,” says Michael Barker, president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing “Bad Education” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
Marketing these films to AMPAS members presents other headaches. Unlike a “Braveheart” or a “Lord of the Rings,” whose immense public profile virtually guaranteed viewing and consideration, foreign-language titles occupy an ever-more crowded niche.
“Always the most important aspect of an Academy campaign is to get as many members to see your film as possible,” says Barker. “And I think it’s slightly harder to do that with an independent film or a foreign-language film than with a major studio film that is highly anticipated.
“So you have to go the extra mile to get them to put that cassette or DVD in the player before they vote. Because the fact of the matter is Academy members are very busy people and it’s very difficult to see everything.”
Going the extra mile involves not just the standard DVD mailings and round-the-clock screenings, but marketing campaigns that radiate Oscar from top to bottom.
“You just have to go out of the way to frame people’s thinking to suggest that its worthy of best picture,” says Warner Bros. Independent’s Gill. “Because they won’t go there automatically. They’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s a foreign film; it must not be a best picture nominee.’ You have to really pound away at it.
“A lot of it is a function of the imagery you pick. You want to pick things that look as epic and substantial as possible. Some of it is just a matter of saying, ‘We’re eligible for best picture!’ over and over and over again.”
With the exception of “House of Flying Daggers,” the films are receiving carefully handled limited releases, opening with exclusive engagements in L.A. and New York and building, if demand holds, to wider releases in the 200-300 screens range. “Motorcycle Diaries,” nine weeks into its run, is playing on 233 screens. With help from its broad action appeal, “House of Flying Daggers” will expand after the new year to 1,000 to 2,000 screens after bowing in exclusive engagements.
“But,” cautions Barker, “the worst thing you can do for any of these movies is to go too wide too quickly. I know pictures that have been out on 100 or 125 screens that the box office gross is higher than ones that go out on 300 to 400 screens. I think the whole idea of screen count determining the ultimate gross is kind of misleading when it comes to foreign-language films.”