Frontrunners include Penguins,' 'Christmas,' 'Dolls'

PARIS — Fed up with being beaten to the post by a neighbor — or worse, upstaged by an outsider from some far-flung corner of the globe — the Gauls mean business at the next Academy Awards.

France’s Oscar commission is due to meet Sept. 19 to pick the nation’s candidate for the foreign film statuette. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes lobbying has reached unprecedented proportions due to the plethora of candidates vying to rep France.

Frontrunners include Warner Independent’s hit docu “The March of the Penguins”; Christian Carion’s WWI set “Merry Christmas,” distribbed in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics; Euro comedy “Russian Dolls”; and a clutch of critically acclaimed crossover pics including “The Beat My Heart Skipped,” “Kings and Queen” and “Live and Become.”

The Gallic debate could be heavily influenced by U.S. distributors. Sony Pictures Classics is rooting for “Merry Christmas,” picked up at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The studio persuaded French distrib UGC to give the pic an advance release on one screen on Sept. 30, several weeks ahead of its nationwide bow Nov. 9.

“Sony really wants this, as does everyone involved in the film,” says producer Christophe Rossignon, who has been in the foreign film Oscar race previously with nominee “Scent of the Green Papaya.”

A March U.S. release date has been timed to give the film exposure to Academy voters.

Warner Independent, meanwhile, has other options with “Penguins.” Because the English version has already been released Stateside — where it was expected last weekend to overtake “The Fifth Element” as France’s highest-grossing pic in the U.S. — it could compete in several other categories.

The film’s French producers, however, would like to see the French version of “Penguins” identified as a Gallic production and contend in the foreign-language film category.

“This film represents all that is outstanding about French savoir faire, and it is also a huge international hit. It clearly deserves to be chosen as France’s candidate for the Oscars,” says producer Yves Darondeau.

Pierre Chevalier, president of France’s screenwriting commission and one of three newcomers to the Oscar commission this year, says, “The Oscars count very much; they are on a par with the Cannes Film Festival in terms of giving a film worldwide exposure, and it’s a great shame that France has not been among the winners more often.

“We must be pragmatic and choose the film that has the greatest chance of success, rather than the film we like best,” he adds.

Under Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rules, a country can offer one submission for foreign-language film. Each country has its own method of picking the film.

Over the years, there has been criticism of various countries’ methods; some — like France — make clear that they’re not necessarily picking the year’s best but choosing the one they feel is most likely to win.

Despite Gallic complaints, France holds the record of the most noms in the category, with 32. France’s nine Oscar wins put it right behind Italy, with 10 (out of 26 noms).

“This year there is a real determination to pick a film that the Americans are likely to appreciate, and to put that criterion first,” says another Gallic source close to the proceedings. “In the past the choice has been based on their own preferences, or on who made the film.”

The choosing in France is done is by an exclusive seven-member commission. It includes Unifrance prexy and film producer Margaret Menegoz and Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux, the only two compulsory members, along with five presidents of various cinema aid commissions, nominated by the culture minister.

Pics must meet Academy criteria that the film be released in its own territory by Sept. 30 and in the French language. The French have added other non-compulsory criteria that eligible films should be a majority French production, have a U.S. distributor — a requirement that seems to be growing in importance — and have notched up at least 200,000 admissions in France.

Menegoz, who has served on the commission for 12 years, plays down the idea that it has adopted a new strategy this year.

“A film’s chances have always been a part of the discussion,” she affirms. But she concedes she would like to see France up there more often among the nominees.

“When you consider how many films we produce, more than 200 a year, one would expect France to be nominated more often than it is. But the Academy is a law unto itself. It’s impossible to predict what its members will like,” she says.

Unlike the big-bucks campaigning during Oscar season Stateside, there isn’t a “For your consideration” ad in sight; all of the lobbying goes on behind closed doors.

“It would be regarded suspiciously if producers started paying for adverts to promote their own film,” says indie production company Bonne Pioche’s Yves Darondeau, producer of “Penguins.” “I’d rather talk to those involved in the decisionmaking and make the best possible case for my film.”

However, unusually for the French, Bonne Pioche will be sending out the recently released DVD to the commission members, along with a press clippings file.

Pascal Caucheteux, producer of Jacques Audiard’s “The Beat My Heart Skipped” is taking a similar tack — without the DVD.

“I am preparing a dossier that will show the commission the fantastic reviews the film has had,” he says. “But I’m assuming they’ve all seen it.”

Pic has grossed more than $1 million since being released by Wellspring in July.

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