NEW YORK — It wouldn’t be an Oscar race if no one complained about the foreign-language prize.
In what has become something of a tradition, a handful of the year’s highest-profile international pics — most notably Michael Haneke’s “Cache” and Luc Jacquet’s “March of the Penguins” — won’t be competing for a nomination, having been stymied by either the politics of their national film boards (which can only submit one film) or the much-maligned Academy qualifying rules that place strict restrictions on a film’s spoken language and the nationalities of its creative team.
When Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 31, there is good chance that the five selections will include at least one film that’s more or less unknown outside its native country.
It’s happened each of the past three years — with Sweden’s “As It Is in Heaven” (2005) and the Netherlands’ “Twin Sisters” (2004) and “Zus and Zo” (2003). And while critics of the prize often point to the inclusion of such unheralded films as evidence that the Academy is out of touch with contemporary world cinema, others argue that it’s a sign of fair play.
Unlike the voting rules for the major categories, which allow Academy members to watch screeners sent out by the distributors, the foreign-language rules require that a member can only vote for the winner if he or she has seen every nominee at an Academy screening.
“When ‘Zus and Zo’ was nominated in 2003, we had a theatrical deal in the U.S., but our distributor did absolutely nothing,” says Claudia Landsberger, president of European Film Promotion and managing director of Holland Film. “Our film was not well known, was not a big story at the major festivals, but we still got a nomination. That tells me that there is something quite pure about the process.”
(This year the Netherlands won’t get a get a chance to score its third nomination in four years. In December, the Academy ruled that the Dutch entry, Mijke de Jong’s “Bluebird,” was ineligible because a slightly modified version of the film aired on European TV.)
Nancy Gerstman, co-president of indie distributor Zeitgeist, which will be campaigning with the German World War II drama “Sophie Scholl,” says the category’s rules “really evens out the process and makes campaigns less of a factor. It’s a very straightforward process. I love the fact that the nominating committee members, and the academy voters, have to see every one of the movies on film, and they have to prove it.”
Gerstman, who distributed 2003 winner “Nowhere in Africa,” is also keenly aware of the financial upside that goes along with Oscar recognition.
“We released the film after nominations were announced, and it looked like we were going to top out at around $2 million. Then we won, and the film just took off. We ended up making more than $6 million, and that’s really attributable to the Oscar win.”
While the ban on screeners helps the smaller foreign pics go toe-to-toe with higher-profile titles from blue-chip distribs like Sony Classics, Warner Independent and Miramax, an Oscar campaign before the nominations are finalized is still regarded as a necessity.
And even the bare minimum is pricy. Several vets of the foreign-language race, speaking anonymously, say that a bare-bones promotion during the nominee selection period costs around $60,000 — $10,000 for a publicist and another $50,000 for trade ads. If a film secures a nomination, its supporters will have to finance another campaign.
For films without distribution, campaign money is usually put up by the pic’s national film board.
“The promotion of the films begins the moment they are submitted,” says L.A.-based film publicist Tatiana Detlofson, who along with partner Deborah Kolar runs MediaPlanPR, a publicity company that specializes in foreign-language Oscar campaigns. (Detlofson is married to Variety’s executive editor of features.) “Getting the nomination is a long shot even with U.S. distribution. Without the distribution, the odds are even longer, so it is very important that the filmmakers and the national film boards understand the value of the campaign is much bigger than simply securing a nomination.”
This year, MediaPlanPR will be repping four films: “The Collector” (Poland) “Kissed by Winter” (Norway), “Something Like Happiness” (Czech Republic) and “Zozo” (Sweden). The film with a U.S. deal in place is “The Collector,” which is being released by Film Movement, with additional support from foreign sales firm the Wild Bunch. And Zeitgeist’s Gerstman says her company has gotten significant financial help from the German government for both “Nowhere in Africa” and now “Sophie Scholl.”
But not all national film boards will pony up the cash.
“Every country is different,” says Detlofson. “The campaign for Norwegian and Swedish films are shared between the producers, the national film institutes and the sales agents. The Polish film campaign is financed by producer and the Polish Film Institute. This year, the Polish Film Institute got a large sum for promotion of Polish films abroad and they are probably now the most supportive promoters of all Eastern European countries. The Czech film, unfortunately, has gotten very little help from their ministry of culture — there is no Czech Film Institute in the country — so the whole campaign is backed by only the producer.”
Footing the bill for an Oscar campaign is a risk that many foreign producers are more than willing to take.
Mine Vargi, producer of the Turkish entry “Lovelorn,” says his company, Filma-Cass, has hired a publicist, launched a marketing campaign with posters, trailers and a Web site (www.lovelornthemovie.com), and taken out ads in Variety, Screen and elsewhere.
“We are still at the learning stage, and next time we will have more experience. Now, it’s more important for us to show that we are here, that we can produce films and that they’re good,” says Vargi.
“At some point we will make it to the final five. But for the time being, Turkey and Filma-Cass are more interested in being accepted to the game than winning it.”