Getting country's official nod can raise profile

At first glance, the Academy’s taste in food and cinema may seem unrelated, but consider the facts:

Ever since the Oscar for best foreign-language film was officially launched in 1956, more than a third of the category’s 51 winners have gone to Italy and France. Historically, the two countries have dominated, with 61 nominations between them.

Powerhouses Spain, Germany and Sweden — thank you, Ingmar Bergman (and Swedish meatballs?) — are not too far behind. Mexico and Japan have also fared well. But guess how many slots have gone to perennial contenders Egypt, Portugal, South Korea, Turkey, the Philippines, Bulgaria and Chile? That’s right: zilch.

Despite the stacked deck and long odds against them, countries as diverse as Estonia, Tajikistan and Uruguay have entered the race in recent years. When was the last time an Academy member ate “hernesupp” (Estonian split-pea soup)? Still, the nominees have become more eclectic, of late: Witness contenders from Algeria, the Palestinian territories, India, Nepal and rare wins from Bosnia-Herzegovina (“No Man’s Land”) and South Africa (“Tsotsi”). If Bosnia can do it, hey, maybe Sri Lanka can, too.

Even if they’re not ultimately nominated, there are still fringe benefits of being among the smorgasbord of 60 or so subtitled films submitted to the Academy, say insiders. “From an acquisitions standpoint, all the distributors feel the need to see the film,” says longtime foreign-film PR maven Fredell Pogodin, who is repping contenders “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (Romania), “Caramel” (Lebanon) and “The Edge of Heaven” (Germany).

Sony Pictures Classics picked up last year’s Swiss submission “Vitus,” for example, which didn’t garner a nomination; and at the AFM last month, the company preemptively purchased this year’s Czech Republic entry, “I Served the King of England.” Separately, Ireland’s submission “Kings” was acquired by BFS Entertainment and “Edge of Heaven” was purchased by Strand.

“As foreign films become more successful,” says SPC’s Michael Barker, “I think the value of this category just becomes stronger and stronger.” Barker also points to the category’s particular importance “to people around the world.”

Indeed, the contest is a point of pride for world cinemas. When “Tsotsi” triumphed last year, South Africa President Thabo Mbeki declared it a sign of the “age of hope,” while screaming fans reportedly embraced the filmmakers upon their return to Johannesburg’s airport.

But even without victory celebrations, directors involved in the Academy campaigning can get a boost. As IFC Films’ Ryan Werner says, “It’s important to be part of the conversation during award season.” Festivals, from AFI to Palm Springs in particular, embrace the films, and new-world class auteurs, such as South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong, Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas and Romania’s Cristian Mungiu, are trotted out to the industry for the first time in a big way.

South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong, for example, will be treated to a full retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in January pegged to his latest Oscar submission, “Secret Sunshine.” “We are hopeful the publicity generated by the film from the Academy Awards and from festival screenings will help increase Lee’s profile in the U.S.,” says the Korean Film Council’s An Cheong-sook. “To many people in the Korean film industry, a foreign-language Oscar win remains a key goal.”

Being a nation’s official submission, according to Joseph Cedar, director of Israel’s submission “Beaufort,” creates opportunities to screen your film “for people who might turn out to be influential with your next films.” Cedar’s two previous efforts, “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” were both submitted in the category, and though never nominated, found U.S. distribution during the Oscar process. This year, Kino Intl. has picked up “Beaufort.”

“I think you become a little less invisible for the American industry,” adds Cedar, noting that it’s easier to be introduced at parties: “‘Meet so-and-so; he did the film that is Israel’s Oscar submission this year,’ as opposed to: ‘Meet so-and-so; he directed ‘Campfire’ — a film that you never heard of and will never see.'”

Submitted by Austria in 1998, Stefan Ruzowitsky’s “The Inheritors” did not nab a nom, but this year, he’s got one of the field’s leading candidates, “The Counterfeiters.” Ruzowitsky calls the official submission “something that remains in your CV among festival wins and other distinctions.” While he signed up with UTA largely as a result of strong festival play, he notes, “Festival catalogs often transform ‘national submission’ to ‘nomination’ to make you look more important. I never sued anybody for that.”

“It definitely gets your calls returned on the first round,” says Roadside Attractions’ co-prexy Howard Cohen, who signed Ruzowitsky and repped other foreign notables during his UTA tenure, including Marlene Gorris, Oliver Hirschbiegel and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. “People have to like the movie and watch the movie, but it’s a foot in the door.”

And not only is Hollywood paying attention, explains Premiere PR’s Deborah Kolar, a veteran foreign-language awards campaigner, “but producers and filmmakers from other countries are also reviewing this international talent pool.”

“Cinema Paradiso” director Giuseppe Tornatore (representing Italy again this year with “The Unknown Woman”) says that thanks to all his Oscar submitted films there is “a greater visibility from the media, a greater interest from the audience and, above all, from producers, in terms of project offers.”

But as far as tangible monetary impact, most industryites agree that being a country’s official submission only goes so far. Fortissimo Film Sales’ Wouter Barendrecht, who has three films this year — “Taxidermia” (Hungary), “It Is Hard to Be Nice” (Bosnia) and “The Home Song Stories” (Australia) — says, “Only if the film gets nominated can you add money to the sales.”

Thorsten Ritter, head of marketing & acquisitions for Bavaria Film Intl. — which reps “Shadows” (Macedonia), “The Trap” (Serbia), “The Pope’s Toilet” (Uruguay), “Beaufort” and “I Served the King of England” — says that a “submission raises the awareness for the film,” but that it’s publicists working on foreign Oscar campaigns who can really make the difference. “If they see a film and think it has chances, they may be able to ignite U.S. distributors again that had passed on the film.”

“You can do things to help,” agrees Pogodin. But there’s really only one thing that can make an overlooked foreign-language submission come out a prized delicacy in the end: “Ultimately,” she says, “it’s the merit of the film that really matters.”

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