A win potentially means Hollywood projects

LONDON — For many international helmers, winning the foreign-language film Oscar remains the holy grail of all awards. The prize brings with it the promise of worldwide exposure for their passion project, the lure of meetings with Hollywood’s most powerful agents and the prospect of cherry-picking projects with budgets that more often than not dwarf that of the award-winning title that got them there in the first place.

Just ask previous winners Gavin Hood and Stefan Ruzowitzky.

South African helmer Hood, whose intimate drama “Tsotsi” won the 2007 foreign-language prize, soon found himself directing A-list thesps Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon in political drama “Rendition.”

He is currently editing Fox’s 2009 summer tentpole “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

Ruzowitzky, whose powerful Holocaust drama “The Counterfeiters” won the award earlier this year, is currently mulling three different studio projects.

That kind of payoff helps make the arduous journey to the Kodak Theater worthwhile.

“I remember that I went to 35 U.S. cities in a month when we were promoting ‘Tsotsi’ in the run-up to the Academy Awards,” says Hood. “I was in a different city every night. It was amazing to discover that the studios put in as much effort selling a film as they do making them. You need to get comfortable with that as a filmmaker but it’s not easy. It’s a machine.”

That is one of the reasons why this year’s foreign-language contenders are bracing themselves for the long haul.

Italian helmer Matteo Garrone, whose mafia pic “Gomorra” is one of this year’s buzz titles after it won the Grand Prix award at Cannes, is adopting a phlegmatic approach to the Oscar race.

“I’m trying to take it step by step,” says Garrone, who has also had to deal with the death threats aimed at Roberto Saviano, the author of the book the film is based on. “I’m already very happy about everything that’s happened. When you make a film, you hope it will be seen by as many people as possible. That’s the most important thing. The film has given me the chance to meet with some very interesting producers in the U.S.”

And while Garrone’s pic was picked up for U.S. distribution days after its Cannes bow by IFC, other contenders weren’t so fortunate.

Jordanian helmer Amin Matalqa bowed his feature debut, “Captain Abu Raed,” at Sundance in January. Pic went on to win the world cinema audience award, but while the likes of Sony Pictures Classics, among others, showed interest, no firm offers came forward until Neoclassics eventually acquired all English-speaking territories this October.

That didn’t stop the infectiously tireless Matalqa from plotting his award campaign even without a U.S. deal, hiring a publicist pre-Sundance and spending the rest of the year touring the film at fests around North America and the world.

“We thought it was a done deal after Sundance, and we had such high expectations but then we just saw all these indie players leave the game as the year went on,” says Matalqa. “Other films were getting picked up but we weren’t, even though we kept winning audience awards at all these festivals. We just kept keeping this faith that something would happen, and in the end it did with Neoclassics.”

The result is that “Captain Abu Raed,” which is Jordan’s first entry in the Oscar race, is now emerging as a dark horse with Matalqa and Neoclassics even opening the pic for a week in Los Angeles to ensure eligibility in other categories such as best actor for Nadim Sawalha and best score.

Spare a thought, however, for those filmmakers coming up against the formidable studio machines and their marketing power.

Lebanese helmer Philippe Aractingi, whose war drama “Under the Bombs” won the best film at the Dubai fest and is now Lebanon’s official entry, has had to orchestrate the pic’s campaign almost entirely by himself. He even had to send the fax to the Academy confirming the pic’s selection from his own office because Lebanon’s selection committee didn’t have one. He is now privately raising $200,000 to launch a marketing campaign for the pic, which is being released in the U.S. by Film Movement.

“It is crazy trying to find that kind of money when your country is messed up politically,” says Aractingi. “But it’s so important for me as a filmmaker and also for Lebanon to see our flag flying at the Oscars, especially with a film that is not political and is not biased.”

Whoever does end up winning this year’s prize, however, may find that their toughest battles have only just begun.

“It’s been astounding to see how big some of the projects people think I’d be able to do are after winning the Oscar, but it’s quite a strange process in Hollywood,” says Ruzowitzky. “You can’t concentrate on only one project. You find yourself attached to a number of things, you work on them and nothing happens and then one of them suddenly moves forward really quickly. It’s a totally different system. You never know which project will be realized in the end.”

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