How foreign, animated and docus can vie for Best Picture

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The numbers tell the tale: Odds are almost 50:1 that any given best picture nominee will be a live-action, English-language, fiction feature.

Out of 475 top Oscar contenders to date, only eight were fully foreign language and a mere two animated. Nary a documentary has found its way onto the golden roster.Yet virtually any eligible feature can be considered for honors across the board, including best picture. Dozens of films in the “outlying” categories of foreign-language, animation and documentary qualify every year, occasionally copping a nomination and even an award outside their niches (song for “An Inconvenient Truth”).

The Oscar world changed last year, though, when the number of best picture nominees went back to 10, a number not seen since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. With twice as many noms available, the door seems more open to these pictures than at any time in living memory.

A best picture nom is the grail everyone seeks. What lessons can current contenders learn from the few foreign films and animated features that managed to acquire one? How would the stars have to align for a doc to get one?

One awards insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity brings up the first roadblock to a pic from one of these categories garnering a best pic nom: The “They already have theirs!” attitude. Even aside from that, though, numerous other limiting factors apply, even to foreign films, which — by the numbers, anyway — have the best shot.

For insight into how these pics can contend — or why they don’t — we turned to publicists and consultants, the professional strategists for whom Awards Season is prime time.

Foreign Language

“Grand Illusion” broke the language barrier in 10-nom year 1938, but xenophobia reigned long past WWII. (“Wonder why we hate ourselves?” grumped Hedda Hopper when 1948 noms went to “Hamlet,” first all-overseas pic to win, and “The Red Shoes.”) Despite recognition for directing and writing, foreign language pics were denied a shot at top honors until Costa-Gavras’ 1969 political thriller “Z,” which ultimately took home foreign-language film and editing prizes.

The floodgates didn’t exactly open thereafter, but best picture noms were garnered by pics made in Scandinavia (“Cries and Whispers” and “The Emigrants”); Italy (“Il Postino” and “Life Is Beautiful”); and Asia (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).

Commonalities among those pix are not lost on Oscar watchers. Lisa Taback, who along with Tony Angellotti helped shepherd “Il Postino” and “Life Is Beautiful” to their best picture nominations, says, “When you have a story with emotion and heart, the language difference disappears. At the end of the day, the films were more than their subtitles.”

Angellotti agrees: “?’Il Postino’ wasn’t a fast-dialogue foreign language film. People spoke slowly and laconically, and audiences said they forgot they were reading. In ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ you very clearly understood the man’s love for his son just by looking at it. (Roberto) Benigni knew the acting is in the face, not the words.”

Taback also notes “There’s always a great score that accompanies these films, which makes up for quite a bit of intimidation or unfamiliarity with the foreign language.” Mikis Theodorakis’ propulsive “Z” underscoring, and the ultimately Oscar-winning themes for “Il Postino” and “Crouching Tiger,” surely helped those pics climb into the race.

Melody Korenbrot of Block-Korenbrot, who has worked on many foreign contenders including best picture nominee “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” remembers the score and audience roar at the first Academy screening of Ang Lee’s martial-arts epic. “It took on a life of its own. I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, they might actually get (a nomination).’?”

The playbook for the foreign-lingo pic seems to be that it plays well on DVD (many subtitled pix don’t); boasts some sort of hook, like the fatal illness of “Il Postino” star Massimo Troisi (hard to come by); and meets the “heart” requirement.

To Angellotti, a foreign best picture contender needs “an emotional connection or a character to relate to, or a substantive theme. If one or more of those things aren’t already in the bag, know that it’s a long shot, with little precedent for it, really.”

Animated

Animation should have broken through the celluloid ceiling in 1937, but “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was fobbed off in 1938 with a special award — a full-sized statuette plus seven miniatures — to forestall just such a precedent. Disney held something of a lock on the 1940s’ music and song categories, though its Oscar presence diminished as its innovation flagged.

The historic first best picture nom for a feature toon came with 1991′s “Beauty and the Beast.” That picture benefited by reinventing two genres — the animated feature and the musical comedy — in a relatively weak domestic year. But “Up” may point the way to animation’s presence in the Golden 10 hereafter. It “struck a nerve,” says Angellotti, who worked on promoting the pic for award consideration.

“Long before it was even finished, I was amazed at how people were affected by it,” says Angellotti. “They connected to universal emotions in the story, the relationship between the old man and the boy, the boy and the dog. These relationships played importantly and against all expectations.”

Back when only five slots were available, emotional smashes like “The Iron Giant,” “Wall-E” and “Toy Story” likely ran afoul of the huge branch of Academy thesps who, in Angellotti’s words, “may tend to think their whole being isn’t involved in the (voiceover) performance.” Angellotti argues that idea is wrong, “because their performances are what the animators animate to; i.e. they inform the very expressions and actions of their characters.”

The animated feature category was conceived before performance-capture became a significant part of moviemaking. Now, with performance-capture characters popping up in both live-action and animated features, the line between the categories is blurring. (“Avatar,” for example, clearly met the Academy’s definition of an animated feature.) If that forces the Acad to rethink having a separate animation category, it may become commonplace for two or more animated pics to vault to the annual list of 10 — and one day, maybe, even prevail.

Documentary

Few pros make the same sunny forecast for docs, though plenty of effort goes into trying to get them into the race. As landmark works like “Hoop Dreams,” “The Thin Blue Line” and “Roger and Me” have been shut out from documentary feature consideration, there have been calls for them to be considered for best picture.

Yet with some Acad constituencies shut out from docs — notably actors and designers — relatively few voters are naturally inclined to support them.

Melody Korenbrot observes: “Some of these fiction films would have to literally fall apart by the end of the year for a documentary to sneak in.”

On the other hand, Marian Koltai-Levine says, “Just because it’s a foreign film or a documentary doesn’t take away from its importance or message.” Koltai-Levine’s experiences with Picturehouse and Fine Line, even before joining PMK as its exec veep of film marketing, involved her in campaigns for all three specialized categories.

“The Academy members must have a chance to see the film,” she says, “and in mailings and advertising, ‘For Your Consideration’ needs to say best picture in the same place as anything else.”

A top nomination, she says, is “extremely possible.” Yet if Cinderella-story “Hoop Dreams” couldn’t get the
glass slipper, what could? “The content was there, it had clearly caught lightning in a bottle,” she says. “We were all saddened we didn’t get (the best picture nom) … but we were so grateful for everything we did get.” (“Hoop Dreams” contended for editing honors.)

Publicist Fredell Pogodin, who worked on Oscar-winning doc “The Cove,” advises backers of outlying genres to assess their goals and budgets carefully.

“After a while, you start to know what’ll go over with the critics groups and what’ll be commercial. It’s a gut hunch, but bottom line is, sometimes you’re wrong.”

And Angellotti believes award chances stand on the merits: “When a story is as strong as it is for ‘Up’ or ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ or as epic as ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ category boundaries melt away.”

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