Unlike the Oscars, foreign kudofests focus only on local fare

This time every year, the Academy takes heat for perceived oversights in its foreign language film category, but the truth is, the Oscars remain considerably more international in focus than other countries’ film awards.

The awards of these local bodies are often referred to by journalists as “such-and-such country’s Oscars” (much to the trademark-conscious American Academy’s chagrin) and some — such as France’s Cesars — actually had the Oscars as their model when they were conceived. However, while films of any nationality can win an Oscar, nearly every other academy restricts its awards to films and talent from its home country (the exception being the British academy), recognizing Hollywood pics only in ghettoized foreign language categories — if at all.

This creates a curious looking-glass world, where every country celebrates its own version of the past year’s output. If you were at the 2009 awards ceremony in Norway, for example, you’d have thought the top film was not Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won eight Oscars, but “Max Manus,” which claimed six Amandas. Last year, aboriginal art film “Samson and Delilah” took home six Australian Film Awards down under, while in Gaul, “A Prophet” earned nine Cesars.

When it came to honoring American- or British-made pics in foreign award shows, the big winner was not “Slumdog Millionaire” but Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” which won at the David di Donatellos in Italy, the Cesars and the Japanese Academy Awards, despite the fact that Eastwood’s film earned no Oscar noms and only one Golden Globe nom (for original song) in the States.

Some directors simply fare better abroad. James Gray is a favorite with the French, for instance, earning nods for Oscar-overlooked pics “We Own the Night” and “Two Lovers” in recent years. Quentin Tarantino has a strong following overseas, and that probably helped “Inglourious Basterds” win the foreign film kudo at the Davids this year, where it beat out an all-American ballot including “A Serious Man,” helmed by Joel and Ethan Coen (who won with “No Country for Old Men” in 2008), and Eastwood’s “Invictus.”

In addition to their foreign film categories, some European kudo events have a category just for European pics, which offers European-U.S. co-productions a chance to compete (“Slumdog” won in that category at both the Davids and the Goyas). Other awards, such as the German Film Awards, have no category in which American films are eligible.

All of which makes BAFTA a bit of a lone voice outside of North America when it comes to considering filmmaking achievements on a global scale. Any film that has been released theatrically in the U.K. is eligible to compete for a BAFTA.

Amanda Berry, chief exec of the British academy, explains the thinking behind her org’s openness. “It is an international business, and many Hollywood films have British directors, cast and crew,” she says. “With many films now, if you cut them down the middle, you’ll find a lot of their DNA is British.”

Berry argues that BAFTA’s international outlook benefits the British film biz.

“Our approach is to take British talent and put them on an international stage. It is great when Brits triumph, but it is also great that they are triumphing against the very best in the world. It makes that victory even sweeter.”

She points out that the BAFTAs also have two exclusively British categories, and that the org supports local filmmakers in other ways year-round. There is also another U.K. kudo contest, the British Independent Film Awards, that is dedicated to British films.

The European Film Awards stand as a halfway house between the local pride of many awards and the universal approach of the BAFTAs and the Oscars.Even though the EFAs are restricted to European films, as defined by the nationality of the creative talent, they still encompass films from some 50 nations. They also include some U.S.-European co-productions, such as “The Reader” and “Slumdog,” which both won prizes last year.

The awards, and the European Film Academy that oversees them, were set up in 1988, when Europe was still divided by the Iron Curtain, and their founding was imbued with some of the idealism and political intent that inspired the creation of the European Union. Their founding fathers, led by Ingmar Bergman, were concerned to establish a counterweight to what they saw as the cultural homogeneity being created by the dominance of Hollywood, and saw the academy and its awards as a chance to preserve a distinct European film culture.

“Our aim is to promote European films beyond their national borders,” explains Marion Doering, director of the academy. She claims that, to a certain extent, the awards have succeeded in that objective, with the kudocast broadcast in 44 European countries as well as attracting a lot of other media coverage. “There is much more attention paid to European films than when they started. But it is a long process. It’s not like the Oscars. We don’t want to compare ourselves with the Oscars because then we will always lose,” she says, citing the Oscars’ wealth and ability to draw internationally recognizable Hollywood talent, who have directed or appeared in global blockbusters, in comparison with the EFAs, whose stars and films are not always that well-known outside of their borders. “That is why we do it — to make them better known,” Doering says.

The awards have no international film prize, although there used to be one. It was dispensed with several years ago so that the awards could focus solely on European pics.

One anomaly of the awards system in some countries is that some of the films competing are in the English language as their producers intended the pics to travel beyond their national borders. In Spain, for example, Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora,” which stars British thesps Rachel Weisz and Max Minghella, won seven Goyas this year.

Other awards are more restrictive. The Cesars typically only consider French-language films with French talent, although there have been exceptions, such as Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which earned prizes for Adrien Brody and in six other categories. Such exceptions are at the discretion of the French Academy of Arts and Sciences’ awards committee, explains Alain Terzian, topper of the French academy and president of the Cesars. Terzian says that even if an American thesp starred in a French film, shot in French, that actor wouldn’t automatically be considered for a Cesar.

“We recognize that the Oscars have a more universal vision and are more open than we are — when, for instance, they gave Marion Cotillard an Oscar for best actress in ‘La Vie en Rose,’?” Terzian says. “But we have to respect the fact that the Cesar awards were created to honor French talent and French cinema.”

By contrast, the American Academy has nominated eight foreign language films for best picture over the years, and 10 films financed exclusively outside the U.S. took home the top prize, including several with significant amounts of dialogue in languages other than English (“Gandhi,” “The Last Emperor” and “Slumdog Millionaire”) — making the Oscars the most international race around.

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this article.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Foreign language Oscar submissions for 2010

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more