Foreign Oscars can boost careers; some play it safe

How does an Oscar for foreign-language film impact the career of the pic’s director?

For many filmmakers, winning an Oscar is the be-all, end-all of their career. Even many of the self-styled virtuous screenwriters or directors who eschew the trappings of Hollywood and the idea of a competition among peers secretly covet the little gold man — all know that should they win one, they will certainly benefit professionally. Winning an Oscar guarantees nothing, but it does open doors, and if actors, writers and directors walk through the right ones and have the chops, they’re rewarded.

But is the same true for directors of what has often been one of the least ballyhooed categories on awards night, foreign-language film? The answer seems to be yes … and no.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmark would be a yes. He won a 2006 foreign-language Oscar for “The Lives of Others,” and his second film, “The Tourist” — with two of the biggest stars on the planet, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, and a much bigger budget than “Lives” had — opened Dec. 10 via Columbia.

Gavin Hood’s 2005 win for his South African film “Tsotsi” had a rather pronounced effect on his career. “Tsotsi” was Hood’s third feature, one that came as he had been getting some notice.

“I had won a few awards at various festivals for my early low-budget feature work,” Hood says, “and my short film, ‘The Storekeeper,’ had qualified for Academy Award consideration in 1999.” In addition, Hood was named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch.

None of that compared to winning an Oscar, however. Hood refers to the effect as “profound,” adding that “there were suddenly a lot of calls from agents and managers and studio execs wanting to meet. There was ‘heat’ in a way that was a little overwhelming.”

In the past 10 years, only one woman has won a foreign-language directing Oscar, and Caroline Link, whose 2002 “Nowhere in Africa” took the trophy, didn’t exactly get snapped up by Hollywood. She was tapped to helm an English-language adaptation of Scott Campbell’s novel “Aftermath” but ended up directing “Im Winter Ein Jahr,” a German-language film from the same source novel. The film was released in 2008.

One of this category’s biggest surprise winners in recent years was Danis Tanovic’s Bosnian entry “No Man’s Land” (2001), which beat Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s hit “Amelie.”

“I also thought ‘Amelie’ would win,” recalls Tanovic about his film’s win at the Golden Globes. “I remember sitting in the back at the same table with Alfonso Cuaron … looking at the first row where all the stars, including Jean-Pierre Jeunet, were seated. Alfonso and I turned our backs to cameras because we didn’t want them to film our faces. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that my movie won.”

The seating at the Oscars was the same a month later, says Tanovic: “Jean-Pierre was seated in the first row, with stars; all other foreign-film nominees were seated in the back. I had no clue I was about to win the Oscar that night. Some people were telling me I had a great chance of winning, but I never took those words seriously.”

Tanovic had no plans for the future. “Since I survived war I stopped making plans,” says Tanovic. “If someone told me 20 years ago I would spend two years in a war, finish my studies in Brussels, in the French language, live in Paris for 10 years, make a first movie that would become such a success, have five kids … I would have told him to go and check his head.”

As for attention from Hollywood, it actually came after he won the screenplay award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. He turned down the offers to sign with agents because he had no intention of going to the States.

After a while they stopped chasing him … all but one. Stuart Manashil from CAA was persistent.

“I met (Stuart) in Paris few years ago and told him if I ever needed an agent I would contact him,” Tanovic recalls. “And I did, two years later. I think he fell off his chair when I called him and told him I needed him.”

The filmmaker wasn’t buried under scripts, however: “As we spoke on many occasions, our deal was that he wouldn’t waste my time sending me screenplays I wouldn’t care to direct in the first place. So no, I don’t get many screenplays to read.”

As for an Oscar-winning career bump, Tanovic says, “I think it has, but it is a hard thing to measure, no? If nothing, it makes people read your stories. But from reading them to actually financing them is a long road.”

Hood summed up the feeling of winning as being “surreal and a little creepy. But of course hugely helpful. I was still just me, but I’d been rebranded by a little gold man as a must-meet product.”

While Hood has found success in Hollywood (he directed last year’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), Tanovic has yet to take that leap but says he’s open to it.

“I try to work on a projects that make sense to me,” he says. “If I was offered a studio film that I thought would be interesting and fun to do, I would do it. Hollywood or Bollywood.”

More from Eye on the Oscar: Foreign Language:
Winners circle back to Hollywood | Rookies of the year | Translate into English? | Taiwan’s offbeat choice for Oscar entry | Japan’s entry is an offbeat choice | Finnish ‘Life’ sets sight on Oscar | The contenders list

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