Award Season Focus: Foreign Language

When Spain announced its official Oscar selection as Agustin Villaronga’s “Black Bread” in October, most observers wondered why multiple Oscar winner and world-renowned Pedro Almodovar’s genre-bending “The Skin I Live In” didn’t get the country’s official nod.

But as anyone who distributes or markets foreign-language films knows, the answer to that question involves politics more than mere omission.

Though the rules are different in every territory, one longtime awards campaigner says most national film boards prefer to spread the Oscar wealth in order to bring attention to multiple local filmmakers. The perception could also be that a well-known filmmaker doesn’t need the box office bump that Oscar attention potentially generates.

“Almodovar’s won nominations outside the foreign-language category,” says Pay Brunet, an analyst at Spanish website BoxOffice.es. “Whether right of wrong, some Spanish Academy members may well think he’s playing in another league.”

But the notion of Oscar attention directly correlating to B.O. is something Sony Pictures Classics topper Michael Barker emphatically refutes.

“You have to be careful of broad statements, like ‘all foreign-film Academy nominees or winners do business,’ because that’s not the case,” Barker says. “The movie we thought would go all the way last year, the French entry ‘Of Gods and Men,’ outgrossed all five of the nominees for best foreign film.”

And while winning distribution from a company like SPC is often perceived as the gold standard for any foreign-language film, Barker says it’s is focused on targeting a specific market for the films it acquires — never in service of awards.

“Basically, we have always felt great foreign-language films are a good piece of business in the marketplace. We try to pursue those films that we feel can work in the marketplace, can work with the audience. And if those films happen to be nominated for Oscars, that can help the profile,” Barker says.

However, in some ways, gaining a higher profile made Almodovar a victim of his own success. Even though he has brought attention to world cinema and become an artist whose work defies borders, his entrance to the global stage is directly attributable to his screenplay Oscar win for “Talk to Her.”

“He’s become a bit of a rock star,” says Barker, who has distributed 10 of Almodovar’s films. “He’s the first guy in 36 years with a foreign film to win the best screenplay Oscar. He has that profile that Fellini had, or Ingmar Bergman.”

While some have criticized Spain’s selection process, it’s crystal clear compared to that of Russia, where the film community is broadly divided into camps that are either for Nikita Mikhalkov, whose “Burnt by the Sun” won an Oscar, or against him. In fact, the process is so opaque that this year even the chairman of the Oscar selection committee,Vladimir Menshov, abstained from the vote.

Menshov, who won an Oscar for his 1980 “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” is supporting the newly minted Kino Soyuz (Cinema Union) –– which has just 188 members as compared to the 6,000-strong Mikhalkov-led Soyuz Kinematografistov (Union of Cinematographers) but is very vocal — in its calls for a reformed process.

The new org is unimpressed that the Oscar committee chose Mikhalkov’s bloated and critically panned “Burnt by the Sun: The Citadel” (a sequel to the 1995 “Burnt by the Sun” which won the Oscar) over two other films, Alexander Sokurov’s Venice Golden Lion award-winning “Faust” and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” that won a jury nod in Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year.

In-fighting and corruption has plagued Russia’s process for decades, but many other behind-the-scenes factors explain Almodovar’s lock-out in Spain: the inclusiveness of Spain’s selection process, passionate support for “Black Bread,” and maybe Spanish Academy members’ take on Almodovar’s Oscar chances outside the foreign-language category.

Unlike France or Italy, where foreign-language entries are chosen by a committee put forward by local film academies, in Spain, all academy members can vote for the foreign language candidate: first for a three-pic short-list — this year, “Skin,” “Bread” and Benito Zambrano’s “The Sleeping Voice” — then again, this year over Sept. 16-26, for a winner.

The primaries system and mass-vote is designed to deliver a box office bump plus prestige to the finalist films, says “Skin” producer and Pedro’s brother Agustin Almodovar, who was on the Spanish Academy’s board when the system was put into place in 2002.

“Black Bread” is “an absolutely legitimate candidate, we hope it goes far, we’re not asking to be chosen always,” Almodovar insists.

Yet he also says “The Skin I Live In” doesn’t necessarily belong in any other Oscar category.

“We make artisanal, low-budget films in Spanish with Spanish cast and crew. The natural category for our films is the foreign-language one,” he says.

In reading between the lines, Almodovar’s sentiment points to how important Oscar attention is for foreign films, but becoming a country’s official submission certainly isn’t the end of the road for any film, as filmmakers Aamir Khan and Ashutosh Gowarikar discovered when their home country India submitted the cricket-themed “Lagaan” in 2001.

“When our film got selected as India’s entry to the Oscars, both Ashutosh and I had no idea what it meant and what we were supposed to do next,” recalled Khan, who also starred in the pic, in an interview at the time.

But instead of waiting for things to happen, they visited Los Angeles and began campaigning for a nomination.

The task was an uphill one, because any direct contact with Academy members would result in instant disqualification. In order to create some kind of a buzz around the film, they showed it to just about everyone who was interested — waiters, chauffeurs, valets, restaurant owners, hairdressers … anyone. Over the course of 10 or 12 screenings prior to the official showings, a buzz was slowly but surely created. Actors such as Goldie Hawn and Peter Rawley, who championed the film, helped the “Lagaan” cause immensely.

When the day of the first Academy screening dawned, the “Lagaan” team wasn’t expecting more than 30 members to show up; 198 did. The momentum continued and a good number of Academy members voted for the film, resulting in a nomination.

They brought what the learned about the process back to India, and Salim Ahmed’s “Abu, Son of Adam” will benefit from their wisdom. The filmmaker is planning to promote his film in L.A. and estimates his campaign will cost roughly twice what he spent in production: $400,000.

“I am going to spend the money from my own pocket. I’m in the process of finalizing a publicist,” Ahmed says. “It’s a universal subject. So I hope it appeals to Academy voters and we get a nomination.”

John Hopewell, Nick Holdsworth and Naman Ramachandran contributed to this report.

Navigating Hollywood

Veteran campaign publicist Fredell Pogodin offers these tips for foreign filmmakers:

  • Brush up on your English.

  • Make sure the subtitles on your film are good and if in white readable against a white backdrop.

  • Try to see your competitor’s films or look up reviews so you know a little something about them.

  • Have a sense of humor about the whole process.

  • Be prepared for the fact that if you’re nominated, everyone who you know and who worked on the film will want to go the Oscar ceremony and because you will get very few tickets, you will be in an awful position and begin to wish you weren’t nominated!

THE CONTENDERS

Albania
“Amnesty”

Director: Bujar Alimani
Distributor: Global Film Initiative
Awards: CICAE Award at Berlin Film Festival

Argentina
“Aballay, the Man Without Fear”
<
BR>Director: Fernando Spiner
Sales: Incaa

Austria
“Breathing”

Director: Karl Markovics
Sales: Films Distribution, Label Europa
Awards: Cinemas award at Cannes Film Festival

Belgium
“Bullhead”

Director: Michael R. Roskam
Distributor: Drafthouse Films
Awards: Best film at Motovun festival and Austin Fantastic Fest; debut film at Montreal Fantasia

Bosnia & Herzogovinia
“Belvedere”

Director: Ahmed Imamovic
Distributor: Global Film Initiative

Brazil
“Elite Squad 2″

Director: Jose Padilha
Distributor: Flatiron Film Co. in association with Variance Films
Awards: Best film at Premio do Cinema Brasileiro, Cinema Brazil, Lima film festivals

Bulgaria
“Tilt”

Director: Viktor Chouchkov
Awards: Debut feature at Raindance

Canada
“Monsieur Lazhar”

Director: Philippe Falardeau
Distributor: Music Box Films
Awards: Audience award, Variety Piazza Grande prize at Locarno; Canadian Feature at Toronto; Special Jury Award at Namur; Art Cinema Award, Hamburg

Chile
“Violeta”

Director: Andres Wood,
Production: Andres Wood Prods

China
“The Flowers of War”

Director: Zhang Yimou
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment

Colombia
“The Colors of the Mountain”

Director: Carlos Cesar Arbelaez
Sales: UMedia
Awards: Golden Precolombian Circle award at Bogota Film Festival; Jury Award at Los Angeles Latino Film Festival

Croatia
“72 Days”

Director: Danilo Serbedzija
Production: Vans
Awards: Audience award at Pula

Cuba
“Habanastation”

Director: Ian Padron
Sales: Icaic
Awards: Best film at Traverse City Film Festival

Czech Republic
“Alois Nebel”

Director: Thomas Lunak
Sales: The Match Factory

Denmark
“Superclasico”

Director: Ole Christian Madsen
Sales: The Match Factory

Dominican Republic
“Love Child”

Director: Leticia Tonos
Production: Prods Linea Espiral/Isla Films
Awards: Audience award at Chicago Latino festival

Egypt
“Lust”

Director: Khaled El Hagar
Sales: Arabica Movies
Awards: Best film at Cairo fest

Estonia
“Letters to Angel”

Director: Sulev Keedus
Production: F-Seitse/Frame Prods
Awards: Critics Prize, Kinoshock

Finland
“Le Havre”

Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Distributor: Janus Films
Awards: Fipresci at Cannes; Arri-Zeiss Award, Munich

France
“Declaration of War”

Director: Valerie Donzelli
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Awards: Jury Prize, Audience, Bloggers awards at Paris Cinema Film Festival

Georgia
“Chantrapas”

Director: Otar Iosseliani
Sales: Les Films du Losange
Awards: Special Jury Award at Mar del Plata festival

Germany
“Pina”

Director: Wim Wenders
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Awards: Documentary prize at German Film Awards

Greece
“Attenberg”

Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Awards: Lina Mangiacapre Award at Venice; Special Jury Award at Thessaloniki fest

Hong Kong
“A Simple Life”

Director: Anna Hui
Sales: Media Asia Group
Awards: Equal Opportunity, La Navicella, Gianni Astrei and Nazareno Taddei at Venice

Hungary
“The Turin Horse”

Director: Bela Tarr
Distributor: The Cinema Guild
Awards: Silver Bear, Fipresci Award at Berlin

Iceland
“Volcano”

Director: Runar Runarsson
Sales: TrustNordisk
Awards: Transylvania Festival; Fipresci Award, Church of Iceland Award at Reykjavik; Silver Hugo, Chicago

India
“Abu, Son of Adam”

Director: Salim Ahamed
Production: Allens Media
Awards: Best film, National (Indian) Film Awards

Indonesia
“Under the Protection of Ka’Bah”

Director: Hanny R. Saputra
Production: MD Pictures

Iran
“A Separation”

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Awards: Golden Bear, Ecumenical Prize, Berlin; TVE Otra Mirada, San Sebastian; best film at Pacific Asia Screen Awards and Sydney, Durban and Yerevan film fests; and audience award, Vancouver, Melbourne, Fajr, Fukuoka

Ireland
As if I Am Not There

Director: Juanita Wilson
Sales: Element Pictures
Awards: Best film at Irish Film and TV Awards; Silver Pyramid, Cairo; FACE Award, Istanbul

Israel
“Footnote”

Director: Joseph Cedar
Distributor: Sony Classics
Awards: Best film, Ophir Awards; Best screenplay, Cannes

Italy
“Terraferma”

Director: Emanuele Crialese
Sales: Elle Driver
Awards: Special Jury Prize, Venice

Japan
“Post Card”

Director: Kaneto Shindo
Sales: Tokyo Theaters Co.
Awards: Special Jury Prize, Tokyo

Kazakhstan
“Returning to the ‘A’ “

Director: Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky
Production: Kazakhfilm

Lebanon
“Where Do We Go Now?”

Director: Nadine Labaki
Distributor: Sony Classics
Awards: People’s Choice Award, Toronto; Audience award at Oslo Films From the South Festival

Lithuania
“Back in Your Arms”

Director: Kristijonas Vildziunas
Awards: Best film, Lithuanian Film Awards

Macedonia
“Punk’s Not Dead”

Director: Vladimir Blazevsky
Production: Pank Film
Awards: Best film in East of the West competition, Karlovy Vary

Mexico
“Miss Bala”

Director: Gerardo Naranjo
Distributor: Fox World Cinema
Awards: Best film, Japan’s Latin Beat

Morocco
“Omar Killed Me”

Director: Roschdy Zem
Sales: Elle Driver

Netherlands
“Sonny Boy”

Director: Maria Peters
Sales: Delphis Films

New Zealand
“The Orator”

Director: Tusi Tamasese
Sales: NZ
Film
Awards: Cicae award

Norway
“Happy, Happy”

Director: Anne Sewitsky
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Awards: World Cinema Jury Prize, Sundance

Peru
“October”

Director: Daniel and Diego Vega
Distributor: New Yorker Films
Awards: Un Certain Regard Jury Prize, Cannes

Philippines
“The Woman in the Septic Tank”

Director: Marlon Rivera
Sales: Ignatius Films
Awards: Best film, Cinemalaya

Poland
“In Darkness”

Director: Agnieska Holland
Distributor: Sony Classics

Portugal
“Jose and Pilar”

Director: Miguel Goncalves Mendes
Distributor: Outsider Pictures
Awards: Audience award, Sao Paolo

Romania
“Morgen”

Director: Marian Crisan
Sales: Les Films du Losange
Awards: Special Jury Prize, Ecumenical Prize, Ficc Prize, Locarno; Fipresci, Thessaloniki

Russia
“Burnt by the Sun: The Citadel”

Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Sales: Wild Bunch
Awards: Nika Award

Serbia
“Montevideo — Taste of a Dream”

Director: Dragan Bjelogrlic
Production: Intermedia Network
Awards: Grand Prize, audience award at Moscow

Singapore
“Tatsumi”

Director: Eric Khoo
Sales: The Match Factory

Slovakia
“Gypsy”

Director: Martin Sulik
Production: IN Film Praha
Awards: Special Jury Prize, Karlovy Vary

South Africa
“Beauty”

Director: Oliver Hermanus
Sales: MK2

South Korea
“The Frontline”

Director: Jang Hoon
Sales: Showbox Mediaplex

Spain
“Black Bread”

Director: Agusti Villaronga
Sales: Beta Cinema
Awards: Best film, Goyas and Turia; best Catalan film, Gaudi Awards; aud award, Turia

Sweden
“Beyond”

Director: Pernilla August
Sales: TrustNordisk
Awards: Intl. Critics’ Week prize, Christopher D. Smithers Foundation Special Award, Venice; Foreign Press, Hamburg; Intl. Jury, Special Jury awards, Sao Paolo Festival; NDR Promotion Prize, Lubeck

Switzerland
“Summer Games”

Director: Rolando Colla
Sales: Rezo

Taiwan
“Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq bale

Director: Wei Te-sheng
Sales: Fortissimo Films

Thailand
“Kon Khon”

Director: Sarunyu Wongkrachang
Production: Sahamongkolfilm Co.

Turkey
“Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Distributor: The Cinema Guild
Awards: Grand Prize, Cannes; Netpac award, Karlovy Vary

United Kingdom
“Patagonia”

Director: Marc Evans
Sales: Little Film Co.

Uruguay
“The Silent House”

Director: Gustavo Hernandez
Distributor: IFC at Midnight

Venezuela
“The Rumble of the Stones”

Director: Alejandro Bellame
Sales: CNAC
Awards: Venezuelan Film Festival

Vietnam
“Thang Long Aspiration”

Director: Lu’u Trong Ninh
Production: Ky Nguyen Sang

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