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Oscar Foreign-Language Preview: Big 3 Film Festivals Tower Over Race

Berlin, Cannes and Venice entries dominate category

Just as Telluride, Toronto and, increasingly, New York are now viewed as the go-to launchpads for best picture contenders, the foreign-language race has its own key festivals — and they lie a bit further afield. About 70% of foreign-language film nominees in the past decade made either their world or international premieres at one of the so-called Big Three European fests: Cannes, Berlin and Venice.

Foreign-lingo films seem to appreciate the long-lead of sustained festival buzz. Almost every nominee in the category comes to the Academy’s attention via some variety of fest appointments — whether voters are aware of its provenance or not.

Among the record-breaking 83 titles submitted by individual nations for Oscar consideration this year are multiple established sprocket opera successes, from Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Winter Sleep” (Turkey’s submission) to Sundance Grand Jury Prize champ “To Kill a Man” (Chile’s pick).

“With any foreign-language movie, festivals are more than critical, they’re part of the plan,” says Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films/Sundance Selects, who has high hopes for Belgium’s submission — the Marion Cotillard starrer “Two Days, One Night” — in this year’s contest. “It’s how we generate word-of-mouth in this business, how we attract critics to screenings they may otherwise not attend.”

Fredell Pogodin, a publicist practiced in running foreign-language Oscar campaigns, agrees. “You don’t get to be your country’s selection without festival exposure. Obviously the national committees pick films that have proven themselves on an international stage.”

Berlin, comparatively under-attended by U.S. journos, has minted more foreign Oscar contenders in recent years than is generally recognized — “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” “A Royal Affair” and 2011’s critically beloved winner “A Separation” among them. (Berlinale hopefuls in this year’s race include Germany’s period romance “Beloved Sisters” and Switzerland’s gay-themed docudrama “The Circle.”)

Still, Cannes is viewed as the current kingmaker in the race: The French fest not only premiered the previous two winners in the category, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” (2013) and Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012), but also a dozen titles in the hunt for this year’s award, including such heavily tipped contenders as Russia’s “Leviathan” and Sweden’s “Force Majeure,” as well as lesser-known titles like “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” from Israel, Canada’s “Mommy” and “Timbuktu” from Mauritiana.

“Cannes stands alone and above every other festival,” Sehring says. “There are other critical fests, but I think they begrudgingly acknowledge that Cannes is head and shoulders above the rest.”

North American fests, by contrast, have debuted just 16% of nominees, though their role in this category is often adjunctive: Add the number of foreign-language contenders that have used Toronto and Telluride to supplement and sustain buzz that originated across the pond, and the figure rises significantly.

The sheer scale of the Canadian mega-fest isn’t seen by everyone as conducive to the promotion of foreign awards hopefuls, particularly with English-language Oscar bait hogging the buzz. “I stopped going to Toronto,” Pogodin says. “Not because the films I was working on weren’t worthy, but it was just too hard to get coverage.”

That may be changing. Polish submission “Ida,” a humanist study of a Jewish-born Catholic nun coming to terms with her family history, premiered at Telluride way back in 2013, and since has steadily accumulated international festival accolades and a remarkable Stateside B.O. gross for a foreign-language movie — $3.7 million to date. Consensus now has it among the Oscar front-runners.

Meanwhile, “Force Majeure,” Ruben Ostlund’s mordant fractured-family comedy, played well at Cannes, where it took runner-up honors in the fest’s Un Certain Regard section and won its Jury prize. But according to Eamonn Bowles, head of U.S. distributor Magnolia Pictures, it’s at Toronto where the film really took flight. “Maybe some of the North American critics had overlooked it in Cannes, but it really started going like wildfire there,” he says.

Magnolia has also acquired the film that pipped “Force Majeure” to the post in Cannes: Hungarian entry “White God,” a bold, violent fable of human-vs.-canine conflict and a daring candidate for Oscar contention. But the company is keeping its powder dry on that one, having chosen to skip the North American fall fests and schedule a 2015 release — to each contender its own strategy, particularly when there’s more than just awards glory at stake.

“To be honest, we’re kind of agnostic about the awards race,” Bowles says. “We just like the films we like, and think we can make some noise and do some business with them. It’s first and foremost about giving the film a good launch in the marketplace.”

Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker regards the race with similar caution. Though the company has enjoyed something of a Midas touch in the category — backing six of the past eight winners, including “The Lives of Others,” “A Separation” and “Amour” — Barker insists that awards potential doesn’t factor into its decisions regarding foreign acquisitions.

“That category is too unpredictable, and we’ve learned that the hard way,” he says, noting that even the most Academy-friendly festival favorites can fall at the first hurdle: being chosen to compete by their own countries. He cites the example of “The Lunchbox,” a warmly received Cannes title passed over last year by the Indian selectors in favor of “The Good Road,” a film with a low festival profile and little potential for international distribution.

On the flip side, Barker admits to being as pleasantly surprised as everyone else when Andrey Zvyagintsev’s politically contentious “Leviathan” — snapped up by Sony Classics following an ecstatic response to its Cannes premiere — was submitted by Russia’s notoriously conservative committee. “We were all prepared to face facts, and then the committee decided to submit it purely on the greatness of the filmmaking,”  In this many-tiered race, unpredictability rubs both ways.

Such preemptive cynicism is a stance taken by many long-term observers of this Oscar category, which has taken critical flak over the years for favoring soft options over more challenging (and, in the long run, more enduring) art films.

Nevertheless, even critics who rolled their eyes when “Belle Epoque” beat “Farewell My Concubine” 20 years ago — to name just one unpopular upset — may have noticed a shift in the category’s makeup of late, as broadly acclaimed festival favorites have dominated the nominations more than ever before.

“That category can never be perfect because it’s taking on the whole world of cinema,” says Barker, “but the quality of the nominees has improved in recent years.”

That’s no coincidence, as Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson, who heads up the Academy’s foreign-language committee, is all too happy to acknowledge. “We were considered to be somewhat traditional and safe when it came to foreign-language films, but we’ve become more of a critical body than a popular body,” he says. “And a lot of that comes down to festival films.”

Various changes have been made to the voting process in recent years to improve the category’s credibility and bearing on the world cinema scene — most influentially, the creation of a small committee charged with adding worthy films to the shortlist resulting from the branch’s initial vote.

Introduced after the Academy’s controversial exclusion of Romanian Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” in 2007, the committee’s adventurous influence on the category has been plain to see — not least in nominations for such offbeat prospects as Greece’s surreal, incest-laced domestic drama “Dogtooth” in 2010 or Cambodia’s mixed-media documentary “The Missing Picture” last year, both Un Certain Regard winners at Cannes that were widely written off as too avant-garde for the Academy.

Johnson adds that the committee’s additions aren’t necessarily swayed by critics or festival juries: Asghar Farhadi’s 2012 Cannes honoree “The Past,” he says, is one example of a film the committee deemed insufficiently strong for the shortlist despite significant fest acclaim.

“I would like to think that every film is there on its merits, not because we’re afraid of looking silly if we don’t include it,” he says. “But the truth of the matter is that there’s usually a confluence: If a film gets that much attention on the festival circuit, it probably deserves it.”

That may be so, but while an Oscar nomination can add significantly to a foreign-language film’s box office, paying audiences are less impressed by festival kudos.

“If you win the Grand Prize or something, that’ll help get the press to take it seriously, but it’s not such a come-on for the domestic customer,” says Bowles. “Unfortunately, sometimes those laurels on the poster will make people rule it out, thinking it’s an egghead art film, so we don’t always use them.”

Sure enough, Magnolia’s poster for “White God”  emphasizes critical endorsements from Variety and the New York Times over its Cannes win.

After all, festival selectors can be fallible as Oscar voters.

Barker points out that “The Lives of Others,” one of the most widely approved foreign-language Oscar winners of recent years, was turned down by Cannes, Berlin and Venice before it could even dream of international awards success.

“It makes you wonder about all the good movies we miss beyond the festival circuit,” he sighs.

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