Foreign films refuse to be relegated to subtitles ghetto

Ambitious overseas pics aim for other categories

NEW YORK — It’s not called the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, but the Oscars have historically been a domestic affair.

It wasn’t until 1945 that a foreign-language film won an Oscar (Switzerland’s “Marie-Louise” garnered the original screenplay prize). And it wasn’t until the 1984 ceremony that such a film won more than one award beyond the designated foreign-language category — Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” took the trophies for art direction, cinematography and costume design. (The Swedish master lost the director Oscar to James L. Brooks for “Terms of Endearment.”)

But in recent years, following the triumphs of “Life Is Beautiful” (seven noms, three wins) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (10 noms, four wins), an increasing number of non-English-language Oscar entries have sought to break out of the foreign-language ghetto for consideration in other categories.

Even Hollywood isn’t shying away from subtitles these days. From the foreign-language sections of 2004 contender “The Last Samurai” to this year’s Japanese-language “Letters From Iwo Jima,” multilingual “Babel” and Mel Gibson-directed “Apocalypto” (an all-Mayan epic from the man who shot his last pic predominantly in Aramaic and other ancient languages), more and more American-produced pics are using foreign tongues instead of silly accents.

This year, distributors are waging Oscar campaigns for their foreign fare, among them Picturehouse for Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the Weinstein Co. for the French-Algerian World War II pic “Days of Glory,” Fox Searchlight for Deepa Mehta’s “Water” and Sony Pictures Classics for Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” German drama “The Lives of Others” and Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower.”

But in an industry that likes to reward its own, what does it take for a foreign pic to break through?

“I think it’s good films,” says Sony Pictures Classics topper Michael Barker. “The Academy does vote for films that they think are of great quality. And if foreign-language films are the best movies of the year, they’re going to vote for them.”

The most important thing is getting voters to see the movie, says Harvey Weinstein, who orchestrated victories for early foreign-language crossovers such as “Il Postino” and “Life Is Beautiful”: “It helps if the film is released in the U.S. earlier in the awards season, like we did with ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ because it drives awareness on the film and gives the entire Academy more time to see the picture.”

Fox Searchlight chief operating officer Nancy Utley agrees it can be a plus for a film to be released earlier — “Water” is now widely available on DVD, for example. “But the bad thing is you have to remind everybody about it,” she says.

Utley says campaigning for a foreign-language pic can be particularly challenging “because you don’t have the (financial) return on a foreign-language movie that you do on a English-language movie, so you can’t campaign in the same way.” Searchlight is resorting to low-cost efforts, like reminding journalists of the film’s controversial production history and holding Academy screenings.

For “Volver,” Barker says Almodovar and star Penelope Cruz have done an enormous amount of press at film festivals and the movie’s Los Angeles premiere. “That really helps in the profile of the film, not unlike what Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bennett Miller did last year” for the company’s “Capote.”

“It’s not inappropriate to make that sort of connection,” Barker adds. “I think it is an error to deal with certain foreign-language films as separate from English-language films.”

SPC also has planned a one-week qualifying run for “The Lives of Others.” While Barker admits he has “no idea what to expect,” SPC decided to make the film eligible for other categories after positive screenings at the Telluride and Toronto fests.

For “Curse of the Golden Flower,” Barker is hoping for recognition in technical categories, along the lines of Zhang Yimou’s showing at last year’s Oscars, when “The House of Flying Daggers” bagged a cinematography nom.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” also is likely to be considered for technical prizes, but Picturehouse prexy Bob Berney is plugging the movie for other categories as well, such as director, screenplay and supporting actress for 12-year-old Ivana Baquero.

Picturehouse marketing exec VP Dennis O’Connor points to an article in the New York Times by critic Stephen Holden that called Baquero’s perf “arguably the strongest” when compared with such heavy-hitters as Helen Mirren and Cruz. “Those are the type of high-profile breaks that let you know you have the goods,” he says.

If “Pan’s Labyrinth” is late out of the gate for the Oscar race — with a Dec. 29 release — it could benefit from its more mainstream genre qualities, which may boost the film’s profile.

As Weinstein notes, “more commercial” films have a better chance of breaking through. “Look at ‘City of God,’ ” he says. “It didn’t get a foreign-language nomination when we only showed it to the foreign-language committee, but when it went wide and was seen by the rest of the Academy, it got four nominations.”

China’s “Curse of the Golden Flower” is that country’s most expensive film to date, but it carries a much lower awareness among Oscar voters than such English-language juggernauts as “Dreamgirls” or “The Departed.” That frustrates distributors who hope for equal consideration from the Academy.

“They act like that’s your little box, that’s why we made the category, so you would stay there,” Utley says.

But Fredell Pogodin, a publicist who has represented several foreign-language entries and is pushing “Pan’s Labyrinth” this year, says, “I think you’re seeing a lot of films fall by the wayside. Would that allow a ‘Volver’ or ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ to sneak through? It’s possible. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ did.”