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Foreign-made pics dominate this year’s crop of indie contenders

2006 is year of the foreign-bred filmmaker staking out cinematic territory on mostly non-U.S. turf

While the 78th Academy Awards belonged to American independents — namely “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Capote” — the pendulum has swung the other way this Oscar season, with locally produced indies in short supply.

If 2005 saw four out of the five best picture nominees coming from a non-studio-based American maverick, 2006 is the year of the foreign-bred filmmaker staking out cinematic territory on mostly non-U.S. turf.

From “Babel” to “The Queen,” “Venus” to “Volver,” “The Painted Veil” to “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the specialty divisions have gone a-courting directors from the U.K., Mexico, Spain and Australia, just to name a few, with surprisingly robust results.

That’s not to say there weren’t a couple of U.S. indie standouts, from “Little Miss Sunshine” to “Half Nelson.” But critics and industryites alike acknowledge that this year’s foreign-based specialty releases have largely surpassed the quality of their domestic counterparts.

“They are better than the offerings that the American indies have put forth,” says critic Peter Rainer. “But I don’t think this is part of an increasing trend.”

For Rainer, and many indie insiders, this year’s strong crop of British and international filmmakers could simply be “subscribed to the vagaries of distribution,” he says. But it may also be a result, he argues, “of the fact that American indie directors tend not to stay indie for long.”

This year, for example, once-alternative filmmakers such as Todd Field, Darren Aronofsky, Bill Condon, Alfonso Cuaron and Sofia Coppola have all graduated to studio projects.

But there is no denying a growing cultivation of overseas filmmakers, according to Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker. “Something is going on worldwide, from country to country, where there are films that are just terrific,” he says, noting the record number of 61 submissions to this year’s foreign-language Oscar category and the high proportion of foreign entries — at least 16 — that have been acquired for U.S. distribution.

Paramount Vantage prexy John Lesher, who as an Endeavor agent repped such foreign filmmakers as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles, says that a more globalized independent industry has helped globalize the talent base as well. “People are making films with a more international bent,” he says. “There’s lots of different ways to finance films now, which I also think is a big reason for it.”

For one, Paramount’s “Babel,” a multilingual feature directed by the Mexican-born Gonzalez Inarritu, was made with the help of a smorgasbord of different countries and companies. And the payoff for such films is equally diverse, according to Lesher: “When you look at the worldwide gross on movies like Inarritu’s ’21 Grams’ and Meirelles’ ‘The Constant Gardener,’ the international massively outweighs the domestic. There is a global stage that exceeds what happens here.”

Indeed, British-born specialty toppers Peter Rice of Fox Searchlight and Daniel Battsek of Miramax are both particularly tapped into projects that originate across the Pond. The Searchlight-backed, Blighty-based DNA Films is behind three of the company’s prestige pics this year: “The Last King of Scotland,” “Notes on a Scandal” and “The History Boys.”

“We have a heightened awareness of what’s happening in the U.K. because we have access to that market,” says Searchlight chief operating officer Nancy Utley. “We have a lot of ties to British filmmakers and what might be of interest.”

Similarly, Battsek’s background in the British film industry has helped cultivate the likes of Miramax’s Brit-based Oscar contenders “Venus” and “The Queen.” But like all indie division toppers, Battsek keeps an eye out for filmmakers around the globe, no matter their country of origin. “We look for great filmmakers and we look for filmmakers that have a real point of view,” he says.

As Lesher notes, “Who cares where you come from as long as you’re good.”

Battsek notes that while “The Queen” is a decidedly British film, directed by a Brit, starring a mostly British cast, and dealing with the royal family, American auds and critics are still finding a lot of issues that resonate, “whether it’s the whole nature of celebrity,” he says, or “this question of how to lead a country at a time where something has happened that’s created an enormous amount of unrest.”

“I think the world is definitely getting smaller,” Utley agrees. “I don’t think it seems foreign to have films set in other places. I think moviegoers are getting a lot more sophisticated in what they’ll accept.”

Utley recalls reading an Australian Web site recently, for example, “and there were hundreds of comments about ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and how relatable it is and how it’s like their family — even though they are half a world away. It’s the universal themes of the movies that tie everyone together.”