When the Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose” was released into theaters this summer, breakout star Marion Cotillard was met with uniform praise for her portrayal of the French chanteuse.
The rapturous performance by the 32-year-old Gallic actress was instantly targeted for Oscar consideration. But for Picturehouse, Cotillard’s reception set up an all too typical awards season challenge: getting overseas talent back to the States for face time with the press and Q&A screenings.
As more foreign award-contending films and actors try to make an impression with Stateside voters, studios and publicists face similar situations of bringing talent to America from across the globe.
In this year’s race, not only might Cotillard make a few lengthy plane trips, but folks such as Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Joe Wright from “Atonement” will be earning some serious frequent-flier miles. Then there’s Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”), Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”), Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), Johnny Depp (“Sweeney Todd”) and the actors from “The Kite Runner.”
Sometimes a major studio might have expected publicity protocol written into a star’s contract, but for a specialty unit such as Picturehouse, studio sway and leverage have to take a different shape.
“We don’t really have the budget to demand actors come here,” Picturehouse president Bob Berney says. “It’s very expensive and time-consuming to go back and forth. And sometimes the Hollywood system, with the thousand meetings and so forth, can seem foreign and off-putting. We don’t look at it as leverage so much as convincing the talent involved that we’re all on one team and that coming here and promoting the film is as important as making the film.”
The PR onslaught during the awards season might be particularly important for an actress such as Cotillard, who is new to American auds. Plus, as Berney points out, when the makeup in the film is such a transformation of image — think Charlize Theron in “Monster” — Academy voters gain a particular insight by meeting her in person.
Elsewhere in the awards race, Ang Lee’s NC-17-rated “Lust, Caution” has stirred the waters of kudo potential, earning high-profile wins at the Venice Film Festival. Like Cotillard, the film’s lead actress, newcomer Tang Wei, is moving into the North American market for the first time.
Tang came to the States from Hangzhou, China, in October for the film’s platform release. Through a translator, she learned to tubthump “Lust” in just enough words to express her fervor for the film. It’s Tang’s co-star, Joan Chen, who brings some insight to notions of studio leverage and the commitment of a foreign ingenue on the cusp of North American success.
“Every Chinese actor would love to work in Hollywood movies, so that’s leverage enough,” she says. “To experience how this mechanism works is interesting to most actors.”
Currently residing in San Francisco, Chen isn’t so consistently faced with the prospect of traveling from Asia to support her films. She does, however, have a second home in Shanghai and understands the hardships of traveling around the globe.
Studios and publicists are fully aware that structuring a campaign around a particular foreign actor can be troublesome if that thesp can’t make a trip overseas due to a prior commitment, yet plenty of hard work can suffer if a thesp isn’t able to come to the States to campaign.
Tony Angellotti, who works on awards campaigns for Universal, among other clients, boasts a fair share of experience promoting foreign entities for awards contention. He helped steer the campaigns for Miramax’s “Red,” “Il Postino” and “Life Is Beautiful” as well as “No Man’s Land.” He stresses the importance of a flexible and adaptable strategy.
“Elasticity is key, and not just in a foreign-language campaign,” he observes. “Things change. Favor fades and spikes. In a situation involving a foreign star, a visit here is essential for any publicity effort. Without U.S. distribution, though, it’s a matter of preference and perspective whether a visit aids and abets.”
While campaigns may certainly bring an actor’s name to the surface for voters and audiences to ponder, those efforts don’t always ensure longevity. A campaign does what it can for a thespian when box office and awards are on the line, but it takes something much more to outlast the hype of Oscar season.
“You could fill this page with the number of spotlighted foreign stars who broke into the U.S. market on the heels of a foreign-language film and were never heard from again,” Angelotti says. “Stardom sticks or it doesn’t.”