American agents’ global talent hunt

Percenters move early on signing foreign contenders

Scandinavia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, you name it — Hollywood doesn’t discriminate in its search for new talent. Whether its German emigres in the 1930s or Mexican filmmakers in the 1990s, the American film industry has always brought foreign-born artists into its fold. As one Hollywood insider says, “We’ll skim the cream from the crop from wherever they are.”

Award season presents the perfect opportunity for foreigners to mix with industryites and consider making the leap to English-language work. Past foreign Oscar contenders — from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to Gavin Hood, Oliver Hirschbiegel to Susanne Bier — have all gone through the Academy rigmarole and found Hollywood gigs down the line.

Agents in the hunt for new talent are often well ahead of the Academy. By the time the official list of 50-60 eligible foreign Oscar entries are submitted, agents say they’ve already targeted the hot and the not, and in many cases, have already signed talent. The submission list offers a basic guideline, says one agent, “but it’s more like a checklist.”

Obviously, the international markets, from Berlin to Cannes to Toronto, are the most important stopovers for agents seeking far-flung talents. “We’re all trying to find out as early as possible what films are interesting and what filmmakers are interesting by talking to foreign sales companies, international producers and festival directors,” says UTA’s Rich Klubeck, who reps Germany’s Fatih Akin and Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino, among others. “It’s advantageous to get in touch with people early.”

“I try to get ahead of the curve as much as I can seeing the films at festivals,” echoes ICM’s Robert Lazar, who recently signed Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz (“Lebanon”) out of Toronto. Lazar remembers an incident from the recent Canadian fest that reveals the cutthroat nature of representation. “We were meeting with a foreign filmmaker, who got up from our table and literally walked around the corner in the same restaurant and sat around with another group of agents.”

On a larger scale, last year saw a contentious power struggle over the representation of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose “The Lives of Others” won the 2007 foreign-lingo Oscar. He left CAA to go to UTA.

WME’s Elia Infascelli Smith says the race to recruit foreign filmmakers has heated up in recent years. “Before international was seen as independent, smaller and non-commercial,” says Smith, who reps “JCVD” director Mabrouk El Mechri, among others.

He cites a big-budget movie like “The Tourist,” which Henckel von Donnersmarck had been attached to direct, as a recent example. “That originated and was co-financed by Studio Canal, with two of the biggest stars in the world, and there’s nothing indie about it,” says Smith. “So part of the change is that there’s nothing indie about international anymore after Louis Leterrier, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillermo Del Toro, and Fernando Meirelles.”

Additionally, because the nature of filmmaking has become more diversified, where Hollywood isn’t the only place to take new talent, tenpercenteries can represent foreign folks not just for studio projects, but for films that are equity-financed, European-financed or any mix of the above.

Not all foreign talents make sense to sign, however. “You’re looking for someone with a distinct style, who has a real voice,” says Klubeck, who adds that genre stylists, like those working in thriller or horror, lend themselves particularly well to Hollywood.

But a well-crafted drama can also catch an agent’s fancy. “Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling that you go with,” says ICM’s Lazar, who signed Austria’s Goetz Spielmann, director of 2008 foreign nominee “Revanche,” a film that doesn’t fit easily into any genre category.

However, sometimes even the hottest foreign talents remain highly skeptical of Hollywood-based tenpercenteries or decide to eschew U.S. representation all together, such as this year’s highly praised helmers Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) and Lone Scherfig (“An Education”).

“There’s a lot of apprehension about working in the American system,” acknowledges Klubeck. “A big part of the conversation is what kinds of films do they want to make.”

The irony, of course, is that many foreign talents have enjoyed working in a system without outside interference — which may contribute to the quality of their work — but total creative freedom runs counter to the cautious climate in Hollywood today. “There’s a tension between what they’re capable of doing and getting the marketplace to allow them to do it,” says one agent. “For all of them, creative control is much more important than money.”

And yet, cross-pollination between foreign talent and Western industry is somewhat inevitable. “To be competitive in the global marketplace, one has to look outside America,” says Innovative Artists’ Thomas Cushing, who eventually signed Dutch actress Thekla Reuten (“The American”) after seeing her work in 2004 foreign-lingo Oscar nominee “Twin Sisters.” And it’s not just the nature of the biz, says Cushing: “The whole world is just becoming a more global community.”