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SPC mines foreign-lingo Oscar gold

Sony Pictures Classics at 20

Since “Indochine” won for France in 1992, Sony Pictures Classics has racked up a further nine wins in the foreign language film category, including such acclaimed and varied productions as “Belle Epoque” (Spain, 1993), “The Lives of Others” (Germany, 2006), “The Secret in Their Eyes” (Argentina, 2009) and last year’s “In a Better World” (Denmark).

So what’s the secret of their success? For SPC co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, it comes down to an approach that stresses quality and a global outlook over narrow categorization.

“Tom and I’ve been partners for 30 years, and we’ve never made the distinction between foreign language and American films, the way most people do in the business,” says Barker. “And our chief creative choices rest in our commitment to work with great filmmakers from all over the world, such as Pedro Almodovar and Susanne Bier, but also American directors such as James Ivory.”

Strong ties with directors are key, agrees “The Secret in Their Eyes” director Juan Jose Campanella.

“I have developed with Tom and Michael a relationship that I only have with my own Argentine distributor — a relationship that goes well beyond business, that involves all of us in the very creative process of releasing a movie, a dialogue that surpasses business to enter the realm of the pure joy of movie watching,” he says. “They have done a tremendous job of introducing foreign movies to American audiences. With Tom and Michael I have learned about movies, and lived those nerve-wracking Oscar moments as part of a team — a team that, like all great teams, is more tied by emotions and friendship than by business interests.”

Savvy release scheduling, advertising campaigns and titling are other key factors.

“Our goal with theatrical release is not just about great box office, but more importantly, to ensure the film has the kind of market profile where people remember the title,” notes Barker. “A memorable title is vital for positioning it with an audience, and ultimately Oscar voters.”

This process starts early on for the company.

“When we invest in a film at the screenplay stage, or become a co-production partner — as we were on ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (the 2000 winner for Taiwan) — or we get involved right from the start of the Almodovar films,” explains Barker, “our first question is always, ‘How do we reach that core audience?'”

And having a brand name such as Almodovar is “a big help” in building an audience and a campaign, as is the festival circuit. “The Skin I Live In” was an official selection at the Cannes, Toronto and New York fests, “which also really raises awareness,” he adds.

The company is also hoping for big things with Iranian helmer Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” Iran’s foreign language Oscar hopeful, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin and which SPC released Dec. 30 in the U.S. But, cautions Barker, “Oscar consideration always comes later, because we can’t take on a movie assuming it’ll be that country’s official entry, make the short list and maybe win. The category is just too unpredictable.”

Barker cites SPC’s 2010 release and campaign for Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men,” Gaul’s foreign Oscar contender. “We felt very confident it had a great shot (at the Oscar) but it didn’t make the short list,” he recalls, “and we were all very surprised.”

But the team did score another success with Bier’s “In a Better World,” a low-key, small-budget drama.

“Being nominated and winning the Oscar was made possible because they believed so much in the movie,” says the Danish filmmaker who calls SPC “a dream home for a filmmaker.”

SPC’s handling of her film stood in marked contrast to her previous Hollywood experience some five years ago when she directed her first American production, “Things We Lost in the Fire” starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. Bier says she was “excited and hopeful” that it would give her career a big international boost. But the film, distributed by Paramount, did not find favor with critics who embraced her Danish films, and Bier, whose “After the Wedding” had nabbed a foreign language Oscar nomination, returned home and to her cinematic roots.

“The irony is, back home and in the rest of Europe, I’m seen as this very mainstream filmmaker, while over here, people see me as this arthouse type of director,” she notes. As for winning the Oscar, “It’s a very big deal,” she says. “It’s like the World Cup — everyone watches.”

Sid Ganis, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, notes that in light of U.S. audiences’ aversion to arthouse films and subtitles, “These guys have taken on the impossible and bucked the trend, creating a consistent and buoyant marketplace for foreign films — and it’s because they’ve always gone for the material first. They pick films that fit their business plan, and then they’re very smart about campaigning for those films when it comes to the Oscars.”

For Ganis, it’s “vitally important that the Academy votes on foreign language film, because cinema is global and those films have to be acknowledged.”

SONY PICTURES CLASSICS AT 20
Steady as she grows | Shrewd handling yields real profits | SPC mines foreign gold | Despite illness’ gloom, Bloom integral to company
The Stories Behind the Movies
“Capote” | “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” | “The Fog Of War” | “The Lives of Others” | “Rachel Getting Married” | “Run Lola Run”
The Collaborators
Agustin Almodovar | Lone Scherfig

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