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Foreign-Born Talent Finds a Welcome Place in Entertainment

It’s impossible to imagine Hollywood without the talented contributions from those who were born outside of America. Immigrant culture has long been embraced by the industry, and with a recently renewed focus on inclusion, diversity and acceptance, it’s becoming more commonplace to see people from all ethnicities being represented at end of the year festivities, most notably, the Academy Awards. When looking at all of the rich cinematic work from 2017, there’s a deep line-up of foreign-born artists who have been bestowed with nominations.

“I see movies and television as an art form, and believe that art transcends borders and nationality,” says Bill Dispoto, president of DDA Talent. “There’s also the business of the industry, and a good businessperson knows that having the most talented people on their team is what leads to success. It takes an enormous amount of skilled artists and craftspeople to produce a movie or TV show. And from a practical business standpoint, it also makes sense to invest in a diversity of that talent.”

In a Variety article dated Aug. 22, 1928, headlined “Talent From 30 Nations,” it was reported that “a census of foreign-born studio workers, prominently and actively engaged in making pictures in Hollywood, shows a total of 189, of whom 15 are producers or executives; 36 in directorial positions; 14 writing for the screen; seven in various technical occupations; 78 actors and 39 actresses representing 27 countries foreign to America except Hawaii which is a territory of the United States.” And for nearly a century, the progressive nature of the town’s “open door” policy has meant that anyone with talent, drive, and passion can attempt to realize their show business dreams.

“It’s absolutely essential to keep our doors open,” says Rich Klubeck, partner and motion-picture literary agent at United Talent Agency. “International writers and directors have profoundly different styles which are fully embraced by American critics and audiences. Our industry would absolutely suffer without the influence and participation of artists from around the world, both in front of and behind the camera.”

Last year, UTA did something bold — it cancelled its traditional Oscar party and instead donated $250,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Intl. Rescue Committee, and held a rally “to express the creative community’s growing concern with anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States,” according to a UTA statement.

“As an agency, I’m proud of our decision last year to hold a rally in lieu of an Oscar party to demonstrate our support of creative expression in the face of the travel ban, which affected our Oscar-nominated client, the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi.”

This year, Guillermo del Toro (Mexico) and Christopher Nolan (U.K.) are two of the biggest favorites to take home the Oscar for director. Del Toro’s poetic and emotional work on his genre-hybrid fantasy “The Shape of Water” has garnered him some of the best reviews of his career. Meanwhile, Nolan has delivered blockbuster after blockbuster (“The Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Inception,” “Interstellar”) while still connecting with critics.

As with anything, when chances are given, extraordinary talent has the opportunity to be discovered. “As an agency with a history of representing talented individuals from around the world, we assess all prospective clients in the same way — on the basis of their body of work, having a unique perspective and the likelihood that we can make a meaningful difference in their careers, regardless of the country of origin,” says Rocco Hindman, president of below-the-line agency Sandra Marsh & Associates. He reps cinematography Oscar nominee Dan Laustsen (“The Shape of Water”), among many other top craftspeople. “Impressive work often transcends international boundaries.”

Finding talent from all over the world that can make a creative impact upon the industry has its challenges and rewards. “We spend much of our time trying to identify artists with a unique world view and strong, original voice,” says Klubeck. “The international community is fertile ground for finding those artists. There’s no one filmmaking or narrative style that we look for as having crossover potential. We want to be wowed by the filmmaker’s work from beginning to end.”

Kumail Nanjiani, who emigrated from Pakistan, has been nominated for his screenplay on “The Big Sick,” which he co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, and which details their path to love. And because “The Big Sick” was written by the people that the story actually depicts, there’s a level of authenticity that would never have been achieved had any of the creative ingredients been different.

It’s that definite instance where the life experiences of immigrants begins to inform their art, with the added dimension of ethnic diversity to challenge social expectations. Also nominated for original screenplay is Martin McDonagh (U.K.-Ireland), whose “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” picks at the social scabs of small-town American life. Sometimes, foreign-born artists can find themselves with certain advantages in their storytelling decisions precisely because of the things that constitute them as being “foreign”; sometimes, it takes an outsider to be able to dissect the full picture in an unexpected fashion.

“What’s wonderful about the entertainment industry as a whole, is working in a global market every day,” says Matt Birch, senior vice president and co-head of physical production at APA. “We represent all categories throughout the world and are now able to place them on a project that, in the past, typically would import the talent to the project, no matter where it was going to base production.”

The Oscar nominees in the acting categories feature much talent from across the Pond: Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”; Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour”; Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”; Lesley Manville in “Phantom Thread”; and Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water” are all from the U.K. Saoirse Ronan (Ireland) stars in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”; and don’t forget Australian Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”).

The below-the-line categories have been great places for foreign-born talent to shine with DPs such as Laustsen (Denmark), Roger Deakins (U.K.), Bruno Delbonnel (France) and Hoyte van Hoytema (Switzerland) grabbing nominations, while composers Hans Zimmer (Germany) and Alexandre Desplat (France) are up for Oscar consideration.

“I always look for people, whether foreign or domestic, who share two essential attributes: talent and a solid work ethic,” says Ivana Savic, partner and below-the-line agent at GSK Talent. “Foreigners bring new ideas and new ways to tell stories. Very often, their homeland experiences translate into something visually fresh and striking, as their culture provides them with a unique perspective on life.”

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