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Non-English nom can mean B.O. gold

HOLLYWOOD For the five foreign-language film nominees, the stakes are huge. Making the final cut can open doors for distribution and international attention and turn an obscure picture from a far corner of the world into an internationally sold and seen success. Perhaps no category presents a longer, bumpier road to the final golden goal.

This year, 45 countries have submitted films to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for consideration as best foreign-language film, one up from last year. New to the list of submitting countries is an entry from Kyrgyzstan, and returning after 20-year absences are Morocco and Lebanon. Poland, a country with many strong contenders over the years, has opted not to submit this time around.

Selection criteria

Competing films are selected by committees of (often self-appointed) industry representatives from each country. Aside from AMPAS regulations requiring that the submitting country be "significantly represented" in positions both above and below the line, the Academy does not dispute another nation's choice of film.

Unlike other Oscar categories, Stateside screenings are not required for consideration for the foreign-language trophy.

Choosing a single "best" film is a deeply political and often turbulent process that varies greatly from country to country. Nations with relatively low production output may face only one or two viable entries. Venezuela's entry "Rizo" was widely questioned by the president of that country's national film board and others when it was discovered that one of the five members of the selection committee was not present at the final vote.

In Yugoslavia, there was intense competition between Emir Kusturica's "Black Cat, White Cat" and Goran Paskaljevic's "The Powder Keg." Despite political unease with "The Powder Keg's" brutally honest depiction of Serbian life, the 15-member Yugoslavian committee eventually voted in its favor. And for Paskaljevic and the U.S. distributor of his European Film Critics Award winner, Paramount Classics, that was the easy part. Now they have to win a nomination berth and a Stateside audience.

Not always easy

No one is more aware of the challenges facing foreign-lingo films in general and ones with tough subject matter specifically than David Dinerstein, Paramount Classics co-prez. "Foreign films are all competing for a very small shelf space," says Dinerstein, noting that by his estimate "about 25 foreign-language films are opening in the U.S. between November and March." That number is doubly disturbing when you realize that foreign language cinema now constitutes approximately one-half of 1% of U.S. box office.

Given that "Powder" will be the premiere release of the new specialty label, one might assume that Dinerstein and copresident Ruth Vitale would launch their label with a less challenging film, but Dinerstein says, "Ruth and I bought because we loved it and we feel that Goran is a filmmaker who deserves to be seen."

Upbeat films succeed

Dinerstein cites the formula for success in the foreign-language game as "leave the audience with a smile" films such as "Kolya," "Il Postino," "Mediterraneo," "Like Water for Chocolate," etc.

"Look at the body of Oscars won over the last 10 years," he says, "and there's obviously a trend as to what kinds of films win and do well in the marketplace."

Last year's winner from the Netherlands, Mike Van Diem's "Character," was decidedly not a "feel-good" film, as Dinerstein calls them, and Sony Classics scraped together less than $1 million in U.S. receipts.

One of the most controversial and confusing categories in Oscardom, the foreign-language film section is traditionally also a source of some of the most exciting new talents in filmmaking, from Kurosawa to Almodovar. It's seen as a blue-ribbon chance for foreign filmmakers and producers to get the eyes and ears of Hollywood, boosting opportunities for international co-productions and at least a momentary remembrance that cinema is a global art form.

For Daniel Zavokra, one of the producers of this year's entry from the Czech Republic, "Sekal Has to Die," the Oscar the Czechs received in 1997 for Jan Sverak's "Kolya" was nothing less than "a confirmation that the film business makes sense and that is possible for the Czech community through the screen with the rest of the world.

"It's also much easier to open the door to new partners when you have received an award like this," Zavorka adds. "It makes you more visible and of course it helps to get your film into distribution."

Those countries with larger production slates face greater competition where heavy campaigning and coercion are an integral part of choosing a country's designated spokesfilm. Films that distinguish themselves on the international festival circuit have the advantage, whereas films with regional box office success are rarely the first candidates for consideration. The argument is that local hits lack global appeal.

Antoine and Martine de Clermont-Tonnerre, a France-based husband-and-wife team whose company, Mact Prods., co-produced both Brazil's "Central Station' and Yugoslavia's "The Powder Keg" are unambiguous about the impact of the category. "Both `Central Station' and `The Powder Keg' have been successful in their respective countries. However, the noise linked to the foreign-language category is a great help to those in charge of foreign sales. We need diversity. Anything that can shed light on new talent is important."

The category, though coveted, does present some interesting questions. Do these 45 films actually represent the "best" films from each submitting country? Collectively, do they reflect the true state of international cinema? Can a film with "universal" appeal be truly representative of its country's specific character, concerns, geo-political circumstances? Are international filmmakers choosing to make films that speak to global auds and perhaps more importantly, American distributors? Furthermore, can a film distinguish itself in this category without the marketing dollars of a U.S. distributor behind it?

Distributor influence?

Sony Pictures Classics has acquired four of this year's crop of submissions: Argentina's "Tango," Brazil's "Central Station," France's "Dreamlife of Angels," and Germany's "Run Lola Run." When asked if a U.S. distributor's interest in a particular film might influence the selection committee's decision, copresident Tom Bernard comments, "In the case of Sony's films, there were clear reasons above and beyond our interest for choosing those films: Three had outstanding festival records and one was a box office runaway. Still, it's a case-by-case scenario. I'm sure there are situations where a U.S. distributor's interest is a factor."

The foreign-language film award committee, chaired by Nina Foch, is screening all entries. Five nominees will be announced along with other Oscar finalists on Feb. 9.

Steven Gaydos contributed to this report.
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Title Annotation:process of selecting foreign-language films for Academy Award nomination
Article Type:Abstract
Date:Dec 21, 1998
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