Foreigner filmmakers vie for Oscar consideration

12/29/2013 12:00 AM

12/27/2013 2:35 PM

“We’re not a big country” the director Drasko Djurovic said from his home in Montenegro. “We’re like the Bronx.” So he was very grateful to be part of the Academy Awards. “It means great opportunities for future projects.”

The Peruvian director Adrián Saba agreed. “People hear ‘Oscar,’ and everything changes.”

The same goes for Ecuador, said the filmmaker Javier Andrade: “That word sort of drives people crazy. But it’s healthy for us.”

Not one of these men has actually won an Academy Award for foreign-language film. Or been nominated. Or even made the shortlist the Academy released this month in advance of January’s announcement of its five nominees.

But their movies — Ace of Spades: Bad Destiny from Montenegro, El Limpiador ( The Cleaner) from Peru and Porcelain Horse from Ecuador — were named their countries’ official submissions to the 86th annual Oscars. That can lead to great things. As Tom Bernard, a co-president of Sony Pictures Classics put it: “An Oscar nomination is incredibly important for the country that the film comes from. And if they win, they celebrate like it’s the World Cup.”

It’s also expensive: Elevating a hopeful to a real contender takes money, and filmmakers from poorer nations often go hat in hand to national film organizations, producers, agents, festivals, even tourism boards, to find the money to underwrite their chances.

“A decent campaign is $50,000,” said Tatiana Detlofson, a Los Angeles publicist who has been handling foreign Oscar campaigns for 13 years, including five this season. “The really good ones, from countries like Belgium or Germany, are $200,000. And the money is usually eaten by the ads.”

Advertisements in trade papers like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are de rigueur. As Detlofson put it, “A couple of half-pages and a couple of full-page ads, and it’s one third of the budget.”

Then there are screenings. While members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can see every Oscar submission at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Hollywood, there are options for further exposure: Variety, The Los Angeles Times and the website The Wrap all run high-profile series for Oscar hopefuls, each charging about $10,000 per film, which includes post-screening Q-and-As and some advertising. There are fees for publicists, invitations, parking, on-site staff, even tchotchkes like Peruvian key chains.

Saba said the budget provided by PromPeru, an organization that promotes Peruvian culture, was $32,000. Andrade said his budget from Ecuador was about $120,000. Djurovic had enough for a screening held during the American Film Market in Los Angeles (a little over $2,000) and round-trip airfare from Montenegro (where his film is the first Oscar submission ever).

Is a campaign for an Oscar you’re not going to win worth more than $100,000? Probably not, said Kathleen McInnis, a Los Angeles festival strategist and publicity consultant who handled Saba’s film. “Is it worth $50,000? Probably yes, if you’re investing in your filmmaker’s career.” The Ecuadorean budget was “reasonable for a campaign to mean anything,” she said. “But is that too much to get some attention? There’s your sticky wicket.”

The other question is whether the outlay does any good.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an ad campaign help a foreign film get to the shortlist,” said Michael Barker, the co-president with Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics. The two men are the big kahunas of the foreign-language field (with 12 wins and 32 nominations over their 33 years at the company). “It’s a very different category. I don’t think that that kind of campaign works.”

Bernard added: “There aren’t a lot of people in the foreign-language business, but there are a lot of people in the foreign-language Oscar business.”

Whether all the tub thumping translates into awards would seem to be negated by the Academy’s own rules.

“The rest of Academy voting is specifically designed to reward passion,” Cynthia Swartz, a veteran Oscar campaigner and president of the New York-based Strategy PR, said, referring to the preferential voting system used for best picture nominees, for instance.

That’s not the case in the foreign race (or its cousin, documentary): The early voting there is based on the average score, on a scale of 1 to 10, as determined by those Academy members who watch the 76 films submitted from around the world — not by the kind of weighted ballot used in other categories, where a film can be nominated for best picture even if only 5 percent of the voters rank it No. 1.

Having a lot of people see your best picture hopeful, therefore, makes sense. In foreign, not so much. Hypothetically, if you had just one screening with just one viewer, and that viewer gave the film a 10, you should stop showing anyone your film because your average score would be 10.

“The Academy says, ‘Submit your film,’ even though only 10 of them are going to be what the membership is talking about,” McInnis said. “So what’s the point of submitting? Well, there’s the tiny sliver of a possibility you could get a 10. But it’s also the time of year when Hollywood is paying attention to foreign film. Which means I can get my filmmaker in front of audiences who might otherwise never see his film, get him meetings with agents and managers because he was his country’s official selection. I can get him in front of people, not so much for this film, but to help other films.”

There’s also considerable good will in the foreign race, McInnis said. “Every single person was immediately ready to negotiate a deal for a foreign film, far below their regular rate. They were like: ‘We get it, we get it. If you don’t have distribution or financing, we totally get it. What can we do for you?’ Everybody was ready to help the foreign films. They went above and beyond.”

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