By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood January 11, 2012 at 6:29PM
Distributors are changing their usual release patterns for this year's batch of foreign film Oscar contenders. They often wait until after the nominations to release the films. But this year more are going out early, ahead of the noms January 24.
At least 17 of the 63 foreign-language submissions will open before the Oscars, up from 10 last year. Even more significantly, these contenders include some of the most acclaimed and most likely eventual nominees. Not since “The Sea Inside” (2004) has the potential awards-winner been so widely exhibited prior to the ceremony. The last three winners – “In a Better World,” “The Secret in Their Eyes” and “Departures” didn’t even open in theaters until after the awards.
Two films expected to place on the Oscar foreign short list are finalizing plans for release January 20. Fox International's “Miss Bala” (Mexico), produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and Wrekin Hill's Christian Bale-starrer “The Flowers of War” (China), join eight other contenders that are hitting theaters between late December and the awards. These films join a number of other highly acclaimed contenders already playing in limited release, which is good news for Oscar viewers interested in the foreign language category. This year it’s quite likely that several, or conceivably all, of the final nominees will open in the U.S. prior to the Academy Awards.
"Miss Bala," which premiered last year at Cannes, then played festivals in Toronto and New York, is set in Tijuana and tells the story of a beauty-pageant contestant who becomes an unwitting central figure in a complicated power struggle involving drug barons, the police, the military and the DEA. Its selection by Mexico comes after a successful, if sometimes controversial, local release.
Zhang Yimou’s Nanjing massacre epic "Flowers of War," despite mixed reviews, grossed an impressive $90,000 in its AMPAS-qualifying run in NY, LA and San Francisco. The film’s atateside success reflects massive interest at home, where “The Flowers of War” has become China’s highest-grossing title of 2011 during its short time in release. It’s slated for 13 cities next week.
Setting the pace is Sony Pictures Classics. SPC has four films vying for the final five nominee slots. The acclaimed Iranian drama “A Separation” has already opened to strong grosses in New York and Los Angeles, and won several significant awards from critics groups. Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness” (Poland) had a one-week qualifying run in the same cities and reopens on Feb. 10. Israeli’s “Footnote” opens NY and LA on Feb. 27, two days before the awards. Only “Where Do We Go Now” (Lebanon) will debut after the awards, sometime in the spring. Among awards handicappers, all four are considered likely contenders for nomination.
This release strategy is a marked change from last year, when SPC slotted both awards-winner “In a Better World” and critical favorite “Incendies” to go out after the Oscars. SPC co-president Michael Barker explains, “If you have a foreign-language film, you have to make a judgment call that it is strong enough to compete with the year-end movies. More often than not, it is better to wait.” Neither of last year’s films saw major success going out later, however -- "In a Better World" was one of the least-seen winners ever for the category, grossing barely $1 million.
The difference this year in part seems to tie in with SPC’s hopes in other Oscar categories, which necessitated opening early to qualify for consideration. “A Separation” has already won awards for its screenplay and “In Darkness” has been acclaimed for its cinematography. In past years, both the writers’ and directors’ branches have nominated lesser-known foreign films in these categories, which can help attract attention when they are also foreign-language nominees. SPC is also screening “Footnote” extensively in advance of its opening, so word-of-mouth could still influence members even if the film hits theaters after the close of awards voting.
IFC/Sundance Selects has two prime candidates – Wim Wenders’ 3D “Pina” (Germany -- also among the 15 documentary feature finalists) and “Declaration of War” (France), directed by Valerie Donzelli. “Pina” has just finished its second very strong week, actually going up 16% in its sophomore frame. It opens this Friday in LA , then across the country soon after. “Declaration” gets its start Jan. 27 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. “Pina” will not receive video on demand play for some time, while “Declaration” hits VOD on Feb. 3 (potentially becoming the most-seen nominee prior to the awards).
Ryan Werner, Senior VP of Marketing and Distribution for IFC, says that the timing is by design. “’Pina’ was a big New York event film with the opportunity to play in the biggest week of the year. We wanted to set it up on its own as a one-of-a-kind film.” The next wave of theaters includes the Arclight and Landmark in LA, indicating the prescience of that decision. “Declaration” turned out to be even more fortuitous. IFC acquired the film at Cannes after its showing in the Critics’ Week section, then set up its North American premiere at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, with plans to open shortly afterwards. Then to IFC’s surprise, France selected the film for Oscar submission, making their game plan even more timely.
Boutique distributor Cinema Guild also has two festival-acclaimed films in limited release. “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (Turkey), for which writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Grand Prix at Cannes, just opened at New York’s Film Forum to solid reviews and business. Bela Tarr’s Berlin prize-winner “The Turin Horse” opens on Feb. 10 at New York’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in conjunction with a retrospective of the director’s work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Both films will then slowly expand around the country -- for the most part after the awards. As Ryan Krivoshey, Director of Distribution, noted “We don’t want to risk everything on the Oscars, but we want to be in position to capitalize if we win. Even a nomination can boost later DVD sales.”
Among the small number of other films submitted for consideration that have distributors, “Monsieur Lazhar” (Canada/Music Box) and “Attenberg” (Greece/Strand) have drawn the most attention at festivals and elsewhere so far. Both are scheduled for release in the weeks after the Oscars. Altogether, the contending films with US distributors at this point total approximately one-third of those that have qualified.
Additional films submitted that have played at least limited US dates include “Le Havre” (Finland), “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” (Brazil), “October” (Peru), “Happy Happy” (Norway) and “The Color of the Mountain” (Colombia). The Czech Republic’s “Alois and Nebel” and Portugal’s “Jose and Pilar” both had un-reviewed one-week LA qualifying runs so that they would be eligible for the animated feature category.
The titles nominated for best foreign language film will benefit from playing during the period of peak interest leading up to the Oscars, potentially propelling the category to greater credibility by including films that have gained an established independent audience and critical attention before the ceremony. And that could be pleasing news to the Academy and Foreign Language committee chair Mark Johnson, who have worked hard to make improvements in the category’s selection process.
The category has its own eligibility requirements – unlike with most AMPAS awards categories, qualifying films are not required to open in Los Angeles during the previous year, but only in their country of origin. Typically, most of the titles reach US theaters after the awards, meaning that few outside of Academy voters have seen them before they’re nominated. The shortlist of nine films (six chosen by Academy members who view the films over three months, three by an executive committee) are then screened by a smaller group of members from LA and NY, who will then vote on the final five to be announced with the full slate of Academy Award nominations on January 24.