When the 79th Academy Award glitz-fest is beamed around the globe on Feb. 25, film fans in Tokyo, Mexico City, and Madrid will be awaiting news of who won with more than the usual suspense. Rarely has such a culturally diverse group of actors and directors been honored with nominations by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and many of the contenders are in major Oscar categories other than best foreign language film.
Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi is up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as a troubled deaf girl in Babel, directed by Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu. (Babel co-star and Mexican actress Adriana Barraza also received a Best Supporting Actress nod.)
A complex drama shot in Mexico, Morocco, and Japan with dialogue in Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, English, and sign language, the Paramount film won a Golden Globe and is up for seven Oscar nominations. Two other Mexican directors are vying for best foreign film and screenplay Oscars, and Madrid-born Penélope Cruz is in the running for Best Actress for a Spanish-speaking role in Sony Pictures Classic's Volver.
Beyond Our Borders
Although Warner Bros. bankrolled Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, it's a Japanese-language film with a mostly Asian cast, and stars Kensaku (Ken) Watanabe, who received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role opposite Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai several years back. A Canadian-financed film called Water, directed by Indian-born and now Toronto resident director Deepa Mehta, is competing for best foreign language film.
U.S. films still rule the global cinematic marketplace, and it often takes the deep financial clout of Hollywood to get ambitious, big-buck international productions off the ground and distributed. Yet it is undeniable that film audiences from Tucson to Tokyo are hungry for more unconventional films that are global in outlook and offer glimpses into a way of life beyond their own borders. Big U.S. film studios view such films as extremely commercially viable.
That has opened up huge new career opportunities for foreign directors and acting talent in this decade. "Because the film industry, like others, is globalizing and nationality is getting fuzzy, casting will be decided irrespective of nationality," says Japanese film critic Yukichi Shinada, who contributes to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and other publications. He thinks the Eastwood film about the U.S.-Japanese military clash is reflective of this larger trend.
Not Afraid to Read
The explosion of DVD sales and pay TV channels globally that make financing a foreign film far less of a risky proposition has helped too. In this age of Google (GOOG) search and downloadable video clips from virtually any corner of the planet, there is doubtless greater curiosity about foreign cultures. And that is allowing filmmakers to experiment more with exotic plot locations, international casts, and other languages.
"People around the world want to see great stories—and they don't care if they have to read [subtitled] dialogue on the screen," says Richard Fox, executive vice-president, international, with Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner (TMX). In recent years the studio has upped its production, acquisition, and distribution of local-language films to learn more about foreign markets and of course to make smart bets on hit movies that will yield sizable returns.
One Warner-backed French film called Les Bronzes 3: Amis Pour la Vie, released last year, was a commercial winner that pulled in more than 10 million admissions. Back in 2004 the movie studio partnered with China Film Group and Hengdian Group to create Warner China Film, which released The Painted Veil last year.
In India, Warner is backing a local production that should be released within the next year, according to Fox. First and foremost, Warner Bros. is trying to find films that are commercially viable in their home countries, rather than trying to land projects that can migrate to other markets. "It has to work in its country of origin, or we don't do it," says Fox. "You can't migrate without localization first," he says.
Other studios are realizing that simply distributing and dubbing U.S. films is no longer an automatic ticket to success, given the growing preference in such markets as India, South Korea, and Japan for locally produced film work. In India, "Bollywood has evolved beyond song and dance items," says Taran Adarsh, editor of film magazine Trade Guide. "The quality, storyline, and feel of the films have global appeal."
Last year the South Korean monster flick The Host, a thriller about a mutant that terrorizes Seoul, directed by Bong Joon-ho, pulled in more than twice the ticket sales of Mission: Impossible III. Two other Korean films, King and the Clown and The High Rollers, also fared better than the action film starring Tom Cruise.
The International Mix
Perhaps that's why Hollywood studios are looking for local tie-ups with foreign film production houses. Last August, Sony Pictures (SNE), News Corp.'s (NWS), Fox Searchlight, and actor and producer Will Smith's Overbrook signed deals worth about $37 million with India's UTV Motion Pictures for joint future film work suited to a global audience. "This deal accentuates the way our industry has become more borderless and more global every day," Sony Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal said when the deal was announced.
For talented actors and directors outside the U.S., some of whom would have had a tough time a decade ago getting big opportunities from Hollywood studios, times have never been better. Taiwanese director Ang Lee is one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood given his box office and critical triumphs such as the 2000 martial arts saga Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain in 2005, for which he won a Best Director Oscar.
Not every foreign director has Lee's touch, linguistic skills (he has directed films in both Chinese and English) or established track record. Yet the globalization of film production and audience preferences means today's obscure director in a small market can hit the international big time with the right mix of talent and luck.