Palm Springs Film Festival
How life begins at the desert event for obscure international releases hoping to build that all-important Oscar buzz.
Some movies take their filmmakers on a journey of discovery, some on treks around the globe. The latter has been especially true for U.S.-born, Berlin-based helmer Davey Frankel, co-director of The Athlete, the first Ethiopian film ever to vie for consideration in the Oscar foreign-language race.
During the three years it took Frankel to complete the low-budget production — which tells the true story of Abebe Bikilia, the Ethiopian marathon runner who stunned the world in 1960 when he won an Olympic gold medal while running barefoot — the director found himself in such far-flung locations as Bulgaria, Ethiopia’s Rift Valley and even the Arctic Circle.
Now, as his film enters the most crucial leg of its journey — the run-up to the Academy Awards — Frankel finds himself in a less exotic but no less important locale: Palm Springs.
Frankel and directing partner Rasselas Lakew will be on hand when Athlete screens Jan. 13 and 14 at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and Frankel hopes that the film’s inclusion in the event’s program will generate the kind of industry buzz that has previously led to out-of-left-field Academy Awards triumphs for obscure foreign titles.
“When starting out on the independent film path, the festival plan seems like a distant endgame,” he says. “It is very fulfilling for us to arrive in Palm Springs, a top festival which celebrates the best foreign films.”
Indeed, since its first edition 21 years ago, Palm Springs has carved out a unique niche in the crowded festival circuit by giving special attention to foreign-language Oscar contenders, regularly screening as many of the category’s submissions as possible. This has made the desert fest a critical venue for little-known international releases hoping to gain the coveted industry exposure needed to generate awards buzz, or land that elusive distribution deal.
Although Palm Springs’ foreign-film focus now seems like a savvy strategy, it began as a happy accident.
Created in 1990 by then-Mayor Sonny Bono, the event was conceived as a means to jump-start tourism and give a boost to local businesses during the resort town’s moribund winter months.
“Though Sonny originally hoped to showcase upcoming major studio films, he put together a small team of film and festival experts to advise him,” says the fest’s executive director, Darryl Macdonald.
“Our advice — knowing both about the dearth of quality Hollywood films available at that time of year and the studios’ reluctance to put their films in festivals — went back to him with a recommendation to build an event around the best new international films and talents available, including the official foreign Oscar submissions,” he says.
The industry impact has been significant. Now viewed as an invaluable — albeit informal — film market where boutique distributors hunt for art house fare, Macdonald and his team have become consultants to sales agents looking for the next unknown foreign title that could come out of nowhere to win a statuette.
“Our position, opening in the late stages of Oscar balloting for the nominations, has definitely had an impact on voting,” says Macdonald, who points to the effect the fest had on Departures, the offbeat Japanese title that arrived in Palm Springs unheralded for its U.S. premiere two years ago and went on to beat more high-profile competition for the foreign-language Oscar. “The producers credited Palm Springs, in large part, for making the difference,” he says.
Naturally, few foreign releases screening at the festival — 193 titles from 68 countries — are likely to become the next Departures, but don’t tell any of the filmmakers that. Take Finland’s Mika Hotakainen, co-director of the documentary Steam of Life. Clearly aware that the chances of a talky nonfiction release about contemplative Finnish men and saunas is a long shot, he is still hopeful that given the kind of exposure a screening at the festival offers, Finland could have something to celebrate in late February.
“For us, this possibility is truly something we couldn’t imagine at any stage,” Hotakainen says. “Our film deals with naked Finnish men having deep discussions of life inside saunas — an anything-but-typical subject for nomination in any category at the Oscars.”
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