'Volver' potential beyond best foreign film

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"Volver" vibrations: Although non-English language films are eligible in many Oscar categories besides best foreign film, it's unusual for one to make the leap to broader consideration.

This year's Oscar race, however, could see just such a situation thanks to writer-director Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" from Sony Pictures Classics, which won five European Film Awards last Saturday (including best director for Almodovar and best actress for Penelope Cruz). Not surprisingly, Almodovar and Cruz are continuing their very successful relationship, according to reports Tuesday, with his next film, "The Skin I Live In."

The critically acclaimed "Volver" -- which scored a very fresh 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer -- is generating some well-deserved vibrations about potential Oscar nominations not only for best foreign film, but also in prime categories like best picture, director, screenplay, actress and supporting actress (Carmen Maura). "Volver" was produced by Agustin Almodovar.

At this early point in the awards race the film's five EFA wins should be helpful in establishing it for multi-category Oscar consideration. Another factor that should work to "Volver's" benefit is that so many Academy members who are now in their mid-50s to early-60s grew up watching the films of legendary foreign filmmakers like Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut and Godard. "Volver" should remind them, as it did me, of why we fell in love with movies in the first place. Spain's Almodovar is a direct descendant of the great foreign film directors who established global reputations in the 1960s when their films began playing in U.S. art houses.

In watching "Volver," I was immediately reminded of how rewarding it was years ago in terms of entertainment and enjoyment to watch foreign language films and how unimportant it is to have to read subtitles to understand the dialogue. If enough Academy members feel the same way "Volver" could surface in quite a few key races. Almodovar is no stranger to Oscar voters, of course, having won in 2003 for best original screenplay with "Talk to Her," which also brought him a best director nomination. If Cruz lands a best actress Oscar nom, as the current buzz suggests, it will be her first. A supporting actress Academy nod for Maura would also be her first. Among Maura's many international nominations and wins, by the way, is the best actress European Film Award in 1988 for her performance in Almodovar's hit "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." That's the same award Cruz just took home.

Having greatly enjoyed "Volver," I was happy to have an opportunity recently to focus on how it reached the screen with Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. "We have been a constant supporter of Pedro Almodovar," Barker told me. "In fact, Tom and I have released over the years seven Almodovar films, starting with 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' (1988) at Orion Classics. So he has been a very important filmmaker to us and if any filmmaker represents the best of what we do it's Pedro Almodovar.

"We became involved at the script stage as we have in the last several (Almodovar projects). He and his brother (sent SPC the screenplay). His brother, Agustin, is his producer and we have had a long term terrific relationship with them over the years starting with 'All About My Mother' and through 'Talk to Her' and 'Bad Education' and now 'Volver.' Pedro and Agustin sent us this script to 'Volver' and we just thought it was wonderful. It was January of last year. It started shooting in June."

After they read the screenplay, Barker said, "We said we loved the picture. Tom, Marcie (their SPC management colleague Marcie Bloom) and myself read the script and we loved (it) so much. We particularly were taken with the incredible roles that he had written both for Penelope Cruz and for Carmen Maura. Penelope Cruz is an actress we have been familiar with for years. In fact, we brought her to L.A. for the very first time with 'Belle Epoch,' which is the film that won the best foreign film Oscar in 1993, and she was (only) 17 at the time. When we read the script (for 'Volver') we were so overwhelmed by what a great role Pedro had written for her. It was very obvious to us it was the role of a lifetime for an actress.

"Carmen, who had not worked with Pedro in 17 years, had been the star of so many of his early films, which were (such) seminal great foreign films. The fact that she was coming back to play the mother (of Cruz's character) was also amazing when you read it. You just knew these were parts that were perfect for these actresses."

At that point, he continued, "We made an offer and they sold us the North American rights in the script stage as they have in the last several films. They were shooting in June. They had a very long rehearsal period, which Pedro always has. What's so amazing about Pedro Almodovar is that he surrounds himself with the best craftsmen (like) the amazing composer Alberto Iglesias (who just won the EFA for best composer) and his cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine (winner of the best cinematography EFA). These are people that have worked with him before and they're there to serve his vision. And what an amazing vision it is. I mean, I've had so many journalists come up to us at different functions just remarking on what an amazing film it is about women -- women of all ages, mother, daughter, sisters relationships. And that is something very special and insightful about Pedro's writing and his direction and his vision for this film."

When did SPC begin its marketing strategizing for "Volver?" "As we always do, when we launch a film we start the marketing for whatever we think is down the road in the awards season," Bernard explained. "At a simultaneous time we try and assess if we think the movie might be recognized by some of the year-end awards committees and we prepare to try and get them to see the movie because we feel the most important thing in the awards season is not what kind of ad you take, not how much money you spend -- it's how you can get all the people that decide what movies are worthy to see your film. I think that's the mantra in our awards campaigns -- getting the people who evaluate the movies for the awards to see them."

And that, Barker added, "is not easy when you have so many films vying for the attention span of very busy professionals. What's been very gratifying to us this year is the attendance at all of our screenings, whether they're Academy screenings or guild screenings. The attendance has been really, really good and better than we would normally get over the years, which could be due to Almodovar's reputation as well to good word of mouth."

Indeed, "Volver" did very well with the critics, which had to have been helpful in getting awards voters to make time to see it early and will help prompt others to catch up with it before they send in their nominations ballots. It's been an interesting year, I observed, because bad reviews have knocked a number of other films out of serious awards consideration. "But isn't that the same every year?" Barker asked. "There are hopes for so many pictures and then several pictures fall by the wayside. We've had several of them (in the past), as well. I think this is an interesting year because there appears to be no front runner. I don't know if you'll agree with me."

Actually, I replied, I completely agree with his assessment of the situation and, in fact, I've been making that point right here. "It feels like so many pictures and their backers feel like they have a shot, especially for consideration," he said. "What makes us think this film is really worthy of consideration is that in the last 10 years you've seen 'Il Postino' nominated for best picture and 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and 'Life Is Beautiful.' It really shows that the Academy will pay attention to a foreign language film in the best picture category. And that's one of the reasons we are encouraging Academy members to see 'Volver' and feel that it's worthy of consideration within that group of pictures."

Every year, he continued, "I think people are surprised by how many nominations a foreign language film can get in the major categories. And they shouldn't be (surprised) because the Academy's history especially in the last 15 years has been very strong in gaining major nominations in major categories, including best picture, for a foreign language film. That's also very exciting to us and it makes us feel that there's a possibility.

"What's interesting is that Penelope Cruz is obviously being talked about in so many circles because she gives such a major performance. And the picture's being talked about, of course, for Pedro Almodovar for best director and best screenplay for a lot of reasons including the fact that for 'Talk to Her' he was nominated for best director and best screenplay and won the best screenplay award, which I believe was the first time in something like 36 years that a foreign film had won best screenplay."

In addition, Barker said, SPC has "noticed with our screenings (the) overwhelmingly positive response to Carmen Maura as the mother for best supporting actress and also very strong response about the original score of the film from Alberto Iglesias so we have now added those categories as categories we really feel the film is worthy of consideration in because it's been pointed out to us by others. And that is what encourages us to feel that a best picture nomination is in the realm of possibility."

Reflecting on "Volver's" best picture potential, Barker observed, "It's really, I think, a more global world (today) and Academy members and members of the various guilds look at a movie and really evaluate what the content is of a best picture, what qualifies to make a best picture. You have to say it's directed really well. You have to say that it's shot really well. You have to say that it's acted really well. You have to say the sets are great. You have to say it's a good screenplay. And it seems more and more you're finding that a lot of international directors are part of that world where the Academy can evaluate that and consider them equal with the Hollywood pictures."

"I think Academy members don't make that distinction that you sometimes get in the marketplace," Bernard told me, "between foreign films and American films or English-speaking films."

"The encouragement we've gotten to pursue these things is gratifying to us (and) makes you feel it definitely is a wide open year," Barker said.

To make the most of having a very good movie in a wide open year, SPC sent out screeners of "Volver" to Academy members and others quite early. "We sent it the week before Thanksgiving," Barker pointed out, adding that the long holiday weekend is known to be a good time for Academy members to fit in some DVD viewing at home.

In addition to "Volver," SPC has another awards contender in its Chinese production "Curse of the Golden Flower," directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Zhang Yimou, Wu Nan and Bian Zhihong, it was produced by Bill Kong and Zhang Weiping. Starring are Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li and Jay Chou.

"What these two films have in common," Barker explained, "is that they are directed by two directors that we've been working with for many, many years. Zhang Yimou (is a filmmaker who) Tom and I as a team started (working with) at Orion. And here at Sony Pictures Classics this is our ninth Zhang Yimou film that we are releasing. We're very proud of that longevity with these filmmakers. In fact, (December) marks our fifteenth birthday at Sony Pictures Classics. But it's really those filmmakers that have been our lifeblood -- filmmakers of that quality."

SPC became involved with "Golden Flower," he said, "while it was still in production. We have had a wonderful relationship not only with Zhang Yimou, but with the producer of the film, Bill Kong, who produced our previous releases 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and 'House of Flying Daggers.'"

Asked about possible Academy categories in which "Golden Flower" could see nominations, Barker replied, "The craftsmanship in this film is amazing. The cinematography, the set design, the costume design, the sound, the editing, the special effects. It's just amazing. In addition to that, it's beautifully acted and it's directed masterfully. We've just started screening this film last week because (it's) just finished. So we really haven't had that many screenings under our belts (and haven't finished producing screeners to send out) yet, but up to this moment at the screenings we have had, which have also been well attended, the exceptional craftsmanship in all of these technical categories is being pointed out time and time again. There's a best original song sung by one of the leads in the film that's quite beautiful. It's a real epic.

"It's very different from ('Volver') in that we're going to open in New York, L.A. and six other cities on Dec. 22, which is day and date with Asia. And then on Jan. 12 we're going to go very wide with the film (on) a thousand to 1,500 screens. That's based on our history with this genre. If you look at 'House of Flying Daggers' or 'Kung Fu Hustle,' there is a substantial young male audience out there that's quite mainstream as well the audience that is into seeing movies for their aesthetic qualities, also."

With "Volver," Barker added, the release pattern is very similar to what SPC did for "Capote" last year: "It is now on 30 screens (where last weekend it averaged a healthy $13,466 per theater). On Dec. 22 we'll be on around 100 screens. And then throughout the month of January we will go wider. It's very similar to what worked for us well last year for 'Capote' and that has a lot to do with word of mouth and it has a lot to do with the amount of time it takes for a film to become part of the culture. Some films take longer than other films."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 20, 1988's column: "Kirk Kerkorian may be selling MGM out from under its present management, but the present era under MGM Pictures chairman and CEO Alan Ladd Jr. is certainly ending with a bang. With 'Moonstruck' pushing $80 million at the boxoffice and with 'Willow' nearing $50 million, MGM got some more 'Wanda-full' news with its spectacular opening last weekend of 'A Fish Called Wanda.'

"'Wanda's' gross of $115,418 at the Paramount and Tower East in New York and at the Regent in Los Angeles averaged out to an enviable $38,473 per screen. It was, understandably, cause for celebration at MGM.

"'We were concerned about the competitive nature of the summer season for this movie,' MGM worldwide marketing president Greg Morrison told me Monday morning. 'But throughout the preview program, which was considerable and ranged from San Francisco to New York and back again, our research was telling us how playable this movie was. Our problem was to make it marketable. It was obviously delighting people in the theaters, but it was difficult to attract them to a cast even though it was headed by John Cleese, a popular performer from 'Fawlty Towers' and the Monty Python group. It wasn't exactly a competitive item to go against the likes of Clint Eastwood, Dudley Moore, Bruce Willis and many of the other American stars. However, we chose a route to do so which seems to be working well.'

"That plan, he explains, was to begin 'our media plan for New York and L.A. with sizable MTV buys of a 90-second trailer on the Fourth of July weekend. We followed that with a most interesting program for L.A. and New York in that we really concentrated on cable and on radio and, of course, on print.' The picture was previewed, as well, in its three theaters the Saturday before opening...

"For its television campaign MGM is using a man-on-the-street approach. 'We shot people in New York and L.A. during the previews and then rushed the spots into use for the opening,' explains Morrison. Although such advertising seems to be newly popular these days, he points out, 'Nothing's new. We used to do it with radio, collaring people coming out of theaters. We used it very successfully in the past on 'Moonstruck,' which is again the kind of picture whose best advertising comes from word of mouth and from people who have seen it.'"

Update: "A Fish Called Wanda" went on to become a big hit for MGM, grossing $62.5 million in domestic theaters, making it 1988's 12th biggest grossing film.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com

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