World views

This year's Oscar nominees mirror the intensifying globalization of the film industry.

Look at the Oscar nominees on the ballot this year and, to a greater extent than at any other time in recent history, they reflect the increasing globalization of the film business.

In the past, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' recognition of the outside world was largely restricted to its foreign-language pictures and a few token Australians and Brits, along with a healthy dose of below-the-line technicians. But this year, the Academy seems to have awakened to a worldwide talent pool that operates in front of the cameras and in the key creative domains that shape the films we see.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the seven-times-nominated "Babel" (Paramount Vantage), a film shot in multiple languages over several continents, with a cast ranging from the U.S.'s Brad Pitt to Australia's Cates Blanchett to Japan's Rinko Kikuchi. But it also includes Warner Bros. Pictures' "Letters From Iwo Jima" (with four nominations) and extends all the way down to the live-action short-film category, made up entirely of non-American films.

This large-scale internationalism is more than just coincidence; it reflects an industry that is going through vast change and struggling to come to terms with it.

The international boxoffice now accounts for nearly 60% of a movie's total theatrical revenue. Some films, like Paramount's "Mission: Impossible III," have done as much as two-thirds of their business in foreign territories. The growth of the overseas market has become ever more apparent to studio heads, especially in the face of stagnating domestic ticket sales. In all, they have become increasingly aware that the international marketplace can no longer be just an afterthought.

Paramount and Universal showed how committed they were to the international environment earlier this year when they launched expensive new distribution arms to release their films abroad. They preferred to take this big risk instead of relying on United International Pictures, the company that had previously distributed their films in foreign territories for more than a quarter-century. During that time, no one seemed particularly unhappy about having a joint venture do the work for both studios. But over the past few years, the international element has become so crucial, both Paramount and Universal have decided that they want to have direct authority over their own releases, outside North America as well as within.

If the growth of international has forced studio executives to be more aware of the outside world, so has their involvement with a number of powerful companies that help package films and sell them to foreign and domestic distributors. Sales companies such as Mandate Pictures and Summit Entertainment have put together some of the most interesting pictures recently made ("Babel," Paramount/DreamWorks' "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" and Sony's "Stranger Than Fiction") and have formed a sort of bridge between the international and domestic workplaces. They are no longer fringe players who deal with B-level movies of which the studios want no part. And they know who the foreign stars are, what each foreign market is looking for and how the studios can tap into it.

Tapping into it has become vital, as the studios have attempted to reach out beyond the young male demographic that has constituted their main audience for the past several years. As young males have begun to look elsewhere for entertainment, turning to video games and the Internet, among other activities, the studios have sought to reel in other audiences, too. With mainstream studio films proving a more risky proposition, the majors have beefed up their specialty divisions and encouraged them to take risks in the hope of bringing back older ticket buyers as well -- hence, Paramount agreed to make "Babel," a film that would have been unimaginable coming from that once-cautious studio even two or three years ago.

Over the past few years, companies such as Miramax and Netflix have paved the way for audiences to explore nontraditional movies; without their groundwork, a small foreign-language film like Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth" would never have made more than $10 million in its first four weeks of limited domestic release, nor would films like Sony Pictures Classics' "Curse of the Golden Flower" have been anywhere near as eagerly anticipated as they were.

Now, the question is just how much this new pool of talent will influence Hollywood going forward. Many of the foreign talents represented in this year's Oscar race have shown a willingness to embrace Hollywood: The three Mexican filmmakers who are nominated this year (Alfonso Cuaron for Universal's "Children of Men," Guillermo del Toro for "Labyrinth" and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for "Babel") have all made films here as well as in their own country; even Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the acclaimed director of the German foreign-language entry "The Lives of Others," has said that he plans to move to Los Angeles this year.

In the 1930s, European talent fleeing the Nazis helped create a Golden Age of Hollywood film. At a time of enormous transition within the industry, it would be marvelous if this year's Oscar nominations were harbingers of another Golden Age to come.
comments powered by Disqus