IFC/Sundance Selects Chief Rips Oscar's Foreign Language Selection Process (Exclusive)

Jonathan Sehring - P 2013
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Jonathan Sehring - P 2013

TORONTO – Earlier this week, between screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, I met up with veteran exec Jonathan Sehring, the president of Sundance Selects and IFC Films, for a wide-ranging interview that produced some very interesting information.

Sehring and I discussed his 2013 awards slate -- which includes Blue Is the Warmest Color, Dirty Wars, Frances Ha and Like Father, Like Son -- and his strategy. We also delved deeply into his gripes with the Academy and its rules pertaining to foreign language films, which previously undercut his films 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Gomorrah (2008), and which now are keeping France's Blue Is the Warmest Color and Japan's Like Father, Like Son, both of which won major prizes at May's Cannes Film Festival, from competing in the category this year -- unjustly, in his view.

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Sehring also made his first public comments about the controversies that are engulfing Blue, a film about a lesbian love affair that features graphic sexual content and has received an NC-17 rating in this country; the film's stars and members of its crew recently lambasted its director, accusing him of abusive behavior during the shoot.

Here's the Q&A. Some exchanges have been reordered for the sake of brevity and clarity, but Sehring's words have not been changed.

The Slate

THR: Let's talk about your 2013 awards slate. As always, it's pretty eclectic.

Sehring: Well, to begin with, we have Blue Is the Warmest Color, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Even though it's not eligible in the foreign language race, it's definitely eligible for everything else, and it has the single best first-time performance by an actress that I can ever recall seeing. [Nineteen-year-old Adele Exarchopoulos actually has appeared in a few other films in France, none of which were particularly prominent or featured her in a major role.] And -- I know you agree -- her performance is breathtaking, as is Lea Seydoux's. They both credit Abdel [director Abdellatif Kechiche] with getting those performances out of them. We also have the Japanese film Like Father, Like Son, which won the Cannes Jury Prize. We've also got Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, which last year played at the Holy Trinity of Film Festivals -- Telluride, Toronto and New York -- which Blue has been blessed with as well. A lot of people shied away from it because it's in black and white; a lot of people shied away from it because it has a relatively unknown actress [Greta Gerwig] as the lead; and a lot of people shied away from it because of comparisons to Girls -- but that's a completely different style and feel. It's got an incredible script, it has a great lead performance by Greta and Noah's one of our country's greatest filmmakers, so across the board we were thrilled to have that movie fall into our lap. And then in the documentary category we have Dirty Wars, Jeremy [Scahill]'s movie, which we got out of Sundance. Redford loves documentaries -- Sundance is the place for documentaries. When we bought Dirty Wars, we knew what challenges we would have with it, but Jeremy is an incredible reporter and the movie was so timely at the time it came out. It's also very evergreen, in terms of how governments operate and how presidents operate this war on terror, and it really poses a lot of provocative moral questions.

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Bucking Heads with the Academy Over Foreign Language Films

THR: You guys have had a long and troubled history with the Academy's foreign language category. Famously, your film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), which won the Palme d'Or, wasn't even shortlisted for a nomination, prompting so much controversy that the rules were changed for the next year -- and then another of your films, the Cannes Grand Prix winner and Golden Globe nominee Gomorrah (2008), was also left off the shortlist. This year, you have a different sort of Academy dilemma: The two major foreign language films that you own the rights to -- Blue Is the Warmest Color and Like Father, Like Son -- are not even eligible to be considered for the shortlist ...

Sehring: This year's kind of a funny year, I think. We have the two top prizewinners from Cannes, neither of which are their country's foreign language entry, which, you know, makes me wish and hope that the Academy begins to re-look at their rules. I know they've begun to, and Mark Johnson, who heads up the foreign language committee, has been great about it, but they need to continually change. When you have the top two foreign language films not even eligible for the best foreign language film, something's wrong.

THR: My understanding is that the situation with Blue is that the French distributors felt they had a chance to make more money if they held the film's French release until October, despite the fact that a film has to be released in its home country by the end of September in order to qualify for the foreign language Oscar race. When you bought the film, did you know that this would be the case?

Sehring: They had their date even before Cannes. We knew what their date was, and we talked to them about moving it, and they said, "We'll qualify." [Meaning that they would give the film a limited qualifying-run in France prior to October.] But the CNC, which is the French government's body that oversees everything [pertaining to the foreign language Oscar race], said, "No, it has to be a wide release."

THR: Why was that?

Sehring: Those are their rules.

THR: And that surprised you, I would imagine?

Sehring: Well, it's frustrating because those aren't the rules in our country. Those are the rules in France for a movie that qualifies to be the French entry.

THR: Do you think you would've still bought the film if you knew that this would be the case?

Sehring: Absolutely. We bought the movie regardless of that. We bought the movie before the Palme d'Or. We bought the movie based on the fact that it's a masterpiece by one of the world's great filmmakers who got performances of a lifetime out of two very young, great actresses.

THR: As if you haven't had enough frustration with that situation, last week, the seven-member Japan Movie Producers Association ended up submitting 30-year-old Yuya Ishii's The Great Passage instead of Like Father, Like Son. That must have really surprised you.

Sehring: That's where I take issue with the Academy's rules for foreign language submissions. Each country can submit only one movie, and each country has different criteria. They can have a board of eight, they can have a board of one. The Danish have taken turns with directors entering movies; the Italians, a similar thing. It's the release day in certain countries, but it's the calendar year in this country. You would think that, in this day and age of digital technology and global releases, that there would be a different set of parameters. It is just so odd.

THR: If we could snap our fingers and make you Mark Johnson, or rather the guy running it now --

Sehring: Mark is just coming back into it. And the guy running it now, Ron Yerxa, is great.

THR: -- how would you make the system more fair?

Sehring: First of all, if a foreign language film gets distribution in our country, it's eligible. That's one. I think that limiting it to one submission from each country doesn't make a lot of sense because that one submission may never get released. I think that there could be multiple entries from each country, or multiple submissions.

THR: So you're sort of saying, "Why should a country like Kuwait, which produces very few films, get to submit the same number of films as France, which produces many, often of very high quality?"

Sehring: Yeah, it doesn't make sense. Do I have an answer? No. But I have a lot of ideas. It could be ten as opposed to one from each country. Should every country be weighted equally? They're not in the European soccer championships, you know, so why should they be in film? It just doesn't make sense.

THR: This year, in response to the problems that the Academy has had with its documentary selection process over the past few years -- when members were sent and sort of expected to check out every film that qualified, which nobody could have had the time to do -- the branch has decided to just completely deregulate the process. Now, it's up to members to do their due diligence and figure out what's out there and what's good. Would it be a better system if each country no longer determined official submissions, but rather presented a list of all films from their country that met the qualification specifications, from which Academy members could pick any that they wanted?

Sehring: I think it would, yeah. I think something like that would make a lot more sense. They've done it with documentaries and it's worked. I think the rest of the Academy has been really pleased with that change. On the distribution side, we're thrilled with it because now there's a clear set of rules, and you know sort of the parameters and you can't game the system. You could still game the system in the foreign language race; everybody knows that that has been done over a period of time, and they do it. They game the system.

THR: Is there actually a possibility of a write-in vote for either of these films?

Sehring: No. Somebody very powerful in Hollywood apparently has opposed it.

THR: Well, if there was, I think they would get in.

Sehring: I do, too, but the Academy doesn't bend rules in a given year. I think they will go back to look at it. It's not going to help Blue out, but, as we saw with 4 Months and Gomorrah, and as a lot of companies have seen, a little more controversy and notoriety actually continually propels the movie into the public conversation.

The Blue Blues

THR: I have to ask you about a couple of controversies related to Blue Is the Warmest Color that have bubbled up recently but you haven't publicly addressed yet. One is that a number of the crew who worked on the film have recently come out and complained that Kechiche violated French labor laws with the film, keeping them on set for more hours per day and far more days than had been agreed to. The other is that Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have both made public comments that appear to suggest that they, too, felt that Kechiche had taken advantage of them -- that he demanded something like 10 days of shooting for their biggest sex scene, which was more than they bargained for, and that he asked them to shoot as many as 100 takes of other scenes, even once demanding that they continue working after Exarchopoulos had suffered a cut and was bleeding profusely. Seydoux described the experience "horrible," and Kechiche described the complaints as "indecent." What exactly is the story here?

Sehring: Abdellatif Kechiche is a very particular filmmaker, and I think if you've ever seen any of his movies, you know, you get a sense of the type of filmmaker he is. I can't speak for the actresses, but I know both of them signed up knowing the type of filmmaker he was, knowing that he was going to get these incredible performances out of them. One is a very well-established actress in France and another is a relative newcomer, and he got incredible performances out of both of them. Was it a tough shoot? Yeah. Not having been on the set, but knowing it's a three-hour movie and just seeing the raw emotion that's on there, that much is obvious. It's my understanding from talking to everybody that they were on-set probably longer than they anticipated, but he's a perfectionist. I don't think any director would know exactly what they wanted other than they wanted something incredibly emotional. Their work speaks for itself. It is a breathtaking movie, in terms of seeing a type of emotion that you've never seen. I can't ever recall seeing something that felt so real, looked so real and has as dramatic an impact on the audience as that movie.

THR: So what is the state of the relationship between the director and actresses right now?

Sehring: I think right now it's very good. I'm sure, you know, the actresses will say it was a really tough shoot -- and Adele would say this is how you make great art.

THR: When they won the Palme d'Or -- which was presented for the first time to a film's director and its stars -- they all seemed to be pretty friendly ...

Sehring: Yes. And, you know, a lot can get lost in translation. And then, in this digital age, things go viral. I've experienced it -- I've said a flip comment in the middle of our country once, and it was suddenly all over the Internet the next day, and how did that even happen?! So you can say something in passing, but once it hits print we all know that it can be misconstrued, misinterpreted, and feelings can be hurt. I assure you that everybody involved in this movie is so proud of their work, and justifiably so, and they all love the movie and I don't think any of them would ever change anything about the movie.

THR: What's the story with the other issue, as far as the crew being upset?

Sehring: I can't even speak to that. It's France, I don't know what the laws are like. I have no idea.

THR: These Blue issues may end up being less relevant to the Academy members' decision-making process than the fact that the Academy has historically been a pretty conservative group. Even though the film is out of the race for a best foreign language film Oscar nomination, I know that you are still pursuing acting nominations for the film -- Exarchopoulos for lead and Seydoux for supporting. How are you going to convince acting branch members, who will determine the nominations for those categories, that they should check out a film without any household names but with subtitles and an NC-17 rating due to graphic lesbian sex?

Sehring: All of that's a challenge. I think obviously the movie has a lot of very important champions in Hollywood and elsewhere. Getting an NC-17 or an X-rated movie nominated for an Oscar is definitely not unheard of, especially in the acting categories -- I think we can go back to Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972). It wouldn't be new. It has happened. It's up to us to get the movie seen by as many as people as possible. It helps us a great deal when the L.A. Times puts us on the front page of the Calendar section and that sort of thing. There are so many special things about the film, and once people see it they can't stop talking about it -- it's provocative, it's heart-wrenching, it's emotional and it's universal because the movie is about first love. They didn't make it with politics in mind, but it certainly ties in with what's going on in France, what's going on in Russia or what's going on with gay marriage in our country. But it's not even a movie that's necessarily about gays or lesbians; it's a movie about first love, and passion, and that feeling and that emotion. It just touches people on so many different levels, which is why I think it will continue to be in the news and it will continue to provoke discussion. I love the movie and I love not just what's in the movie and the performances, but I love everything around it. It's sort of a distributor's dream.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg