French distributor on why 'Blue is the Warmest Color' doesn't need foreign Oscar

Posted by · 12:15 pm · September 17th, 2013

Every year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race brings its share of sore points, and the sorest at this early stage is France’s inability to enter Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color” into the race — an eligibility issue that ultimately resulted in the country selecting lower-profile period biopic “Renoir” to represent them. It’s not exactly an unusual situation — plenty of festival hits aren’t released in time to compete in that year’s foreign Oscar race. (“Renoir,” after all, premiered in Cannes last year.)

Nonetheless, in this case, some ill feeling has been brewing over French distributor Wild Bunch’s refusal to shift the film’s domestic release date to the window of eligibility in the category. (Academy rules stipulate that the film must open in its home country on or before September 30; Wild Bunch releases “Blue” in France on October 9.) Jonathan Sehring, president of the film’s US distributor IFC/Sundance Selects, has been vocal in expressing his disappointment over the issue, describing it as “unfortunate.”

Now Wild Bunch co-founder Vincent Maraval has expressed his side of the story, bluntly explaining to Deadline’s Nancy Tartaglione why they weren’t willing to change the date. And his bottom line is: he doesn’t think the foreign-language Oscar is worth the effort for a film already carrying the prestige of a Palme d’Or.

“There was never any question for us to modify in any way our release strategy to legitimize the stupidity of the Oscar rules,” he says. “Should we risk our strategy for France for a Foreign Language Film Oscar which doesn”t add anything to a Palme d”Or?” He continues: “[The rules are] unique, specific and make no sense. At the same time, no one cares about this category. We”re aiming for … all categories, the only ones that count.”

Obviously, there’s an element of nationalistic chest-beating to these comments: you can argue back and forth about whether or not — and in what marketing context — the most prized of all film festival awards carries more weight than a ghetto-category Oscar. It stands to reason that the film’s French distributor is going to be less invested in the latter, just as Sundance Selects obviously want to contend for the smaller, more reachable Oscar category.

Wild Bunch’s top priority is obviously setting a release date that gives the film the strongest commercial shot in the French marketplace, so it’s understable that US awards prospects are a secondary concern for them. (You also can’t blame them for finding the system an exasperatingly arbitrary one.) Sundance Selects, meanwhile, is releasing the film Stateside only a couple of weeks later, on October 25, making their desire for Oscar attention less an immediate commercial concern than a wish to gild the film’s longer-term reputation when it comes to DVD and beyond.

A Best Picture and/or Best Actress nomination would do more for that reputation than a foreign-language win — Maraval is right in that respect. But hopeful as Sehring’s team are, they’re not naive: they know they face an uphill climb getting the Academy, with its older, conservative leanings, to vote in significant numbers for a three-hour erotic drama about teen-to-twentysomething lesbians. In French.

Frankly, my unprovable hunch is that the film would have been a long shot even for a Best Foreign Language Film nod — the executive committee might have stuck up for it, but even in the post-“Dogtooth” era of this category, there’s no guarantee it’d have been up this often-milquetoast branch’s alley.

Maraval evidently feels the same way, arguing to Deadline that “Renoir” makes for a more tactical French submission anyway. Citing the film’s healthy US box office (the highest for a French release so far this year), he describes “Renoir” as “a perfect film for the Academy: classic, aesthetic and cultural in the same vein as ‘Belle Epoque’ or ‘Mediterraneo’ … Objectively, it”s the most legitimate candidate.” He may yet be proven right.

The question that remains, and to which I can’t find a conclusive answer, is whether France can submit “Blue is the Warmest Color” for next year’s foreign-language race — even if Sundance Selects campaign for general categories this year. It’s unusual for a foreign festival hit’s domestic and US release dates to fall so close together as to take it out of the foreign-language eligibility window while remaining in that year’s larger awards race: I can’t think of a relevant precedent, and the Academy’s rulebook for the category sheds no light on the matter.

Films have competed in general categories the year after being submitted for the foreign race, of course, but what about vice versa? It’s a quirky Academy rule that films nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film can’t be eligible in general categories when released in the US the following year. To reverse that rationale, could “Blue” compete in the 2014 foreign-language race if it doesn’t succeed in getting any nominations in this year’s race? I sense the Academy wouldn’t permit a film to be nominated in any category 15 months after its US release, but I wonder. Answers on a postcard, please.

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