For Oscar, the accent's on box office
Wed Mar 20, 4:10 AM ET
By Adam Dawtrey
LONDON (Variety) - Forget arthouse: For the past three years, the foreign-language Oscar has been won by a global blockbuster.
So history would suggest that French romantic comedy "Amelie," with a worldwide gross of $134 million, will follow the path to the podium previously trodden by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Life Is Beautiful."
From the U.S. perspective, this year's other four contenders -- Argentina's "Son of the Bride," Norway's "Elling," Bosnia's "No Man's Land" and India's "Lagaan" -- look like weaklings by comparison. Yet in the context of their own countries, they're all box office behemoths, too.
War-ravaged Bosnia, for example, hardly has any cinemas left, so the $215,000 earned there by "No Man's Land" is an extraordinary achievement.
In Norway, "Elling" is the all-time No. 1 local picture. "Son of the Bride" was Argentina's biggest local movie in 2001. "Lagaan," despite its daunting 223-minute running time, came in at No. 3 in India.
These four still have some distance to go on their international travels, and therefore much to gain commercially from an Oscar victory. For "Amelie," it's just a matter of pride.
Writer/director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's movie has already traveled wider than any other French picture. Its boffo figures in Germany and Spain ($14 million and $7 million, respectively) might not have beaten the record for a Gallic pic set by "Asterix and Obelix versus Caesar," but Jeunet's charmer also wowed the crowds in territories where Asterix never managed to get his passport stamped -- the U.S. ($29 million), the U.K. ($7 million) and Japan ($8 million). It also has opened in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, territories where few French pictures ever open.
"Amelie" achieved its success despite being snubbed by the Cannes Film Festival (news - web sites) last year. It was the French theatrical release in April that set the tone.
In contrast, Cannes was the making of "No Man's Land," which earned an eight-minute standing ovation and the script prize. "Cannes created this film and this director," said Paris-based producer Cedomir Kolar.
Nonetheless, it's a tough movie -- an ironic drama about the war in Bosnia -- and its box office beyond home turf reflects that.
The French-Italian-Belgian-British-Slovenian co-production won a Cesar Award in France for best first film; in Belgium the prize for best Belgian film; and in Italy it has been adopted as the country's Oscar standard-bearer after Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room" failed to secure a nomination.
"We say that 'No Man's Land' is really no man's film," laughs Kolar.
The French release, on Sept. 19, was overshadowed by the events of Sept. 11, but the film still ended up with a healthy $900,000. In Italy two weeks later, however, its thunder was stolen by the remarkable run of Afghan movie "Kandahar," and "Land" bagged $400,000.
"The Oscar nomination has probably helped us sell the film in smaller territories, such as Portugal, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan," said Joy Wong of sales agent the Works. "Box office figures have been O.K., not fantastic, for this sort of film."
Except, of course, in the former Yugoslavia, where the movie is set. It has broken records in Slovenia and Serbia as well as Bosnia itself.
The only blip -- an ironic legacy of the conflict that is the subject of the film -- was Croatia, where it grossed just $16,000 even though both lead actors are local boys.
"The distributor was great, but nobody else followed," said Kolar. "I think it was jealousy of the neighbor, the former brother."
"Elling" has yet to open anywhere beyond Scandinavia, where it has put in the best-ever performance by a Norwegian movie, grossing a combined $5.9 million across those territories.
After topping the charts in Argentina last year, "Son of the Bride" is now running strongly, with a $4 million gross in Spain, where Latin American movies routinely fail. The picture's Spanish takings surged 60% higher in the weekend after the Oscar nominations. Sony Classics opens the film March 22 Stateside.
Which just leaves "Lagaan." The Indian picture -- a kind of Bollywood-Merchant Ivory hybrid -- has played strongly both in India and in Bollywood theaters in the U.S. and U.K., but has yet to cross over to a non-ethnic audience. Sony Classics has picked it up for a Stateside re-release, and the studio will roll it out across the rest of Europe in May.
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