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THE OSCARS | THE GLOBAL VIEW

The Film Business' New Globalism Makes Its Mark

March 26, 2001|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not since the '70s has there been such a global spirit to the Academy Awards, the result of a trend that has been building for several years. And for the first time, audiences seem to be embracing these films as strongly as academy members. Most of the best picture nominees this year reflect an international scope, as well as utilize non-American talent and crews.

Of the five best picture candidates, the one true Hollywood production is "Erin Brockovich," which was co-produced by Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment--two of the three major studios now in foreign hands (Universal is owned by a French conglomerate, Vivendi, and Sony by the Japanese electronics giant). Three nominees were produced by independent companies, and two of the five were financed partially through non-U.S. sources.

Sony Pictures Classics' "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," named best foreign film, and USA Films' "Traffic" came together from a variety of overseas financiers. The Mandarin Chinese-language "Crouching Tiger" cast, director and crew are overwhelmingly Asian. "Traffic," some of which is in Spanish, is based on a British TV miniseries.

"Chocolat," produced by New York-based, Disney-owned but independently run Miramax, is in English, but in every other way it's a foreign film, from its title on down. The old-fashioned fable is set in France, the homeland of the film's star, Juliette Binoche; its director, Lasse Halstrom, is Swedish; only one of its leading players--Johnny Depp--is American-born.

The fifth nominee, "Gladiator," which was named best picture, was co-financed by Universal and DreamWorks, is set in ancient Rome and was directed by Englishman Ridley Scott. It stars a New Zealand-born actor (Russell Crowe, who won the best actor Oscar) and many British-born supporting players. Joaquin Phoenix stands out as one of the few Americans involved in the film.

"We've entered an era of new globalism in motion pictures," said Michael Barker, of Sony Pictures Classics, one of several financial backers of "Crouching Tiger." "Technology has brought us closer together, and the monetary constraints of financing motion pictures have necessitated a variety of international partners."

"Traffic," which originated at 20th Century Fox (owned by Australian conglomerate News Corp.), was mostly financed from overseas companies, with USA Films putting up only a fraction of the budget in return for U.S. distribution rights, company President Russell Schwartz said. " 'Traffic' would not have been made without an international co-financing structure," Schwartz said.

Other nominated films that were independently financed include "The Contender," "Billy Elliot," "Shadow of the Vampire," "Requiem for a Dream," "You Can Count on Me," "Before Night Falls," "Quills" and "Pollock."

While intricate financing schemes have long been an economic reality, U.S. mainstream acceptance of specialized films is new. Five years ago, "Traffic" and "Crouching Tiger" would have been standard art-house fare. .

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Fine Line Features President Mark Ordesky, whose company released "Before Night Falls," refers to this as "the upscaling of the art-house niche," the broader acceptance of specialized movies by chains that book "Crouching Tiger" next door to "Dude, Where's My Car?"

Miramax production co-president Meryl Poster said when she arrived at the company 11 years ago, it was unthinkable for a film like "The Piano" or the Italian movie "Life Is Beautiful" to play in multiplexes. "It's remarkable how the taste of American audiences has transcended those labels. We're seeing it reflected in the Oscar nominations over the past few years and especially this year."

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