What does a foreign-language film prize mean at the box office? Ian Sandwell explores recent winners’ records

Winning the foreign-language Oscar, Golden Globe or Bafta brings major prestige. But looking at the foreign-language category winners at each of these ceremonies over the past five years, it is less clear exactly how much direct theatrical uplift a foreign-language statuette can bring.

Internationally at least, this is because films can open months before the statuette is awarded, especially in their local territories.

Several recent winners were big hits at home long before awards night. For example Departures - which won the Oscar in February 2009 and is the most successful worldwide of the past five Oscar winners with $69.9m - took a storming $61m in Japan alone from a release in September 2008. The Secret In Their Eyes, the winner of the best foreign-language Oscar in 2010, took $40.5m worldwide, with strong returns in Argentina ($9.3m) and Spain ($8m) from releases in August and September 2009, respectively. Sweden’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which won the Bafta in 2011, took more than $100m worldwide, most of it before its award win.

In the US, four of the five previous winners were released after their triumph. Of the last five Oscar winners, only A Separation [pictured] was released in the US before taking the Oscar (and Golden Globe) in 2012. Austria’s The Counterfeiters came out the weekend of its Oscar win in 2008, going on to gross $5.5m. Still, it is difficult to ascertain just how much the award contributed to the performance and how much was down to other common box-office factors such as audience demand for the film and a director or actor’s previous success in the territory.

However in the case of A Separation, Sony Pictures Classics gave it a theatrical boost post-Oscars by expanding the film from 83 sites to 282 leading to it adding $4.5m, more than 60% of its overall gross, following its win.

‘Having the winner of one of the major Oscars in your portfolio in any give year has an added benefit’

Douglas Cummins, Axiom Films

Foreign-language awards attention can bring obvious benefits beyond theatrical returns. Bart Van Langendonck, who produced 2012 Oscar nominee Bullhead from Belgium, says the nod helped make the film more attractive to distributors as well as audiences. “We did have a hard time [selling] the film because a lot of people thought it was too dark and too long and with no known actors, so distributors were a bit hesitant [especially as] it didn’t really work well in the territories the film went to in Europe, like Germany,” he says.

“Once we had the Oscar nomination, the film was released in France [and] got a lot of word-of-mouth and did really well, and was sold to several other territories.”

While nominations in major categories can boost a film’s box office, Philip Knatchbull, CEO of Curzon Artificial Eye, feels the link between box office success and awards attention is less clear for categories such as best foreign-language film. “Firstly, these films are generally not released during the awards window because there’s so much competition for the arthouse and crossover cinema venues from the contenders in the major categories,” he explains. “Secondly, there is less attention from the media in regards to the smaller categories. The media focus their spotlight on the bigger awards, and so the commercial uplift for a foreign-language nomination is less.”

Artificial Eye handled the release of A Separation in the UK and is also releasing Michael Haneke’s Amour, which is the Austrian submission for the foreign-language Oscar this year. Knatchbull believes the benefit of foreign-language awards attention lies more in ancillary markets. “Clearly there are benefits for competing. For A Separation, we were able to clearly label it as an Oscar winner on the front of the packshot, which will have had some benefit in terms of DVD sales. It’s a great endorsement.”

Awards recognition can also boost a film’s appeal to a broader audience, argues Douglas Cummins, managing director of Axiom Films, which handled the UK release of 2011 Oscar and Golden Globe winner In A Better World. Axiom adjusted its marketing campaign as a result of the awards when it came to releasing the film in August 2011.

‘The media focus on the bigger awards, so the uplift for a foreign-language nomination is less’

Philip Knatchbull, Curzon Artificial Eye

“When it became apparent the film had won the Golden Globe and the Oscar, we inevitably led with those awards as the primary focus of the campaign,” explains Cummins. “A slightly more agnostic audience, who is used to seeing a few foreign-language films but predominantly goes to see mainstream English-language films, were prepared to come out and embrace the film and this was evidenced in our exit polling.”

However, Cummins points out the Oscar win meant some critics had preconceptions about the film. “There was a feeling the movie was well-intentioned but somehow lacked artistic weight,” he says. “We reject that completely and we think that’s unfair, but there is a paradox there.”

Though In A Better World went on to become a modest success theatrically for Axiom, taking $144,000 (£87,519) in the UK after playing on 28 sites, it is still one of the company’s most requested titles. Cummins says that because Axiom predominantly handles award-winning films and had previously distributed Oscar-nominated titles, it did not take the company to a completely different level. But he concedes that award-winning films can have benefits other than box-office success. “Undoubtedly, having the winner of one of the major Oscars in your portfolio in any given year has an added benefit. There’s an inevitability about that; it carries weight when you’re dealing with producers. But I think when you’re dealing with exhibitors it counts for very little because, by definition, the exhibition sector is forward thinking.”

Van Langendonck has also felt the benefits of Bullhead’s awards consideration. “When I now look for financing for any of my projects through funds or distributors, the decision-makers are more eager to listen to or look at what I propose. My applications are higher on the pile, so to speak. I also feel this interest when I look for co-producers now, and that’s quite a comfortable position to be in.”