On Dec. 11, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. named Yun Jeong-hie as Best Actress for her performance in “Poetry” and cited “The City of Life and Death” as the Best Foreign Language Film. However, neither of these films numbers among the 265 announced by the Academy on Dec. 19 as qualifying to contend in the main Oscar categories. Also missing are more than 300 other films that played for at least a week in an Los Angeles theater, thus fulfilling one of the key elements of eligibility.
Indeed, of the 50 films named by the Village Voice/LA Weekly as the best of the year, 17 are out of the running at the Oscars. Only four failed to qualify as they did not open in Los Angeles. Two — “Incendies” and “In a Better World” — were Foreign Language contenders last year. The others either debuted first on video-on-demand (VOD) thus becoming ineligible or were simply not submitted to the Academy.
IFC/Sundance Selects and Magnolia/Magnet have aggressively nurtured VOD, usually for films they acquire at top film festivals. Among those critically acclaimed films out of the running at the Oscars because they debuted first on VOD are “The Trip” and “House of Pleasures” (IFC) and “13 Assassins” (Magnolia).
Magnolia did debut “Melancholia” off the radar (no reviews or publicity) for one week at an outlying LA County theater in July thus qualifying Cannes Best Actress champ Kirsten Dunst for the Oscars. Then, weeks after it premiered on VOD, it officially premiered in LA theaters in November. IFC qualified two of its most acclaimed films – “Certified Copy” and “Mysteries of Lisbon” – which rank fourth and fifth on the VV/LA Weekly poll just days before they debuted on VOD. And while Roadside Attractions ran parallel VOD and theatrical releases for “Margin Call,” it too had qualified the film with an unnoticed initial playdate.
But what of non-VOD films? Why would such award winners such as “Poetry” and “City of Life and Death” (both distributed by Kino) not be submitted for Oscar consideration? Waging such a campaign can be expensive. Studio-backed divisions (Paramount Classics, Warner Brother Classics, Fine Line) have shuttered even after their films prevailed at the Academy Awards. “There Will Be Blood” won Daniel Day-Lewis his second Best Actor Oscar in 2007 but there was little payoff at the box office.
A bare-bones campaign can cost upwards of $100,000 for just a few ads and screeners. With profit margins so narrow in the specialized world, it is a smart business move for a distributor to avoid making a movie eligible.