Behind the Scenes of Israel's Hunt for Its First Academy Award

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Best Foreign Language Film Award Winner Samuel Maoz and Isabelle Huppert speak onstage the National Board of Review Annual Awards Gala on January 9, 2018 in New York City.
Best Foreign Language Film Award Winner Samuel Maoz and Isabelle Huppert speak onstage the National Board of Review Annual Awards Gala on January 9, 2018 in New York City. Credit: Reuters and ANGELA WEISS/AFP
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Filmmakers may think the hard work has ended when their movie finally hits cinemas, but a look at the recent schedule of Foxtrot director Samuel Maoz suggests otherwise. Marathon sessions on red carpets, innumerable interviews, fancy dinners and permanent, full-beam smiles at members of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been the order of the day in recent weeks as he eyes the biggest prize of his career.

Foxtrot made the shortlist of nine films to advance to the next round in the Best Foreign Film category.Credit: REUTERS

Foxtrot – about a young Israeli soldier stationed at a remote checkpoint and his parents coping with a subsequent tragic event – has been the recipient of numerous awards in recent months, including Israels own version of the Oscars. But writer-director Maoz is in the midst of a frenetic campaign to get himself and his film an invite to the worlds most prestigious movie event: the 90th Academy Awards, held this year on March 4.

The films Oscars campaign chalked up its first success last month when it made the shortlist of nine films (out of the initial 92) selected to advance to the next round in the Best Foreign Film category. Now all eyes are on January 23, when the final five nominations will be announced.

In fairness, Maoz is only a single cog in the complex and well-oiled machine that is the Foxtrot awards campaign. Hes not complaining, but does note his glamorous new routine is a very demanding one. Its manic, its crazy, he says about the campaign teams efforts. They are making it so fateful and sweeping me up in it, and I keep trying not to get sucked in, he says. And now in Israel too, theres a kind of expectation that I have to fulfill – as though this competition were in my hands.

The films PR campaign is being overseen by its U.S. distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, with one clear aim: Creating enough buzz around Foxtrot to land it an Oscar nomination and increase Americans awareness of the film before its U.S. release on March 2 – which just happens to be two days before the Academy Awards ceremony.

Over the years, others adopted Weinstein’s approach and the Academy was forced to add more rules and regulations about what is and isn’t permitted

Talking to Haaretz, Maoz outlines the typical schedule of his U.S. visits in recent months: I land, lets say, in New York, where Im met by a representative of Sony Pictures Classics, who give me a list of interviews – and then I do interviews all day long. There could be as many as 12 interviews a day, each of them 30 to 40 minutes long.

Eric Kohn, deputy editor of online film publication IndieWire, explains that these awards campaigns are basically no different from political ones

He says that in 2009 and 2010, when he promoted his previous film Lebanon – which did not compete at the Academy Awards having lost out to Ajami at the Israeli Oscars, but was screened at many festivals and won the Discovery Award at the European Film Awards – it took him seven or eight months until I felt like I was losing my mind. Now its happening much faster. Thats because, ultimately, its always the same five or six questions that come up in the interviews. The media reports are brief these days – even more so if its radio or television. So I try to answer a bit differently each time and try to keep things varied so as not to be on autopilot.

We live in an age when you cannot rely solely on the artistic quality of a film to bring people to the theater. And foreign films, especially in the United States, have to work hard because the Americans are watching them less. So I understand this is part of my job.

Each day of interviews usually culminates in a Foxtrot screening for journalists, Academy members (AMPAS has over 6,600 members worldwide, but most are in North America) and opinion makers.

Lior Ashkenazi, Samuel Maoz and Sarah Adler at the Venice Film Festival, September 2017. Credit: TIZIANA FABI/AFP

During the screening I usually have dinner with the host and then go into the auditorium for a Q&A session with the audience, Maoz relates. Thats how I spend two or three days in New York, and then jet off around America. I fly, say, to Atlanta, meet a fresh Sony representative with a new list of interviews for that day, and then a screening again and Q&A again. And the next morning I pack my suitcase again and go to Texas or somewhere else: Interviews again, screenings again and onto somewhere else again the next day. A tour like this can last for two weeks, sometimes more. In New York and Los Angeles, I usually stay for three or four days, and in other places one day. And then I return to Israel for two or three weeks, and then take off on another tour. Its going to be like this until March.

Dont mention the O-word

Weinstein introduced hard-nosed marketing techniques into the Academy Awards that others had not dared employ until then

Maoz, of course, is not the only player in this story. In recent decades, nearly every film vying for an Oscar in any major category is equipped with a professional team of PR people, distributors and marketers who specialize in such campaigns. The goal: To do everything in their power to reap as many 24-karat, gold-plated Oscar statuettes as possible. The method: A long series of festival screenings, parties and dinners attended by media representatives who can bring the film to the publics attention, as well as to Academy members, who ultimately will fill out their ballots and choose the nominees and winners. (The five nominees for best foreign film are selected by special committee – unlike the more high-profile categories – and voting on the winners will take place from February 20-27.)

The campaign also includes newspaper ads, billboards and the dispatching of screener DVDs to Academy members. But the screenings and social gatherings are the main events.

Samuel Maoz receiving the Silver Lion - Grand Jury Prize for "Foxtrot" during the award ceremony of the 74th Venice Film Festival, September 9, 2017.Credit: TIZIANA FABI/AFP

Eric Kohn, deputy editor of online film publication IndieWire, explains via Skype that these awards campaigns are basically no different from political ones. He says that whoever has the deepest pockets tends to run the most aggressive campaign, and its doubtful whether anyone without a campaign will be able to attract Academy members attention.

A key part of the story, he says, is visibility: the presence of someone that members will remember when the time comes to vote. He adds that no one at the events ever utters the Oscar word – everyone is supposedly there simply to party and celebrate good films, but the people organizing these events are PR people and distributors.

Nominees arent allowed to ask Academy members to vote for them – its against AMPAS rules – but they can go up to them, chat about their film, answer their questions, thank them for coming and thereby ensure that the members remember this when the time comes to mark their ballots.

Poor track record

Israels history at the Academy Awards is not particularly encouraging and has given it an unwelcome record: The most number of nominations in the best foreign film category without ever tasting success – 0 for 10 since Sallah was nominated in 1964.

In the past decade, no fewer than four Israeli films received nominations in the category: Joseph Cedars Beaufort and Footnote (2007 and 2011, respectively); Ari Folmans Waltz With Bashir (2008); and Scandar Copti and Yaron Shanis Ajami (2009). But the only Israeli director whose film ever won an Oscar was Mosh Mizrahi for Madame Rosa in 1978 – and that film was French, not Israeli.

If we ignore Israels losing streak, though, the prospects for Foxtrot and Maoz are looking good. Last November, the National Board of Review named Foxtrot best foreign language film of the year, while film industry bible Variety included Maoz in its list of 10 Directors to Watch in 2018.

Samuel Maoz attends the 2018 National Board of Review Awards Gala. Will he be the first director to ever win an Oscar for an Israeli film?Credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP
Yonathan Shiray as Jonathan in "Foxtrot."Credit: Giora Bejach/Lev Cinema and Spiro Films

The latter honor meant that, along with the other nine filmmakers, Maoz was invited earlier this month to a special Variety event at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in California – a favorite haunt of Academy members, especially its seniors, who make up a majority on the committees that select the foreign film nominees. Consequently, it is a vital place in the Oscar race.

One less encouraging omen is that Foxtrot wasnt even nominated in the best foreign film category at the recent Golden Globes – an important platform that gave its top prize to German-Turkish director Fatih Akins In the Fade, giving it an important edge going into the Oscars.

Weinsteins aggressive methods

One person who for many years was considered the grand master of Oscar campaigning hit the headlines in a completely different context in recent months. Harvey Weinstein, the U.S. producer who succeeded in revolutionizing the indie film scene – in part thanks to the numerous Oscars his low-budget films won at Miramax and later the Weinstein Company – introduced hard-nosed marketing techniques into the Academy Awards that others had not dared employ until then.

It seems that between one alleged sexual assault and another, he still found the time to help organize attractive events that allowed Academy members to hobnob with filmmakers and, especially, big name actors. He succeeded in creating an engaging narrative around his movies that caused the media to take an interest in them. For example, for a November 2011 screening of The Artist – the silent French film thats a homage to the Hollywood comedies of yore – Weinstein showed up with two of Charlie Chaplins granddaughters on his arms, and both of them informed the Beverly Hills audience that their grandfather would have loved the film.

Harvey Weinstein. Invented a more aggressive approach to awards season.Credit: Mike Blake/REUTERS

IndieWires Kohn explains that Weinstein invented a more aggressive approach to awards season, always endeavoring to build a campaign that depicted his film as highly important and its rivals as less so. Almost like a politician, Kohn adds, Weinstein planted information in his remarks that almost made one forget what the film was about. Or he held events with politicians who talked up the message behind the movie. Such moves were tremendously influential, because they seduced the voters without them even realizing it. Over the years, others adopted Weinsteins approach and the Academy was forced to add more rules and regulations about what is and isnt permitted in an awards campaign. Many of todays awards campaign professionals began their careers with Weinstein at Miramax in the 90s – where the company won best foreign films for Journey of Hope (1991), Mediterraneo (1992) and Life Is Beautiful (1999) – and thus he is responsible for the new generation of campaigners.

Sometimes, current affairs grant PR people an opportunity to ride the political zeitgeist, and the foreign film category – where films compete with the symbolic flag of their country fluttering above them – is especially prone to this. So, for example, newly installed U.S. President Donald Trump announced last January he would implement a U.S. travel ban, barring entry to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. Following this, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose film The Salesman was one of the five nominees, announced he would boycott the Oscars ceremony – a step no doubt taken together with the PR people on his campaign. Some Academy members no doubt reckoned that their vote for the Iranian film would enable them to express their protest against Trump, so the eventual outcome surprised nobody: the Oscar went to The Salesman.

The Regev factor

Could the fuss surrounding Foxtrot fomented by Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev last September – when she slammed the film and its makers for sullying the reputation of the Israeli army and slandering the country – influence the way Academy members will vote? In other words, are there any Academy members planning a political vote in favor of Foxtrot because of the furor over it in Israel?

Pete Hammond, who covers the awards season annually for the Deadline Hollywood website, smiles upon hearing the question. He hadnt heard about the firebrand ministers attack on the film and thinks its kind of a local matter that wont help Maoz a huge amount when it comes to members casting their vote. However, if the films reception among right-wing Israeli politicians is publicized in the United States, it just might work in its favor because it show the film is able to affect people, that it takes risks and doesnt hold back. Any controversy, Hammond notes, is always good for helping sell tickets.

Hammond doesnt hesitate when hes asked who the front-runners are in the best foreign film race: He thinks Foxtrot stands a good chance of being the film that brings Israel its first Oscar – an opinion based largely on conversations hes had with film industry people and Academy members who speak passionately about it. Such enthusiasm could be a game-changer in this category, he says. Hammond adds that many observers think Swedish director Ruben stlunds The Square is the leading contender, thanks to its Palme dOr win at the Cannes Film Festival last May, but others say that at 142 minutes it is too long. Then there are the surprises – sleeper films like Senegals Flicit – that come out of nowhere to win or get nominated. Hammond also believes In the Fade stands a good chance. However, Hammond personally believes Foxtrot could win, although adds the caveat that theres no way of knowing with this particular category.

As for Maoz, he says his fate is now in the hands of the Academys members. According to Academy regulations, I am not allowed to ask anyone to vote for me, but I can try to reach out to the foreign Academy members and tell them that, procedurally speaking, they are allowed to take part in this selection, and then send them links to where they can watch the films and vote.

This is a change in the regulations they made this year, because they want this award to have international appeal and that not just Americans will affect it, he adds. This doesnt really work to my benefit, since there arent a lot of Israeli Academy members. Now I have to see if I know any French members of the Academy, for example, because France doesnt have a film in the competition so I can offer them an opportunity to view the film and vote.

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