A Gamble in 1970 Set the Stage for a Win in 2020

Throughout this Oscar season, as I watched the smart and aggressive campaign that the folks at Neon were mounting for “Parasite,” I couldn’t help but think about the campaign that Don Rugoff orchestrated for Costa-Gavras’ film “Z” in 1970.

Before Rugoff, no one had attempted to get a foreign language film into any of the main categories, and Rugoff pulled it off by doing some things that Oscar marketers are emulating to this day–touring the filmmaker to theaters all over the country, spending lavishly on trade ads, holding private screenings for Academy members and most effectively, getting enormous amounts of press to position the film as the long shot people could root for. The end result was a literal bombshell in its time. “Z” was the first film ever nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, and also received nominations for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. It walked away with two wins–Foreign Language and Editing.

It is easy to underestimate how gutsy it is to put that many resources into something that most would think of as a pipe dream. People called me crazy when I went after Best Picture for “Hoop Dreams” at Fine Line. Those were still the days of only five Best Picture nominees, and I’m still convinced we came in sixth. It did get nominated for Best Editing, so the campaign wasn’t a total loss.

Over the decades, distributors (with exceptions) have become more and more conservative about the so-called “fringe” categories like Best Documentary and Best Animated Film in addition to the now renamed Best International Film. In the case of docs and subtitled films, it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy as that conservatism has more or less guaranteed that these films would have no chance in the marketplace.

So kudos to Neon for fulfilling Don Rugoff’s dream of a foreign film leaping into the big leagues. My hope is that this will inspire others to take the chances necessary to bring these films to larger audiences.

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