India's Oscar entry

‘Newton’ will have to continue to get people to vote – at the Oscars this time

India has never won the Best Foreign Language film Oscar. After years of running campaigns, do we have a strategy that works?

Amit Masurkar’s Newton, about an election being held in a troubled part of Chhattisgarh, has another campaign on its hands: the one to win the hearts and votes of members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

On September 22, the Film Federation of India chose the dark comedy to represent India at the Oscars. Newton will compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category with estimable entries from other countries.

A movie’s Oscar journey begins right after its selection. “We are looking for publicists operating out of Los Angeles who have specifically worked on foreign films,” Jyoti Deshpande, the group chief executive officer of Eros International, said. Eros International and Colour Yellow Productions have distributed the Drishyam Films production. “The plan is to engage public relations agencies in order to profile the film for the Oscars and arrange screenings with opinion leaders in the field. We are also planning to release the film internationally. This will be on the lines of a major, commercial release in the American and European markets.”

Manish Mundra, the founder of Drishyam Films, said that the immediate task is to get more people, especially those from the Academy, to watch Newton. “Apart from a US release, we also plan to lobby with influencers across America,” he said. “We want to conduct a road show in key cities – the idea is to create a wave of sorts. We have also just finalised a deal to put Newton on a digital platform. This way more people will get to see it immediately.”

There is no guarantee that the campaign will pay off. “All of this comes with significant investment, one that may or may not yield the desired results,” Deshpande pointed out. “And we are not talking about insignificant amounts here. The entire thing runs into millions of dollars. We are proud of Newton and we are going to give its Oscar journey our 100%.”

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Newton (2017).

India has never won the Best Foreign Language Film. One reason is that Indian selectors haven’t been able to correctly identify the Indian production that also has a discernible Oscar flavor – the decision to send The Good Road over The Lunchbox in 2014 is one such example.

Another reason is that Indian producers have not been able to finance the roadshow needed to get their films noticed from among hundreds of entries from around the world. “The Oscar campaign is something that you run for months,” said Guneet Monga, one of the executive producers of Vetrimaaran’s Tamil movie Visaaranai, which was India’s submission in 2017. “And this campaign has to be run by an American distributor and a credible publicist who specialises in Oscar campaigns.”

Newton’s advantage is that it has the backing of the A-list studio Eros International, which already has a presence in the United States of America since it distributes several Indian films there. “The entire phenomenon is a well-groomed system that is run by a publicist and a distributor, so they understand it better than anybody else,” Monga said. “For instance, you need to book well-situated screening rooms in Los Angeles and then make sure that the voting committee comes. There are a handful of people who vote for the foreign language category and that list is a secret. So, you have to do your outreach, advertising and marketing to make sure your screenings are full of voters.”

When Visaaranai was selected to represent India, Monga flew from Mumbai to Chennai to meet the rest of the production team. “The very next day, we began hiring publicists,” Monga said. “Since we didn’t have a distributor, we went to Los Angeles and found one. While working with the publicist there, I understood more about the people in the Oscar circle and other film strategies that one could use. These are things you understand on the ground. You have to make the time and the money spent worth it by getting voters. We were also late in booking screening rooms. Around this time, all the good screening rooms are booked.”

American distributors are best placed to understand the requirements and preferences of Oscar voters, said a production company executive whose film was chosen to represent India some years ago. “The idea is to create a buzz and an interest in your film such that it becomes well-known among the members of the Academy who primary live in Los Angeles,” the executive said on condition of anonymity. “Screenings can also be done in association with such trade magazines as Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Wrap, Deadline Hollywood etc. Then, you have to also place ‘for your consideration’ advertisements for the American film market and advertise in special editions that are brought out for foreign language films.”

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Visaranai (2015).

A major disadvantage faced by Indian films is that they enter the Oscar race as late as September, much after the distributors of foreign productions have kicked off their campaigns. “Big studios have already begun identifying those films that have an Oscar flavour the minute they enter international festivals,” the production executive said. “As a country, we must perfect this art and have one guy in America who picks up films nominated from here, knows the entire mechanism there and begins work immediately.”

One of the most crucial events to publicise a previously unknown Oscar contender is the influencer screening. “For instance, say, I invite you and then you invite your cousin who knows an Academy member – this is the practice that everyone follows,” the production executive said. “For Indian cinema to crack this, it needs a very good distributor. Word of mouth building is a magnificent art and that art has to be perfected.”

The lack of an American distributor puts the onus of funding the entire campaign on individual producers. Visaaranai, for example, did not make it to the final shortlist even after spending heavily on its campaign, an amount that the movie’s director says he is yet to recover. “I spent Rs four crores on the campaign alone and I lived there for four months,” Vetrimaaran said. “I don’t think anyone after Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan has spent this kind of money.”

The Indian government has announced a Rs one crore grant for Newton to help it with its campaign, according to a Times of India report. In 2016, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had announced a fund to financially assist filmmakers who represent India at the Oscars and at major international festivals. “The initiative will mainly take care of expenses such as engagement of publicist, travel of director, maker and key talent to make appearance at the red carpet and press meets, accommodation, screenings, advertising and networking,” said a report in The Hindu.

This money, however, is not given during the campaign but afterwards.

“Actually what they have specified is that a filmmaker must submit the bills after the Oscar campaign and then the government will reimburse them,” Vetrimaaran said. “I did that and it has been a year now and I have not got any money back. I was following it up until April. I’ve also heard that there is a committee that decides whether a film should be reimbursed or not. Not every selection to the Oscars gets reimbursed.”

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Lagaan (2001).

Only three Indian films have made it to the final list of five films that compete for the foreign language Oscar: Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001). After Lagaan was selected in 2001, producer and lead actor Aamir Khan camped in Los Angeles for months. The campaign cost international distributor Sony Pictures Rs 9.6 crores, said a report in India Today.

There were numerous theories about why Lagaan lost out to Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land in 2001: the movie was too long for Oscar votes (224 minutes); its theme wasn’t topical and didn’t connect with Americans (Indians fighting British rule through cricket); the filmmaking idiom wasn’t universal enough (the song-and-dance sequences).

Perhaps No Man’s Land, a satire set during the Bosnian war, was simply a better movie?

“People seem to have very strong opinions on how an Oscar campaign should be run as if they know exactly what will work,” said director Chaitanya Tamhane whose debut feature Court was sent to the Oscars in 2014. “Some people have this impression that you have to spend millions and millions of rupees to have your film selected at the Oscars. There are others who believe it is like going into a casino where you spend millions of rupees and come out with no results at all. All of these are theories because I don’t think anyone can tell you for sure that this is the only way to go about it.”

It is important to understand the composition of the Oscar voters before anything else. “The demographic that is voting, from what I heard, is mainly people who are between the age of 60 and 75, and we have to appeal to that demographic,” Tamhane said. “There are certain films that are preferred primarily because of their themes or style. Of course, certain films come with a lot more buzz than the others. I don’t think that buzz can be bought.”

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Court (2015).

When Tamhane and his team took Court to Los Angeles, he discovered the Oscar campaign ecosystem for the first time. “There are people who open these fly-by-night shops just for the Oscar season,” he explained. “It is like going to a supermarket where you have tonnes of options where you can spend your money – in terms of which PR agent to hire, how many ads you want to give out, how many magazines, where to screen your film etc. I don’t know which of this actually works and which of it doesn’t. I would like to believe that eventually, it is the film. And when I say that I don’t mean it in the absolute terms but the film that best suits a specific palette.”

The Court team ticked off all the items on the list: they organised screenings and a meet-and-greet lunch, hired a local publicist and an American distributor, gave interviews and placed advertisements in trade magazines.

“I personally would not like to believe that just because a director threw a grand lunch, it swung the vote,” Tamhane said. “A campaign can only take you to upto a point.”

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