Karin Chien, Independent Spirit Award winning producer, who’s had numerous films premiere at Sundance and other world class festivals, is a formidable multi-hyphenate. Aside from producting films, she started a company that releases underground Chinese films in the US called dGenerate Films, does weekend producer workshops, and is working on a major forum geared towards Asian American content makers. She does it all.
One of her most recent films, CIRCUMSTANCE, premiered at Sundance earlier this year, where it won the Audience Award, and was released nationally this fall. It just came out on DVD last week. The film’s story explores homosexuality in Tehran and is a critics darling with rave reviews in The New York Times and has been a lightning rod in bringing a particular topic in Persian life into the forefront.
Since this is “awards season” and even though it’s a grind, it’s also a necessity to get your films noticed via awards nominations. Therefore, CIRCUMSTANCE was submitted for consideration to the Producers Guild of America (PGA) Awards. Karin and the producers knew it was a longshot… Until they got an e-mail on December 1st from PGA’s Director of Arbitrations & Legal Affairs saying “unfortunately under the current rule structure, we are unable to accept foreign language films at this time.”
Never mind that the writer/director, Maryam Keshavarz is American, and that Karin and her co-producer, Melissa Lee, are also American, nor the fact that the film was set in Iran, filmed in Beirut, edited in Chile, finished in France, and financed primarily by U.S. sources. The PGA’s rules and regulations basically disqualify a film with non-English dialogue, regardless if the film was developed in the U.S., and released in the U.S. It’s essentially some antiquated regulation that time forgot, kind of like an old bylaw in some midwest town that bars interracial marriage, but everyone either forgot or ignores it.
Karin wrote an open letter to the PGA challenging this outdated and xenophobic regulation, which had been posted at various film blogs including Filmmaker, Indiewire, and on APA blogs like our pal Angry Asian Man. You can read the open letter right here:
KARIN CHIEN’S OPEN LETTER TO PRODUCERS GUILD OF AMERICA:
Recently, a film I produced with Melissa Lee and Maryam Keshavarz,Circumstance, was submitted for the Producer’s Guild of America’s awards consideration. Circumstance is a hard film to categorize: it’s a story of teenage love and personal freedom set in Iran, filmed in Beirut, edited in Chile, finished in France, and financed primarily by U.S. sources. And the film is in Farsi. We knew we were a long shot to be nominated, but we were still excited by the prospect. Producing is often thankless and invisible work, and awards that solely recognize a producer’s contribution are few and far between.
That excitement ended when I received an email from the PGA’s Director of Arbitrations & Legal Affairs on December 1. It informed us “unfortunately under the current rule structure, we are unable to accept foreign language films at this time.”
I wrote back to clarify Circumstance is not a foreign film and received this reply: “We do accept foreign films, as long as they are in the English language. The PGA Rules state that only English language films qualify for awards consideration.” In the email was attached the regulations for 2012 Award Eligibility. Sure enough, the first paragraph stipulated “the motion picture must … be an English language production.” The rule allows foreign films to qualify, if they are in English and have a US distributor. So the deciding factor in our film’s eligibility came down to the language spoken by our film’s fictitious characters.
It’s possible this rule is a holdover, but from when? It was over a decade ago when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon broke the $100 million box office mark for foreign language films. Does the language of a movie mean more to the PGA than the nationality of the producers, or the movie’s primary audience?
This rule also meant important independent films by important independent producers have been neglected by the PGA’s 4,000+ members. Films like Sin Nombre produced by Amy Kaufman, Treeless Mountain produced by Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Ben Howe, and Maria Full of Grace produced by Paul Mezey wouldn’t qualify. Interestingly, Sin Nombre, Maria Full of Grace, andCircumstance all premiered in the U.S. section of the Sundance Film Festival, where the films won Audience and Directing Awards.
Independent producers do not make films to win awards. But producers know how much a nomination, not to mention a win, can contribute to a film’s life and its audience. Awards legitimatize an indie film for an audience, and awards make a difference when Jane Moviegoer is deciding what to spend $12 watching at the theater.
And award eligibility fluctuates constantly. Recently the Motion Pictures Sound Editors union changed their foreign film category to a foreign-language category, in recognition of US members who create incredible sound design on foreign cinema. Globalization is no longer a buzzword. That was the 90s. Now it’s just a fact of financing, consumption, and every facet of business. For example, over 70% of the American film industry’s grosses come from foreign markets. And in LA County, where Hollywood and the PGA are based, 56% of households speak a language other than English. It’s time to wake up to the new world order.
The PGA’s English-only stipulation is at best, an outdated, archaic rule. And at worst, it opens the PGA up to the charge of xenophobia.
The PGA’s mission statement starts with “The Producers Guild of America is the non-profit trade group that represents, protects and promotes the interests of all members of the producing team.”
PGA, whose interests do you represent?
Post-script note: We sent emails a week ago questioning the English-only rule to the PGA’s Director of Arbitrations & Legal Affairs, the Chair, the Vice-Chair, the now defunct Independent Committee at the PGA, and are still awaiting a substantial response.
Karin’s letter is cordial, yet passionate, logical, timely and suggested that the Guild review their guidelines because, you know, this is the 21st Century and we live in a globalized era, and all that rigamarole… Common sense stuff. What I like about this letter is that Karin admits that CIRCUMSTANCE may have been a longshot to be considered too, but just to know that this regulation still exists in this day and age, is something to definitely thrust in the limelight for re-examination.
Well, the PGA finally replied and here it is:
PRODUCERS GUILD OF AMERICA’S RESPONSE TO KARIN CHIEN:
We appreciate the passion and commitment behind responses such as Karin Chien’s, who has every reason to be proud of her work and the acclaim her film is receiving.
Unfortunately, the Producers Guild has not recognized foreign language films as eligible for its awards because of the unique position the Guild holds with regard to producing credits and producer award eligibility. Unlike other Guilds’ honors, the Producers Guild Awards require an exhaustive analysis of the circumstances of the production and the various creative and logistical contributions of the films’ credited producers. Furthermore, such analysis must be performed in a compressed timeframe during the height of awards season.
Our awards eligibility process is a thorough one, requiring all eligible producers to have undertaken a majority of the producing functions on a given film. This determination cannot simply be handled via statements by the producers in question, but necessitates the confidential receipt of verified affidavits from department heads and other significant creative contributors to the film.
When we have attempted this process with foreign-language films in the past, we found that participants were unable to respond in a timely manner, in part because of the distances involved, and as significantly, because of language barriers. (Our Guild does not maintain a translation service, nor do we possess the funds to engage one.) The Producers Guild has staked its reputation on the integrity of its process for determining which credited producers performed a majority of the work on their films. If the Guild cannot make that determination with confidence and confidentiality, it cannot rightly honor a film or its producers.
In short, circumstances have conspired to make the present difficulties surrounding the determination of award eligibility for foreign language films more than problematic. That said, we will be revisiting this rule with the help of our Awards chairs, our International Committee and our Independent Film Producers Committee. We are too advanced into our awards process this year to make changes for our 2012 honors. However, if after our reassessment and analysis, we can find a way to adjust our process so as to make feasible the extensive and confidential research required, we will certainly consider non-English language films for our awards in the future.
I bolded that sentence above stating such obstacles as “long distances involved” and “language barriers.” Never mind the fact that Karin lives in New York, and most of the team lives in Los Angeles. Or for that matter, films like Andrew Dosunmu’s RESTLESS CITY, an immigrant tale set in NYC, or Ham Tran’s award winning JOURNEY FROM THE FALL, another immigrant story set in Orange County; they would be disqualified simply because they are not in the English language, even though the producing team and filmmakers reside in the U.S., are U.S. citizens, and financially sourced in, yes, the good ol’ U.S.A. Oh yeah, and both were released theatrically in the States too.
Would this rule apply if a film was in Esperanto? Or what about sign language? In other words, I call bullshit.
At the very least, we can only assume that the PGA, to paraphrase their words, “reassess and analyze” they can “adjust their process” and “reconsider.” Feels more like a canned response to me, but that’s just me.