There are things to be said about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences foreign-language category that have nothing to do with guidelines or exec committee decisions. The basic nuts and bolts of how the screening panel operates has been largely ignored in such controversies as the “Swissness” of “Red.”
Like the general craft and artistic sections, the five films with the highest scores wind up on the final nomination slate. The film most often cited on the voting ballot wins the coveted statuette.
In all other respects, it is a category with rules virtually unto itself.
One cardinal rule: All things being equal, the unknown quantity is advantaged. The excitement of discovery truly provides committee members with an adrenalin rush.
In recent years, outsiders have picked such popular favorites as “Cyrano” or “Au Revoir les Enfants” as shoo-ins. They lost to “Journey of Hope” and “Babette’s Feast,” respectively, films that arrived as unknowns and exited with the gold and international distribution.
With an decreasing number of foreign-language films receiving mainstream distribution in the U.S., the odds for a revelatory winner continue to climb. Taiwan’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” is the only likely Academy nominee that arrives following a successful American release. But, following tradition, that could seriously diminish its chances for the award.
Based on member screenings, a number of critically applauded films overseas (though essentially unknown in the U.S.), led by Cannes-prized “Burnt by the Sun” from Russia, are prime ballot choices. The group also includes the Macedonian “Before the Rain,” recent Golden Globe winner “Farinelli” via Belgium and Cuba’s “Strawberry and Chocolate.”
There are also a handful of admired, as yet unheralded, titles that could make the cut and get the kind of worldwide distribution only Oscar recognition can provide. That group is spearheaded by Germany’s Berlin curtain-raiser “The Promise.” That camp also embraces such esoteric titles as the Venezuelan “Knocks at My Door,” “The Day the Sun Turned Cold” from Hong Kong and Denmark’s “Carl – My Childhood Symphony.”
So, who exactly are these kingmakers and how do they function, committe-wise?
The foreign-language panel comprises members representing all branches of the Academy. About 10 years ago, the group was split in two with half designated as the “Red” section and the rest given “Blue” status. It’s only coincidence that films with titles of those colors were subsequently disqualified from competition.
Bisecting the panel reduced the number of films a member had to see to qualify to vote. That, in turn, was supposed to allow a greater number of people to participate.
Since the split, each section has remained relatively consistent at 125 per color. From December through early February, the submissions are generally screened as double bills.
This year 45 nations qualified to submit films and, depending on the luck of the draw, a member had 22 or 23 features to view. To vote, a member must see 80% of the entries in his section – this year, 18.
But there are certain caveats to this basic guideline. Let’s say that work took a member out of town for several weeks and he was only able to catch 16 films in the Red section. There would still be the opportunity to make a preliminary vote count by seeing films from the Blue section. A member is credited with an additional film for every three films seen outside a designated group – in this hypothetical, catching six additional submissions would get a person to quota.
A significant portion of the screeners attempt to see each submission regardless of color. But, according to one insider, fewer than half of the roughly 250 eligible voters qualify to nominate, including most of the category’s executive members.
It seems inconsistent.
“The problem is that it’s virtually impossible to see a requisite number of films unless you’re retired,” according to a 10-year vet who probably will fall short of 18 for 1995. “If you have a studio job, it’s often difficult to make a 7:30 evening screening during the week and if you miss a couple of shows, the mathematics is murder in order to catch up.”
Member X says there are some modest improvements that would make the process more viewer-friendly. About six years ago members had the opportunity to catch a second showing of submissions at public screenings held at the University of Southern California. That fallback disappeared when AMPAS decided to shuttle prints off to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He says the MOMA screenings should be rescheduled to follow USC (or secondary) screenings that, theoretically, would allow a greater number of the committee members to qualify to vote.
There are other benefits to be garnered from additional screenings, according to sources. The rule of thumb for the double bills is that the longer-running of the two movies is shown second. Exceptions are made for the few submissions that have received commercial runs in the U.S.
Pity the second feature. The rule is that one must see at least one-third of a film to get credit – a real burden for pix screened late. There’s no option to qualify for the screening but refrain from voting.
“Films get on the ballot based on an averaged score and I think if you don’t see the entire film, you shouldn’t vote,” says a committee member. “Every year something totally unexpected gets a nomination and a really admired film is ignored. I feel that the results are skewed by those who don’t see the entire film.”
Another unknown is just how many people wind up voting in the category for the Oscar. Foreign-language, along with documentary and short sections, requires an Academy member to see all submissions to get a ballot by signing in at screenings or provide an affidavit about having seen a picture at another location or festival. It’s been rumored that as few as 300 people actually vote – the majority coming from the Red and Blue rosters.