Foreign-lingo Oscar bingo

Category one of few that demands noms be seen on bigscreen

It’s an interesting premise for an Oscar campaign: make sure your film is seen by as few voters as possible.

Some rivals are claiming Sony Pictures Classics is using this technique in the foreign-language film race this year. Sony disdains these charges. But the naysayers claim they’re not mad at SPC: They want to see a change in Oscar regs.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rules state that members can only vote in this category if they’ve seen all five nominees on the bigscreen. One subversive theory says that if a distrib has only a few screenings attended by supporters, then those fans will be the only people to have seen all five nominees — and thus be the only ones eligible to vote.

During the final balloting (Feb. 12-March 19), the Academy is hosting two screenings of each foreign-lingo nominee in L.A. (plus one each in New York, London and San Francisco).

In the same time frame, each distrib schedules additional screenings. In Los Angeles, for example, United Artists is hosting 12 viewings of “No Man’s Land”; Miramax will host four for “Amelie”; First Look will do an added three for “Elling.” (“Amelie” and “Land” are playing on numerous screens in Los Angeles, and both had earlier screenings.)

In comparison, Sony Pictures Classics will host two screenings each of its two nominees, “Lagaan” and “Son of the Bride.”

SPC co-prexy Michael Barker dismissed his critics: “That is pure bunk. It doesn’t make sense to have screenings that are not attended.” Sony has relatively few showings because this year the Academy increased its number of screenings.

Rival distribs also claim that Sony is cutting down on attendance by not sending mailings to voters notifying them of the screenings. “I think that’s a strategy call,” said Barker, adding that Acad voters are barraged with enough mailings.

SPC, he said, notifies voters by taking out ads in the trades. (However, in several cases, Sony gave little advance notice as the ads ran on the day of the screening.)

Foreign-language film is one of the few Oscar categories that demands nominees be seen on the bigscreen; viewing a film on cassette doesn’t count.

The Academy’s rules were set up to help the little guys. The foreign-lingo category began in 1956 and the Acad demands that anyone who votes must see all the nominees. This is to ensure a level playing field so that a film with a domestic distrib deal would not have an advantage over a submission without one.

Cassettes have become prevalent in other categories. Until recently, the documentary category similarly demanded bigscreen viewings. But two years ago, similar charges of attempts to limit viewership were raised in the doc category. Since then, the Acad overhauled its docu branch to expand the number of people who could see the nominated films.

Barker, for one, does not want to see the rules changed. He speaks of the “integrity” of the foreign-language race, since it’s one of the few that insists on the bigscreen experience, and enforced viewing of all contenders before voting.

Another distribution exec countered: “There are Academy voters in Australia, France, Italy, wherever, and they can’t vote on foreign-language films because there are no screenings and because cassettes are not allowed. The same is true of people working on location. Some voters are asking to see the films and can’t. It’s a case of hide-the-movie and it’s not fair.”

President of First Look Pictures MJ Peckos sees both sides: “The presentation of a subtitled movie on the bigscreen is more appealing, but you would widen the audience if you sent out cassettes.”

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