Academy speaking in tongues

AMPAS' attempts at fairness often lead to confusion

When it comes to comprehending the rules for foreign-language films, it’s — well, it’s like trying to understand a foreign language.

For example:

  • In 2001, Austria tapped “The Piano Teacher” as its foreign-language submission. In 2002, the film is again eligible for Oscars — but in different categories.

  • The Mexican film “Y tu mama tambien” has won foreign-language honors from L.A., New York, San Francisco and Boston critics. So it seems a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, right? Well, maybe for direction or writing, but not in the foreign-language category.

  • On the other hand, France’s “8 Women” might be nominated for foreign-lingo pic and get noms in other categories as well.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is constantly updating its regulations, trying to make sure that they are as fair as possible. But fairness sometimes leads to confusion. For example, any foreign-lingo film should be eligible in all categories. But sometimes due to Academy rules its eligibility in various categories comes in different years.

In 1964, for example, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” was nominated for foreign-language film, but the following year, the film earned noms for song, original score and scoring. And “The Emigrants” was nominated as foreign-lingo film in ’71 but best film the following year. The Acad wants to ensure that there will be no repeats of this confusing double vision.

But Oscar rule-makers are aware of the realities of foreign-language distribution in the U.S.: Often American audiences do not see a foreign film until a year after its release at home.

So what to do? Here’s a brief recap of the rules:

  • Eligibility in the foreign-language race is determined by the film’s debut date in its native country.

  • Eligibility in other Oscar races is determined by the date when the film has a commercial engagement in Los Angeles.

  • If a film is a nominee in the foreign-language race, but opens the following year in L.A., it’s ineligible in the other races.

  • However, if the film is an official submission in the foreign-lingo race, but fails to get a nomination, and it opens within a year in L.A., then it can be considered in other categories. Even if it was the official selection but not nominated, it’s cool.

OK, we’ll pause now while you look out the window and try to absorb those rules.

By way of illustration, “The Piano Teacher” was Austria’s entry for the 74th Academy Awards (which were handed out in March 2002), but failed to grab an Oscar nomination. And it opened in Los Angeles in 2002. Thus, it’s eligible for the 75th Oscars (March 23, 2003).

“Y tu mama” opened a while back in Mexico, but wasn’t even Mexico’s entry for the 74th awards. It opened in Los Angeles in 2002, so it’s eligible for consideration in writing, directing, etc. But its eligibility for foreign-language film is long gone.

“8 Women” is France’s official entry this year for foreign-language. The film bowed in L.A. in 2002; thus it’s eligible all around.

According to Academy regs for the current awards, a foreign-language-film contender had to screen in its country of origin between Nov. 1, 2001, and Oct. 31, 2002. The country then submits these films for the prize. Virtually any film that had a seven-day commercial run in L.A., beginning in calendar year 2002, can be considered for Oscars.

Grace period

If a film played in a foreign country, it has a one-year grace period to get qualified for L.A.

This year, “Mama” is not the only foreign-lingo film to be eligible in the other big categories. “Monsoon Wedding,” for example, missed out on its chance to represent India, but can be considered for writing, directing, etc. Meanwhile, “Talk to Her,” which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing domestically, is eligible for best picture, though Spain chose another entry this year.

And it’s entirely possible that these films will find Oscar recognition. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” holds the foreign-language record in that regard, with nominations in 10 categories. “Life Is Beautiful” is runner-up with seven; there were six for “Fanny and Alexander” and “Das Boot,” and five for “Il Postino.”

This year, 54 countries have submitted films in the foreign- language category. Some of them also began their commercial engagements in L.A. in 2002. They include Italy’s “Pinocchio” and Mexico’s “The Crime of Father Amaro.” Many others will begin their commercial engagements in 2003, including Brazil’s “City of God” and China’s “Hero.”

Of course, if any of these films were shown on TV within six months of their theatrical bow, they’re disqualified. But that’s a whole other story.

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