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Rules of the game

Acad's foreign-lingo committee aims for level playing field

It’s a category that gets tweaked and refined a lot, a category that has a complex voting system that can’t seem to satisfy everyone. Yet those closest to making foreign-language nominating committee (numbering 400-plus) function smoothly are quite aware that some changes are needed — and likely coming soon.

There were complaints — some from higher-ups at the Acad — about last year’s final nom field, which left out some apparent favorites, such Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” from Brazil. But to understand what works — and what may need fixing — requires an understanding of how the foreign-language body actually operates. And what amazes some, including committee head, producer Mark Johnson, is that there’s still a lot of misinformation out there.

“A well-known filmmaker with a film in the submissions called me recently,” Johnson says, “and asked me what kind of campaign he should mount. I told him campaigning makes no sense at all for this category.”

That’s because committee members are required to see at least a minimum portion of the submitted films — 50 this year, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, Argentina to Thailand — at the single screening of the film during a multi-week, October-January schedule at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater (and, if they have seen it previously at another venue, such as a festival, must sign an affidavit that they have seen it under theatrical conditions).

The real campaigning begins, as New Yorker Films’ Dan Talbot (repped this year by Daniel Burman’s Argentine comedy “A Lost Embrace”) sagely says, “when you’re nominated. For smaller companies like mine, that’s the only time to spend money. If I were a committee member, I’d resent being campaigned to before the nominees are selected.”

“More so than with any other Academy category, which can often allow for viewing on video, this is the category where the movie on the bigscreen is the thing, it’s seen by a pro-active group and it levels the playing field,” notes Tom Ortenberg, head of Lions Gate, which has Gianni Amelio’s Italian “The Keys to the House” and Luis Mandoki’s “Innocent Voices” (international rights) in the race.

Volunteers are divided into three color-coded groups (this year it’s red, white and blue), and are required to view 80% of the films in their third of the total field (which this year breaks down to about 14 films minimum). Price Waterhouse officials attend the first screenings to vet members’ bona fides, and the last, to collect and process final voting ballots. Members are supplied a flier for each film containing credits, background and running time, and may leave a screening only after one-third of the pic has unspooled.

Though there’s no hard-and-fast rule about keeping a running record of one’s voting, each member has a ballot kept secure and on file at the Acad that they can pencil in with their scores from 6 (lowest) to 10 (best) –and subject to change as more films are viewed. Such a system, Johnson says, eliminates favoritism for films from countries such as France or Italy –the two most-nominated countries over the years — since it’s the average score and not sheer number of viewers that helps a submission.

India’s “Lagaan,” for instance, was actually seen by far fewer than a hundred committee members during its official screening in 2002, yet scored so highly that it secured a nom. The effect of leveling the playing field even factors into the elaborate arrangement of the viewing schedule: nighttime double-bills have pics with shorter running times playing first, longer film last; each sub-committee’s workload is evenly spread through the calendar; each is given a generally balanced fare of films from countries with a history of many noms and those with few.

Viewing habits

Some committee vets privately worry about the fairly demanding viewing rigors being too much for younger working professionals, who may have to bow out in favor of retirees with more free time. But this is directly disputed by others, as well as observers, who insist that claims the committee “skews old” are inaccurate.

“I know of a lot of new and recent members to the group who are younger,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prez Michael Barker (in the race with Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers” and Jan Hrebejk’s “Up and Down”) “and it’s been because of the efforts of Mark Johnson and (Acad exec director) Bruce Davis to make the group as diversified as possible, which is ideally what you want in this kind of committee.”

Some longtime members echo this point, though others mull the well-known pattern that pics with World War II themes (such as last year’s fine, dark-horse nom “Zelary”) seem to have a leg up on other contenders.

More bothersome to many is the effect of the Acad’s one-film-per-country rule, which, while properly ensuring that traditionally dominant countries like France don’t hog the noms, and allowing the “Zelarys” and “Lagaans” in the door, can prevent the final nom list from reflecting the true range of the outstanding works in a year of world cinema. It unavoidably raises the prickly question: Does the Acad list of foreign films submissions and noms really represent the best in the world?

“Sometimes, we don’t get the best from a given country. We’ve been hearing talk about a blue-ribbon panel,” says one member, “which could theoretically contribute a list of outstanding films to augment the submissions list.”

Good idea

This idea excites foreign-lingo distribs, who always have films of their own that are left in the cold (which this year includes everything from Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “Springtime in a Small Town” to Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education”), as well as cinephiles whose favorites are often ignored altogether.

One nettlesome problem is apparently unsolvable: Reform of the submitting countries’ own selection groups, where no standard formula of group number or process exists, and is set by that country. For Russia’s committee alone this year, charges of cronyism were raised since committee topper Vladimir Menshov is also co-star of the submitted fantasy thriller “Night Watch.”

“We just can’t get involved in the politics of a national film selection body,” says Johnson, who adds that the U.S. Acad does, however, ensure that each body genuinely reflects that country’s film industry.

Even though, as Johnson says, “everything can be improved upon,” the consensus that the foreign-language committee does a difficult job well is strikingly widespread, and the general sense of things is upbeat.

Spies at recent committee screenings, for instance, report that attendance is strong, with a high percentage of the overall volunteer group attending. The endurance test comes, though, once dozens of films screen by early January.

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