Acad’s rulemakers play with foreign-film eligibility

Pics don't have to be in country's official language to qualify

Call them the rules of enragement.

Not even the Academy’s most prescient rulemakers could have anticipated that their changes for 2005 — specifically, the decision to adopt the Producers Guild of America’s system of vetting producer credits for best picture Oscar nominees — would provoke such an immediate and agitated response.

But when the PGA determined that only scribe-director Paul Haggis and Cathy Schulman would receive producing credit for “Crash,” Bob Yari — who was excluded from the guild’s ruling, along with co-writer Bobby Moresco, Mark Harris and thesp Don Cheadle — sued both the PGA and the Academy, kicking off a messy legal battle that dragged out long after “Crash” won the Oscar for best pic.

All of which goes to show that there’s more to the Academy’s annual amendments than just the usual shifting of rusty bureaucratic gears. Changes can and do matter, particularly when something as sensitive as the elimination of credit is at issue.

While anything could happen between now and March, it seems unlikely that this year will provoke anything so hostile as the “Crash” incident, largely because the Academy’s new rules for the foreign-language film and sound editing categories are changes of inclusion rather than exclusion.

While the Academy still allows each country to submit only one pic for foreign-language film consideration, the film no longer has to be in the country’s official language in order to qualify. Instead, the dialogue may be in any language or combination of languages, so long as English does not dominate.

The change was initiated after two films brushed up against the language barrier last year. Michael Haneke’s “Cache” was one of the most roundly admired foreign films of 2005, but the film, which was set in Paris and featured French actors speaking French dialogue, had little connection to Austria, the country that submitted it. Similarly, the Academy rejected Italy’s submission, Saverio Costanzo’s “Private,” which featured Arabic and Hebrew but no Italian dialogue.

“Those were two we missed out on last year, and it’s not just that they were very good films — it didn’t seem fair in today’s international world” of co-financing and co-production, says Mark Johnson, who chairs the Academy’s foreign-language film award executive committee.

Of the 61 foreign-language films currently in contention, the most obvious beneficiary of the new rule is Deepa Mehta’s epic “Water.” The film was submitted by Canada (Mehta is based in Toronto), even though it is set in India and features exclusively Hindi dialogue.

Other films featuring a combo of languages include Denmark’s “After the Wedding” (Danish, English, Swedish and Hindi), Israel’s “Sweet Mud” (Hebrew, English and French), Kyrgyzstan’s “The Wedding Chest” (Kyrgyz and French) and the Netherlands’ “Black Book” (English, Dutch, German and Hebrew).

Perhaps most unusual of all is Australia’s entry, “Ten Canoes,” which features no less than eight Aboriginal languages as well as English voiceover narration.

“There did seem to be some obstacles — that ‘Ten Canoes’ was not in the primary language of (Australia) — that were removed by the changes in the rules,” says helmer Rolf de Heer. “It made a difference.”

Get out the vote

The Academy also has tinkered with the category’s voting system, initiating a dual-committee nominating process in an effort to get more members of the branch involved. Historically, the five nominees for foreign-language film were determined by a Los Angeles-based general committee of several hundred voters.

Under the new rules, the general committee will arrive at a short list of nine films, which then will be whittled down to the final five by a second committee. This group will consist of 10 New York-based members, 10 randomly selected members from the general committee and 10 L.A.-based Academy members from outside the foreign-language film branch. It will be the first time Gotham voters have had a say in the process.

A bicoastal screening-and-voting marathon will be held Jan. 19-21, with prints shuttling between the Los Angeles and New York groups. Since the deadline for Oscar nomination ballots is Jan. 13, the foreign-language film nominees will be determined just in time for the unveiling Jan. 23.

“I’ve been trying for years to recruit younger members, but it’s tough for people who are really active in their filmmaking careers right now,” says Johnson, citing the massive time commitment required to sift through 60-plus films as a member of the general committee.

“But I thought: What if our committee comes up with a short list of nine films, and then the second phase is sort of like a mini-film festival? It’s a lot easier to give us a three-day weekend than a lot of nights over three months, and we’ll be able to involve people who wouldn’t normally be able to participate.”

Sound overhaul

The Academy’s sound editing category is getting in some ways an even more dramatic overhaul. In previous years, the branch would hold an annual “bake-off,” where voters would listen to clip reels from seven semifinalists, then whittle those down to three or fewer nominees. In the absence of three strong nominees, the branch could nominate two films, give special recognition to one or not give an award at all.

Now the number of nominees has been upped from three to five, while the so-called “bake-off” has been nixed entirely.

The awards administration director, Rich Miller, says the decision to eliminate the preliminary was purely practical in terms of allowing more branch members to vote. “The bake-off was a fun evening, but you had to attend in order to vote, so if somebody happened to be out of town, they ended up not being able to vote.”

The makeup and visual effects categories still use the “bake-off” system.

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