Extreme rules makeover

Academy regs revamp in foreign category addresses international film biz realities

If 2005 was the year of snafus, when the Academy’s foreign-language committee was forced to disqualify a record number of films on various technical grounds — from language to failed print delivery — then officials hope 2006 is the year of reform.

An unprecedented number of rules changes — designed to address multinational and multilingual co-productions, plus streamline and broaden the voting process — launches what foreign-language committee head Mark Johnson says is “frankly an experiment that conceptually makes sense. I hope we can make it work.”

The Acad’s largest committee (numbering more than 400) comprises some of Hollywood’s most hardcore foreign-film fans, some of whom will religiously watch all of this year’s submissions from 61 countries.

Divided into four color-coded groups, the members are required to view 80% of the total number of titles in their group (working out to about 13 each this year), or they can gain credit toward that total by viewing some films outside of their group.

Unique in the Oscar-nominating process, all films must be viewed in a cinema, either at the official screening (from late October through early January) or at another screening, with each committee member voting for the films on individual ballots vs. full committee ballots.

In one of the key rule changes this year, a submitting country is no longer required to enter a film spoken in its primary or secondary national language. When a storm of protest was triggered last year by the disqualification of Saverio Costanzo’s Arabic- and Hebrew-language “Private” from Italy and Michael Haneke’s French-language “Cache” from Austria (Haneke’s country of birth), the committee board determined rapid reform was in order.

“We had to recognize the internationalization of movies and production,” Johnson says, “with often as many as five and six countries claiming a film, and with more and more films in multiple languages.”

Expanded horizons

Of all the changes, this is the one certain to be the most widely applauded in the world cinema community, since it allows submitting countries greater latitude for theoretically selecting the most deserving film. (Although, as Oscar watchers know all too well, theory doesn’t always translate into practice.)

Ironically, the rule change didn’t usher in a bevy of cases like “Cache” or “Private” this year. Deepa Mehta’s Hindi-language Canadian entry, “Water,” is about the only case that applies, while Paul Verhoeven’s World War II thriller from the Netherlands, “Black Book,” has a mix of Dutch, German and English.

Equally important are several behind-the-scenes procedural changes that are already the talk of the town — in New York.

“We had wanted our members outside of Los Angeles to be part of the process,” Johnson says, “and our New York members had been complaining that they weren’t involved enough.”

As a result, the Los Angeles-based committee will select nine shortlist films — akin to the practice in the Acad’s doc branch — which then will be screened over a three-day weekend in New York and Los Angeles. The Gotham group will be composed of 10 Acad members, while Los Angeles screenings will be viewed by an at-large group of 10 recommended by members of the board of governors and an additional 10 randomly selected (by a to-be-determined form of lottery) from the existing foreign-language committee.

Ballot issues

Committee members have privately expressed mixed views on the changes, some more skeptical than others, but one generally applauded is a new allowance for abstentions.

“This creates real fairness,” Johnson says. “Sometimes you can’t sit through a movie for a lot of good reasons, but because a member could vote after they had seen one-third of the film, those votes tended to score low. This obviously hurt that film.”

Now, members are free to leave at the one-third mark, abstain on their ballot and still be credited with having seen the film. Thus, the low scores pulling down a film’s voting can be eliminated.

Even the scoring process has been tweaked, with the previously lowest number — six — being eliminated. To counterbalance favoritism toward the more heavily attended, popular films — historically from the longtime favored countries of France, Italy and Japan — voting is scored from seven (lowest) to 10 (highest) in a formula that weights enthusiasm over mere numbers.

“Anyone just counting heads at a given screening to get some idea of a movie’s chances misses the point,” notes Johnson. “It isn’t how many on the committee see the film — it’s how strongly they feel about it that counts.”

That won’t stop speculation on what are considered likely contenders, although it must be stressed that the new system could easily produce some significant surprises.

Perhaps predictably, highest on the chatter meter are films that have U.S. distribution, with Sony Classics leading the way: Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” (Spain), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” (Germany) and Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower” (China).

Others include Rachid Bouchareb’s “Days of Glory” (Algeria) and the Sergei Bodrov/Talgat Temenov/Ivan Passer Kazakhstan entry “Nomad,” both distributed by the Weinstein Co.; Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (Mexico), care of Picturehouse; Mehta’s “Water,” via Fox Searchlight; Emanuele Crialese’s “The Golden Door” (Italy), shepherded by Miramax; Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding” (Denmark), from IFC Films; and Daniele Thompson’s “Avenue Montaigne” (France), repped by ThinkFilm.

Still, the rule changes could translate into noms for some bright yet lower-buzz entries, including “Family Law” (Argentina), released by IFC First Take; “Ten Canoes” (Australia), handled by Palm Pictures; “Someone Else’s Happiness” (Belgium); “En la cama” (Chile); “The Banquet” (Hong Kong); “King and the Clown” (Korea); “Madeinusa” (Peru); “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros” (the Philippines), from micro-distrib Unico Entertainment; “9th Company” (Russia); and “Vitus” (Switzerland).

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