Acad changes foreign-language committee

Selection process tweaked after 2008 controversy

When the Academy’s largest single voting committee, which chooses the five nominees for best foreign-language film, announced its picks last year, there was more talk about the films that didn’t make it than those that did. Though widely regarded work such as Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “The Counterfeiters” (the ultimate winner) and Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort” were nominated, the absence of some of the year’s most widely discussed and heralded films, including Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light,” Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven” suggested to many outside and inside the Academy that something was simply wrong with the nomination process. And that something had to be done.

The branch’s president, Mark Johnson, had long campaigned for the committee to increase its supply of younger voters, since the time-consuming demands of watching nearly 20 films over a 10-week stretch effectively favored members who were retired and semiretired over those still active in the industry. But the kerfuffle over last year’s results also brought the odious issue of “taste” to the debate. Some cried for radical reform of the nomination process, but a milder solution was presented.

For the 2009 submissions — a record number of 67 — the foreign-language committee will no longer select nine films, but six. It will be divided into four color-coded viewing groups (with roughly 17 films designated per group), whose members are required to view 80% of the films in their group.

The reform this year has an executive committee of more than 20 veteran members of the foreign-language committee selecting three additional titles in order to reach the final shortlist number of nine. As instituted last year, viewing groups in New York and Los Angeles will screen the final nine over a long weekend prior to the Jan. 22 nomination announcement to select the five nominees.

“I think this will avoid the kind of problems that we had last year,” says Johnson, acknowledging that he’s heard complaints from some committee members that they now feel somewhat marginalized in the process. “My biggest beef was that our category didn’t represent the Academy at large or the kinds of significant films they had seen.”

The foreign-language group hasn’t undergone the sort of derision inflicted on the Academy’s old documentary branch and some of its bizarre voting practices (which included members flashing pin lights at the screen to prompt ceasing a projection), but the urge to modernize is similar, though with a different solution. So far, for example, the foreign-language group hasn’t followed the docu committee model to establish a blue-ribbon panel of experts (largely filmmakers).

“It’s hard to see how that model would even work for this committee,” notes Michael Barker, co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics, which handled the domestic release of “Persepolis.” “This seems like a reasonable change. These people have a really hard job to do, and I think they’ve generally managed to make this a more important Oscar category, which is why I suspect there are so many submissions this year.”

Although guessing the final field is a fool’s errand, many observers think the nominees are likelier to include a larger percentage of major films than last year, thus fulfilling the point of Johnson’s reform. They may include one or more films repped by Sony Classics (Laurent Cantet’s French Palme d’Or winner “The Class,” Ari Folman’s animated Israeli entry “Waltz With Bashir,” Bent Hamer’s Norwegian “O’Horten”) and/or IFC Films, handling an unprecedented five in the field. High expectations revolve around two on its slate: Matteo Garrone’s Italian Mafia epic “Gomorrah,” and Oscar winner Jan Troell’s well-received “Everlasting Moments,” while three others — “Worlds Apart” from Denmark, the Colombian “Dog Eat Dog” and Anna Melikyan’s Russian tale “Mermaid” — are likely dark horses.

Others seeking a U.S. distributor but building strong international followings include Pablo Trapero’s Cannes contender “Lion’s Den” (Argentina); Gotz Spielmann’s Telluride hit “Revanche” (Austria); Pablo Larrain’s well-reviewed “Tony Manero” (Chile); Arsen Anton Ostojic’s “No One’s Son” (Croatia); Majid Majidi’s praised “The Song of Sparrows” (Iran); Sergey Dvortsevoy’s “Tulpan” (Kazakhstan), one of the most heralded films out of Cannes; Miguel Gomes’ critical favorite “Our Beloved Month of August” (Portugal); and Juraj Lehotsky’s widely admired narrative debut “Blind Loves” (Slovakia).

Meanwhile, Amin Matalqa’s audience-friendly “Captain Abu Raed” (Jordan) just snagged a U.S. deal with NeoClassics.

“There are a lot of films in this section that hardly anyone has seen,” says IFC marketing head Ryan Werner, “which is amazing considering how many films we see and track year-round.”

The list of 67 does include many obscurities. Although about half of the films premiered at the top-tier festivals (Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Berlin), nearly 20 appeared at no major festival. More telling, a mere 14 are being handled by leading international sales companies — including Celluloid Dreams and Wild Bunch — and several premiered only this fall at fests (such as Montreal) that draw relatively few global foreign-film buyers, sellers, programmers and critics.

“So there could be some discoveries in this group,” says Barker, who notes he wouldn’t be surprised if Sony Classics picks up one or more off the list. “Just getting an accepted submissions from the Academy can put a film on our radar that wasn’t there before, especially if it’s brand new.”

See 2008 foreign Oscar contenders list

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