Positives outweigh negatives in record-setting year of submissions

If it’s hard to be completely satisfied with the Oscars’ foreign-language category, it’s harder still, say the new leaders of the foreign-lingo committee, to come up with a better alternative.

The selection process for this wing of the Oscars frequently comes under criticism for its shortcomings. An article in the Nov. 12-18 edition of weekly Variety describes the angst in the awards community over the sheer number of films to see. But in their first interview with Variety since becoming foreign-language committee co-heads, Bruce Davis (the former AMPAS exec director) and Ron Yerxa said they believe the category is in healthy shape overall and creates a level playing field for contenders.

“We get accused very often of making the wrong choices, but I don’t think anyone has suggested the system isn’t pretty fair,” Davis said.

The foreign-language category frequently draws fire over the refusal to accommodate more than one official submission from the same nation. The focal point this year is a familiar one: France, which entered crowdpleaser “The Intouchables” at the expense of the well-regarded “Rust and Bone.” A third leading contender set in France, “Amour,” made the list only because it was adopted by director Michael Haneke’s home country of Austria.

But if France could submit multiple films, then every country would be entitled to do the same. And that would exacerbate the aforementioned concern among foreign-language voters — that the category, to which a record 71 nations made submissions this year, is already bursting at the seams.

Without a winnowed field, the small group responsible for the foreign-language prize would have thousands of pictures on its plate.

“A lot of the complaining boils down to practicality,” Davis said. “We are straining at our very capacity to watch all these movies right now. If you let some countries submit three (or more) films, you would not be able to have the category.”

So while one might argue philosophically with the Academy’s ongoing determination to have nominees from five different nations, the approach dovetails with logistics. Meanwhile, AMPAS has shown some flexibility in recent years, such as eliminating the rule that films had to be in the original language of the submitting country and take place there. “Amour” and Canadian submission “War Witch” from director Kim Nguyen are examples of pics that have benefited from such accommodation.

“It didn’t seem quite fair to rule those out,” Davis said.

As is the case with the Oscars in general, few voters responsible for helping to determine the shortlist of nine potential foreign-language nominees (scheduled to be released Jan. 2) will see every eligible film. Voters are divided into three groups, with each assigned 23 or 24 films that they should make a particular effort to view. Even with ongoing Academy screenings that began Oct. 12 and run through Dec. 17, the task is arduous.

From their ballots, the six films averaging the highest score on a 10-point scale will make the shortlist, along with three films selected by the foreign-language exec committee that is convened specifically to prevent noteworthy films from falling through the cracks.

Yerxa expects that in the coming years, digital distribution will play a bigger role in the viewing process, though “full-blown discussions” on the topic haven’t taken place at the Academy.

“Half the films this year came in DCP,” Yerxa said, “which even changes whether we do certain screenings in the rooms we can use. I don’t think there’s been any five-year plan, but clearly, the delivery system for film is so rapidly changing, there’s (likely) to be adjustments to this in the future.

“In a way, whenever that does happen, it will be kind of a sad watershed moment, because not only is it great to see films on a bigscreen, but there’s kind of a social, communal camaraderie among the people who sign up to judge the foreign-language films, and just the fact that there’s a long, marathon process to it. … you really get a sense of how great it is to go into other cultures and share that experience with other people.”

Davis also noted that in some cases, Academy presentations are the only occasions some more obscure foreign-language contenders will reach a U.S. bigscreen.

Unfortunately, among the films that won’t be shown by the Academy this year is Reza Mirkarimi’s dramedy “A Cube of Sugar,” which Iran — the winner of the most recent foreign-language Oscar with Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” — refused to submit in protest against the controversial anti-Islam video “Innocence of Muslims” that originated in the U.S.

“Clearly, we were disappointed,” Davis said. “You want the last year’s champion to come back and defend their title. It wouldn’t be the same filmmaking, but it was very disappointing not to have them again — through no fault of the filmmakers. You’d like to see a world where artistic issues (aren’t affected by political issues).”

But after his two-decade stint as exec director, Davis remains upbeat and comfortable with the foreign-language category and his role. Or, as he’d put it, not-so-new role.

“It hasn’t been all that different,” said Davis, who always worked closely with the committee chairs. “This is the category that I’ve been fascinated by for years.”

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