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Rocking the foreign lingo vote

Guest column

Some of the year’s most prominent foreign-lingo films — “Motorcycle Diaries,” “Maria Full of Grace” and “A Very Long Engagement” among them — won’t be eligible for the foreign-language Oscar, thanks to their financing sources or the timing of their overseas release.

Goldwyn Films president Meyer Gottlieb, a member of the Foreign Language Screening Committee for 15 years, argues that the biggest problem with this year’s foreign-language race are the Academy’s outdated voting requirements.

I’ve become increasingly concerned that the rules governing foreign-language submissions no longer accomplish the principal goals of the Academy: nominating the best foreign- language films and encouraging the entire Academy to vote.

Here’s how the system works: Each country submits foreign pictures for award consideration. Once films have been submitted (49 films this year), the Foreign Language Screening Committee screens the pictures and selects the five nominees.

The screening committee consists of around 400 Academy members, broken down into three subgroups, each asked to screen about 17 films.

The screenings take place at the Academy on weekday evenings or weekends over a brief period. Each member rates the films numerically. Members must view at least 70% of films assigned to their subgroup or their ratings are not included in the selection of the five nominated pictures. The five pictures receiving the highest score are the nominees.

My concern centers on the makeup of the committee and the restrictions placed on members to qualify to vote. While it is easy to join the committee (just volunteer), there are a few hurdles you must overcome to make your vote count:

You must screen all 17 films. All official screenings are at the Academy Theater. While credit is given for films previously seen at festivals or in screening rooms, you are not permitted to view the films on tape or DVD.

It is a conflict of interest if you are involved in the production, marketing, distribution or financing of a film submitted for consideration.

The above may seem harmless. However, the conflict of interest provision is inconsistent with the nomination and voting process for mainstream Oscar categories. It is based on an honor code that encourages a tattletale mentality amongst members.

Technically everyone at a major studio would be in conflict if his or her so-called independent theatrical or homevideo divisions distributed a film in contention for the foreign-language Oscar, but that isn’t the case. Furthermore, the time commitment required to screen all of the movies is onerous with a day job.

The bottom line is that the committee does not fully represent the Academy membership.

Once the committee selects the five nominated films, the Academy rules require members to see the movies on film, in a theater or screening room, to qualify to vote. You must request a ballot from the Academy and complete a form stating when and where you saw these films. This is the most burdensome rule as the Academy offers limited screenings and there is a brief period between nominee announcements and ballot due dates.

Some of the nominations are not released to theaters so your only choice is Academy screenings. And if you haven’t seen all five nominees you cannot vote.

This opens the door for certain distributors (you know who you are) to play the “hide the movie” game by not offering them for additional screenings, limiting the number of members who qualify to vote.

The number of members who qualify to vote for best foreign film amount to about 250, which is often fewer than the number of members on the Foreign Language Screening Committee. Simple math shows 80 votes wins the Oscar.

Here are just a few simple solutions, which I’ve previously shared with the Academy:

  • Allow members to see nominated films on tape or DVD. The Academy could manufacture the tapes/DVDs and ship them to all members or as a minimum create a library system allowing members to borrow tapes or DVDs.

  • Eliminate the “hide the movie” game by supplying ballots if you’ve seen four of five nominated films. They do not have this requirement for voting in all other major categories including best picture. If screeners are sent to the entire Academy, eliminate this rule!

  • Remove the conflict of interest provision and expand the size of the committee. A larger committee will be more representative of the Academy membership and will remove the risk of those with conflicts of interest to influence the outcome.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a remarkable institution that has achieved much in our industry. Nothing is more important than having our efforts recognized by our peers

As a proud Academy member I say let’s take a fresh approach to this process. I know that we can do a better job. It’s time to start thinking about the future and let go of the past.

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