Foreign Oscar list down to nine

'Volver,' 'Glory' included in contenders

For the first time ever, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences on Tuesday unveiled a shortlist of contenders for foreign-language Oscar — with the announcement and the results reflecting recent rule changes.

The nine pics are “Days of Glory” (Algeria), “Water” (Canada), “After the Wedding” (Denmark), “Avenue Montaigne” (France), “The Lives of Others” (Germany), “Pan’s Labyrinth” (Mexico), “Black Book” (The Netherlands), “Volver” (Spain) and “Vitus” (Switzerland).

All have U.S. distribution, in contrast with two years ago, when the majority of the five contenders lacked domestic distribution from a major company.

Sony Classics has four of the nine: “The Lives of Others,” “Black Book,” “Volver” and “Vitus.” Distribs with one apiece are Fox Searchlight (“Water”), IFC (“Wedding”), Picturehouse (“Labyrinth”), ThinkFilm (“Montaigne”) and the Weinstein Co. (“Days of Glory”).

Monday’s Golden Globe winner as foreign-language film, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” can’t be nominated for the foreign Oscar: As a U.S. production, it’s ineligible, as is “Apocalypto .”

With 61 submissions from foreign countries, the Acad committee chose nine that are relatively high profile and highly regarded.

“The race is the tightest it’s ever been,” says an exec at a contending studio. “Everyone’s holding their breath.”

That’s due to several factors rarely found in the same year: Big stars who can spread the word, such as Penelope Cruz (“Volver”); commercial directors with a large fan base and high profile, like Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Paul Verhoeven (“Black Book”); and heavy hitters like Searchlight that aren’t usually in the race.

Rule changes this year have affected the outcome.

In the past, an L.A-based committee of several hundred Academy members had picked the five finalists. This year, for the first time, the panel chose the shortlisted nine.

Now a group of 30 — 10 members from the original committee, 10 new L.A. members and 10 Gotham members — will whittle the nine down to five, with the results to be unveiled with the rest of the Oscar noms on Jan. 23.

One of the goals is to spread the voting beyond L.A.

Some distribs are confused by the rule changes, saying that the group is smaller and more secretive. The all-important (and anonymous) 30 have been referred to by distribs alternately as the “papal conclave,” “the mysterious ones” and the “dirty 30.”

Other key rule changes also broadened the field. The Academy this year eliminated the stipulation in which countries must submit films made in the local tongue, which last year kept out buzz pics like Italy’s “Private” and Austria’s “Cache.”

That change eased the way for two of the pics on the shortlist, “Water” and “Black Book,” both of which contain at least large chunks of dialogue in non-native languages.

All this has made forecasting more juicy for the usual gang of handicappers.

SPC bought “Black Book” in Toronto, bringing its total number of films in the race to five (only one not on the shortlist was “The Curse of the Golden Flower”).