Will Oscar’s Foreign-Language Overhaul Make the Process Less Mysterious?

Even with new rules, there are kinks in the category

Oscar Fine-Tunes Foreign-Language Nomination Process
Oscar Fine-Tunes Foreign-Language Nomination Process
Oscar Fine-Tunes Foreign-Language Nomination Process
Oscar Fine-Tunes Foreign-Language Nomination Process
Oscar Fine-Tunes Foreign-Language Nomination Process

Although there’s no “Pardon Our Dust” sign adorning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, even the casual observer will have noticed that the Academy has spent the past few years engaged in an extensive and seemingly endless home-improvement project.

And nowhere have Oscar’s renovations been more extensive than in the foreign-language film competition, where both the nominating and voting protocols have been extensively overhauled, with more changes possibly in the offing.

The latest and most significant foreign-language rule change, announced in spring and to be implemented this Oscar cycle, abolishes the longstanding requirement that Academy members have to see all five nominated films in a theatrical setting in order to cast ballots in that category. While that rule theoretically created a level playing field among the nominees (which might include a box office behemoth like “Amelie” alongside the relatively unknown Bosnian import “No Man’s Land”), in practice it limited the voting pool to as little as a few hundred of the Academy’s more than 6,000 members. Now, for the first time, DVD screeners will be allowed — they will even be supplied by AMPAS — and everyone can vote.

It’s a move greeted with cautious optimism by such industry veterans as Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, whose company has distributed 11 of the past 20 foreign-language film winners (and, in those same years, earned a whopping 32 nominations). “It’s good if members of the Academy actually see the films, because you include many more people that you included before,” Barker says. “It’s not good if they don’t watch the films, because then it becomes a popularity contest. We hope that if Academy members haven’t seen all five films, they’ll refrain from voting in that category.”

Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films/Sundance Selects thinks it’s a positive development. “I think it’s a major step towards having the foreign-language voting be less mysterious and open to everyone. You can argue that it becomes more of a popularity contest and less of a level playing field, but I think it’s absolutely the right direction the Academy should be moving in.”

Others, like veteran foreign-language awards strategist Fredell Pogodin, are more guarded in their appraisal. “The role of publicist and the role of advertising will be bigger now,” she says, adding that distributors must take extra care in producing DVD screeners with easy-to-read subtitles. “I understand that it’s more democratic that the Academy at large will participate in the vote, but it’s also an honor system, and some of these films will be at a disadvantage when you can watch them in the privacy of your own home.”

But even with the Academy’s latest initiative, this year’s foreign-language race has not gone untouched by scandal. Earlier this fall, as a record 76 countries unveiled their official Oscar submissions, cries and recriminations erupted from critics, festival directors and other observers over the absence of such acclaimed festival favorites as Indian director Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox” and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father Like Son” (recently optioned by DreamWorks for a U.S. remake), both passed over by their home countries in favor of lesser-known titles that have thus far received markedly less international exposure.

“With no disrespect to the submitted entries, ‘The Lunchbox’ and ‘Like Father, Like Son’ are highly acclaimed films that launched to great success at Cannes, were bought for U.S. distribution … and have gone on to festival success ever since, including at Toronto,” wrote Toronto festival director Cameron Bailey in a guest column published on Variety.com Sept. 23. “By any estimate they were their countries’ best bets for Oscar success.”

Meanwhile, one of the year’s most talked-about movies from anywhere in the world, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” couldn’t even be submitted as France’s candidate because its domestic release date fell outside the Academy’s Sept. 30 cutoff for the category. (Submitted instead: the stately, genteel artist biopic “Renoir.”) In theory, this leaves the door open for France to submit “Blue” next year, but in the meantime, with the film already in release in the U.S., it’s eligible in all other Oscar categories this year.

If “Blue” were to land nominations this year in, say, the actress and adapted screenplay categories, would that effectively disqualify it from a future foreign-language nod? It’s a scenario so unusual that neither “Blue” distributor IFC nor Academy foreign language committee chair Mark Johnson could answer without doing further research. (While Academy rules make it clear that a film nominated in the foreign-language category cannot be eligible in any other Oscar categories in any subsequent year, the reverse situation is not explicitly addressed.

On the one hand, this is nothing new: in the 57 years since the Academy introduced it as a regular competitive award, no other category has been so steadily plagued by Kafkaesque technicalities and accusations of impropriety. Until 2006, an arcane rule requiring foreign-language submissions to be in one of the “official” languages of the submitting country led to a number of disqualifications, including those of Michael Haneke’s “Cache” (a French-language film submitted by Austria) and Saverio Costanzo’s “Private (a Hebrew- and Arabic-language film submitted by Italy). In 1993, director Adolfo Aristarain’s “A Place in the World” was disqualified after securing one of the five nominations, when it was determined that the film, submitted by Uruguay, was in fact a majority Argentine production.

More recently, “Maria Full of Grace” was ruled out as a Colombian submission for having too many American crew members, while the Israeli hit “The Band’s Visit” was KO’d for containing too much English dialogue. And yet, in 1984, the Italian director Ettore Scola managed to land a foreign language nod for “Le Bal,” a Franco-Italian co-production submitted by Algeria and containing not a single word of spoken dialogue. Go figure.
Of late, the Academy has also had to weather accusations of failing to award or even nominate deserving films that did manage to clear the initial qualification hurdle. Consider that in the first 20 years of the foreign language award, the winners included such legendary world cinema masters as Fellini (three times), Bergman (twice), De Sica (twice), Tati, Truffaut and Kurosawa, while in the past decade the award has been dominated by the comparatively middlebrow likes of Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”), Susanne Bier (“In a Better World”), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) and Juan Jose Campanella (“The Secret in Their Eyes”).

To be fair, Almodovar, Haneke and Ang Lee have won in those same years, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Though they have directed one or more official foreign language submissions apiece, such leading contemporary auteurs as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Dardenne brothers, Abbas Kiarostami, Manoel de Oliveira, Wong Kar Wai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have failed to amass a single nomination between them. (Wong is in the running again this year with “The Grandmaster.”) And despite the widely acclaimed Iranian film renaissance of the 1980s and ’90s, it took until 1999 for an Iranian film (Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven”) to finally land a foreign-lingo nomination, and until 2012 for one (“A Separation”) to actually win.

In Great Romanian Oscar Standoff of 2008 , when Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” having been selected by Romania as its official Oscar entry,failed to secure a spot on the “shortlist” of nine Foreign Language finalists determined by the Academy’s Phase I nominating committee. That was, metaphorically speaking, the straw that broke Mark Johnson’s back, prompting the longtime committee chair (12 of the past 13 years) to institute sweeping reforms to the nominating process.

Already at the time of the “4 Months” scandal, Johnson had instituted a blue-ribbon Phase II committee of hand-picked Academy members to whittle the Phase I panel’s shortlist down to the final five nominees — a riposte to the frequent accusation that the all-volunteer Phase I committee was unfavorably disposed to more challenging, thought-provoking art films. To overcome it, committee chair Mark Johnson implemented an other oversight panel at the Phase I stage, charged with selecting three of the nine “shortlist” films, with the larger group still responsible for the remaining six. And in the four years since, this system has unquestionably produced a more varied and vital slate of nominees, including such films as Belgium’s “Bullhead,” Greece’s “Dogtooth” and Peru’s “The Milk of Sorrow” that almost certainly wouldn’t have made it to the shortlist under the old rules.

For all the evident improvements, the process by which individual countries choose their submissions has remained unchanged: picture a United Nations of cinema, only without any election supervisors to ensure standards from one territory to the next. In some places, like Israel and Spain, the official Oscar candidate is determined by that country’s equivalent of the Academy — a large voting body comprising filmmakers and other industry professionals. In others, like France and Russia, the decision falls to a small panel.

In both cases, these submitting bodies have come up with surprising or even startling choices, well before the current controversies surrounding India and Japan. In 2002, Spain caused quite a ruckus by submitting the Javier Bardem stevedore drama “Mondays in the Sun” over Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her” (which went on instead to earn director and original screenplay nominations, winning the latter). And in 2011, Russia’s decision to submit Nikita Mikhalkov’s widely panned “Burnt by the Sun 2” (admittedly, the sequel to a past foreign-language winner) over the more acclaimed “Elena” or “Faust” sparked an uproar between the members of the Russian Oscar committee themselves.

Nowhere is the Academy’s diplomatic impetus more evident than in that the foreign-language statuette, while accepted by the director of the winning film, is technically awarded to the country of origin. (Which leads one to ponder: has Haneke’s Oscar for “Amour” been put on display in the Kunsthistorisches?) And while this all might have made perfect sense when the award was first deployed, at a time when foreign films were just starting to attract wide attention in America and Hollywood cinema had not yet wrought its scorched-earth policy upon the rest of the world, do we still need a United Nations of cinema in an age when there is a film festival in every port and international films (even foreign television) can be streamed in our living rooms at the touch of a button?

“I do think a question we have to examine is if in this day and age it’s correct to give an Oscar to a country,” Johnson says. “Part of it, and I’ve heard this time and time again from filmmakers, is how incredibly important the award is to the national filmmaking community and to the country itself. It’s often very, very important in terms of the promotion of film support from the government, because it’s a source of great national pride. Whether or not that would somehow be diminished if the award went to the director and not the country, I don’t know, but that whole area is something we’re examining.”

But what about a page-one rewrite on how foreign-language entries are selected in the first place? In his guest column, Bailey voices the possibility of abolishing the one-film, one-country system and basing eligibility on those foreign films that open commercially in the U.S. in a given calendar year. It sounds reasonable enough, until you take into account that such a system would double if not triple the candidate pool, making it impossible for any committee to view all the entries. When the documentary Oscar process was similarly opened up last year, with the old committee system giving way to nominating by the entire documentary branch, voters found themselves deluged with DVDs of some 130 eligible titles. Where, indeed, to begin?

“We have 76 movies this year and we physically can’t see many more than this,” says Johnson of the foreign-language committee. “If we were to open it up to certain countries having more than one submission — forget about whether or not that’s fair, it gets to a point where I don’t physically know how to do it. We have this great committee of dedicated, hardworking people. Tonight I’m going to see a double feature, so we’ll be there at 7:30 and get out about 11:30, and then again Wednesday night, Friday night and Saturday morning.

It’s really demanding in a short amount of time, and I don’t know how to take any more.”

A somewhat less drastic measure, supported by Bailey, Sehring and others, would involve identifying certain key festivals as Academy-qualifying events, whose top prizewinners (Golden Bear, Palme d’Or, Golden Lion, et al.) would automatically become official Oscar submissions, thereby alleviating the need for them to be chosen by their respective countries. A similar festival-qualifying process exists in the Academy’s short-film categories. But even then, there are no sure bets.
“When you’re talking about awards for movies, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a perfect process,” says Sehring. And that, at least, is something everyone can agree on.