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Oscar’s Next Challenge: Making Foreign-Language Voting Fair

After dealing with the revoked nomination for song this week, the folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are about to embark on another historic twist to the usual procedure, this time in the foreign language category. This experiment could have a huge effect on voting results; the problem is, there is no way to measure whether the experiment is working or not.

For decades, anyone who wanted to vote in the foreign-language race needed to show proof that they’d seen all the contenders. But this year, all 6,028 qualified voters can decide, without offering proof. And that’s worrying a lot of people. But the Academy could fix the potential problems.

Before the polls open Feb. 14, AMPAS will send out screeners of all five nominated films: “The Broken Circle Breakdown” (Belgium), The Great Beauty” (Italy), “The Hunt” (Denmark), “The Missing Picture” (Cambodia) and “Omar” (Palestine). The screeners will be accompanied by a letter from foreign-language committee chairman Mark Johnson, urging members to see all five before voting in that category.

Contacted by Variety, Johnson declined to elaborate, except to stress, “We will do everything we can to make sure people see all five.”

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It won’t be easy.

Many voters don’t have time to see every single contender. And it’s human nature to think “I’ve seen four, that’s close enough.” For example, you may have seen four costume-design contenders, and seen photos of the fifth; you may have heard all five music scores without having seen the entire film. You might think that’s sufficient — though of course, it’s not.

The foreign-language category is unique. Many of these films have challenging subject matter and some strategists worry that voters will stop watching a screener after 20 minutes if they’re not immediately engaged. And subtitles can present a challenge on a smallish screen.

Of course, every voter should see every contender in every category, or decline to vote in that particular race. But will they?

Sony Pictures Classics has had many nominees and wins in the foreign-lingo race, and SPC’s Michael Barker observes, “This is a new way of voting, and if Academy voters don’t respect it, the category loses credibility.”

There are two solutions. Under the honor system, Acad voters either see all five or decline to vote. Four out of five won’t cut it.

Alternately, with the new electronic voting, the Academy could borrow a page from BAFTA. When BAFTA members log in for final balloting, they are asked to check all the films they have seen. If there are categories where the member has not seen all the nominees, the voter is invited to abstain in that category or return after having watched all the contenders.

It’s a plan that could work for every Oscar category.

The foreign-language race is one of the crown jewels in the Oscar derby, even though it seems like a buried treasure. The mainstream media focuses on “money categories,” but this race is significant to the rest of the world. The Oscarcast is seen in 225 countries and this year, a record 76 countries submitted entries.

There is no clear front-runner for 2013. When there ARE favorites, it’s often a film that was most widely seen, which often means it had significant domestic distribution and thus more publicity.

It wasn’t surprising when frontrunners like Iran’s “A Separation” and Austria’s “Amour” won, but surprise winners keep the category interesting: “The Lives of Others”  won over front-runner “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006; and “The Secret in Their Eyes” won over “A Prophet” and “The White Ribbon” in 2009.

Some worry that the film with the most publicity will have a clear advantage with voters who don’t have to prove they’ve seen all entries.

If voters only watched three of the five, would buzz for the front-runner convince them they’d seen enough?

To their credit, AMPAS execs consider every rule to be a work in progress and they conduct annual post-mortems to see what worked. But this one will be hard to gauge without studying the numeric results — and PricewaterhouseCoopers honchos won’t reveal those. So there’s no way to determine how many people voted in the category compared to last year, or whether every voter had seen each film.

And the biggest unknown: How did the different rule affect the outcome?

An electronic-voting tweak is worth investigating. So is the idea of revisiting this decision. Meanwhile, Oscar voters have two choices: Either see all five, or don’t vote in the category. The whole world is watching.

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