New name, same category, new problems. Over the past decade, reforms to the submissions, voting and nomination procedures for the foreign-language feature category — now dubbed international feature — have led to a stronger and edgier group of nominees. But this year, the disqualification of a couple of submitted titles and concern over other rules has some publicists are calling for tweaks.
One reason for the concern is that two titles were disqualified after international feature submissions closed on Oct. 1. In November, Nigeria’s first-ever submission, “Lionheart,” helmed by Genevieve Nnaji, and Austria’s “Joy,” a quasi-documentary drama about Nigerian sex workers in Vienna from Sudabeh Mortezai, were declared ineligible because they were deemed to contain more than 50% English-language dialogue. Clearly, the 95-minute “Lionheart” features only about 10 minutes of Igbo dialogue and the rest English, which is the main language in Nigeria. The Austrian committee responsible for selecting the country’s submission and the creative team behind “Joy” dispute the grounds for their disqualification and have asked the Academy to reconsider because the dialogue is in a local dialect.
An Academy representative explains the reason for the late disqualification, when it was too late for the countries to change their submissions. The 90-plus submitted films are not viewed in advance of the submission deadline; rather, they are viewed over the following months to determine eligibility prior to the preliminary voting, which begins on Dec. 6. With so many films, the Academy’s list announced Oct. 7 was a submission compilation and not one for eligibility. Also, the Academy doesn’t communicate with the filmmakers or distributors directly but with the various commissions that enter the films.
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Meanwhile, publicists flag a change in the way the phase one voters will view films as a concern. In the recent past, the submitted titles were divided into four color-coded groups, and the L.A.-based Academy members who took part in the first round had to see at least three-fourths of the titles in one of the groups on a big screen in order to vote. What’s changed now is that for the first time in the preliminary round, it’s not just L.A.-based members voting — any Academy member who sees the minimum of 15 eligible films in a theater is qualified to vote. This allows members from all over the world to participate. But given that they simply watch 15 films of their choice from among all the submissions, this alteration advantages buzzy titles, such as winners from big festivals or films from popular countries or regions.
The Academy presents a single screening of every submitted title, but sometimes things get in the way of viewing for individual voters, which is why the possibility to catch-up with publicist-arranged screenings is popular.
At the same time, newer Academy rules designed to address issues of excessive campaigning that were intended to level the playing field are affecting those catch-up screenings that usually involve a Q&A and a reception. A publicist speaking on background notes, “The rule that has really been a problem is making us have screenings and receptions in the same venue. That radically changes options, because the places that have reception rooms with screening rooms tend to be hotels or other high-end properties, so clients with smaller budgets are now forced to spend more so they can have a chance to campaign equally.”
Other publicists agree, saying that it is no problem for companies with sizable marketing budgets, but those without U.S. distribution and from poorer countries are at a substantial disadvantage.
Another point of concern is the cost of sending information or screeners to potential voters. Information sent to Academy members must go through approved mailing houses, with an email blast priced at between $800 and $1,200 (including a $250 administrative fee to the Academy each time).
The Academy rep says, “Now in its second year, the mailing house initiative, created to streamline the mailing of awards materials to Academy members, has received strong industry support, especially from our members. In addition to the ease it provides them, the initiative also helps to keep all things equal among each of the film campaigns. Everyone with an eligible film will have access to the same, official list, which contains the most reliable and up-to-date member contact information, and can be assured that their films and materials get into the hands of voters.”