Oscar International Film Rule Changes Bring Unexpected Problems

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.

Popular on Variety

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.”

More Film

  • Mortal

    Saban Films Nabs U.S. Rights to André Øvredal Fantasy Thriller 'Mortal' (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” director André Øvredal’s next adventure will see a U.S. rollout from Saban Films. “Mortal,” starring “Death Note” breakout Nat Wolff, has sold domestic rights to the distributor In a deal brokered by Endeavor Content. TrustNordisk handled international rights. Saban president Bill Bromiley, currently on the ground at the [...]

  • Carey Mulligan poses for a portrait

    Carey Mulligan Suggests Oscar Voters Need to Prove They've Seen the Movies

    Carey Mulligan has made a conscious decision in recent years to collaborate with female directors, from Sarah Gavron (“Suffragette”) to Dee Rees (“Mudbound”). On Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival, she’ll unveil “Promising Young Woman,” a thriller written and directed by Emerald Fennell, about a heroine out for revenge after experiencing a traumatic abuse. [...]

  • Andy SambergVariety Sundance Studio presented by

    Andy Samberg Calls Hosting the Oscars a 'Bad Gig' -- That He'd Still Consider

    Andy Samberg has been a reliable favorite hosting awards ceremonies, in recent years emceeing the Independent Spirit Awards, the Emmys and the 2019 Golden Globes with Sandra Oh. So it’s only natural to wonder if Samberg would consider taking the reins on the Oscars, which will return again this year without a host. “They have [...]

  • Shirley

    'Shirley': Film Review

    Shirley Jackson was a real person, a writer best known for her twisted short story “The Lottery,” although the version presented in Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” feels more like a character from one of her own novels. Featuring “The Handsmaid’s Tale” actor Elisabeth Moss in the title role, this queer, hard-to-quantify psychological study isn’t a biopic [...]

  • Us Kids

    'Us Kids': Film Review

    The nonstop drama of the Trump White House has succeeded, among other things, in largely pushing gun control from the forefront of the news cycle — no doubt to the relief of the NRA and its allies, despite the continued frequency of U.S. mass shootings. As a result, and perhaps unfairly, Kim A. Snyder’s “Us [...]

  • Logan Paul Ninja Spree

    How Logan Paul and Ninja Helped 'Spree' Cast Capture Influencer Culture Gone Wild

    When it came to depicting the gonzo nature of influencer culture, “Spree” stars Joe Keery and Sasheer Zamata and director Eugene Kotlyarenko did a deep dive into the haves and have-nots of the internet. “Spree,” which premiered Friday at Sundance Film Festival, follows a rideshare driver named Kurt Kunkle (Keery) who will stop at nothing [...]

  • The Go Go's at Chicagofest in

    'The Go-Go's': Film Review

    In the terrific documentary “The Go-Go’s,” there’s a tasty clip of the band playing an early club gig in 1979, when they were part of the L.A. punk scene. They wear bushy black hair and pale white makeup (with rouge!), as if they were trying to be mannequin versions of Darby Crash, and they have [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content