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The Academy's Lousy Foreign Film Policy (Analysis)

10:21 AM PST 01/13/2012 by Stephen Galloway
Anila Jaho/Sundance Selects; Habib Madjidi/Sony Pictures Classics

Tricky rules make some of the best international films ineligible for Oscar.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Several of 2011's most acclaimed foreign films, including Angelina Jolie's Bosnian-language In the Land of Blood and Honey and Albania's The Forgiveness of Blood, are ineligible for best foreign-language picture at the Oscars. So is France's The Artist, meaning it could well win best picture but won't contend in the foreign-language category.

That's because the Academy continues to follow a series of restrictive, arcane and outmoded rules. True, they got a facelift when the Academy loosened up the process three years ago, but some of the world's most admired pictures still are excluded.

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"I don't know if the system is fixable without a complete overhaul," says Bob Berney, president of theatrical at distributor FilmDistrict.

Changing the rules could affect the bottom line for several films, guaranteeing U.S. distribution and sometimes millions at the box office. Witness the success of Oscar winners such as The Lives of Others (2006) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which earned $11.3 million and $128 million, respectively.

"A nomination gives the film a profile and a cachet that really helps," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, whose company has won four of the past five foreign-language statuettes and is releasing this year's front-runner, Iran's A Separation.

Here's how the system works: Each country is allowed one submission, chosen by its equivalent of the Academy. Partisanship, jealousy and infighting frequently mean a country's best movie does not become its official contender -- as was the case with Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her (2002), snubbed by Spain. The Academy also must deem the film properly representative of its country. This year, Albania's first pick, Joshua Marston's Forgiveness, was disqualified because it didn't have enough Albanians in key behind-the-scenes roles -- something Marston (Maria Full of Grace) calls "ridiculous." Similarly, Jolie's film, which employed only actors from the now-splintered Yugoslavia, wasn't chosen to rep any one country.

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Having just one submission means countries such as France and Italy that make multiple quality pictures each year must exclude terrific contenders. France selected Valerie Donzelli's Declaration of War rather than The Artist.

Once submissions are in, all the contenders (63 this year) are viewed by the Academy's foreign-language selection committee, which consists of any Academy member prepared to sit through a hefty number of pictures. They are divided into four color-coded groups, and each member must see at least 80 percent of the pictures in his or her group. Few active members have the time this requires, which means older and retired members figure heavily among the voters -- hardly a crowd likely to pick the most avant-garde movie of the year. About 300 vote in all, grading each film on a scale from 7 to 10, and their scores are averaged out -- meaning if 10 people or 100 see a movie, it's their average score that counts.

The top six point-earners qualify for the shortlist, which this year will be announced Jan. 18. The nine-title shortlist includes three additional films chosen by a 20-person executive committee led by producer Mark Johnson (The Chronicles of Narnia). This additive power came into play in 2008, Johnson admits, after he was shocked when the broader committee failed to select 2007 Cannes Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

The super-committee consists of such prominent figures as director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and writer Michael Tolkin, and there's no question their additions have improved the category.

Once the nine films are named, they are screened during one weekend (Jan. 20 to Jan. 22) for 20 invited voters in Los Angeles and 10 in New York. Those voters comprise a few random Academy members and others specifically named by Johnson, who attempts to find a distinguished range of Academy veterans across all fields. They decide the five nominees, which are unveiled the same day as the other Oscar nominees, Jan. 24.

Now for the next complication: Any member can vote on the winner but must give proof that he or she has seen all five nominees. Oh, and the voters can only see the movies in a theater, not on DVD. "I don't know what the argument for that is," says Berney.

Simple, says Johnson: "In a perfect world, nobody should be seeing movies on DVD."

True, but in a perfect world, Land of Blood and Honey and Artist would be front-runners for the foreign-language Oscar.

PAST 5 FOREIGN-LANGUAGE OSCAR WINNERS

  • 2010: In a Better World (Denmark)
  • 2009: The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)
  • 2008: Departures (Japan)
  • 2007: The Counterfeiters (Austria)
  • 2006: The Lives of Others (Germany)
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