The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has just released the list of a record-setting 76 contenders for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film category and members start viewing them in a two-month process that begins Friday night. But in a year that has produced any number of eye opening choices and omissions, there may be changes in store for next time that could significantly alter the process as it has been played for decades. One change could involve eligibility dates. Rules now state a country can’t enter a film unless it has opened in that country by September 30th of the qualifying year. That rule eliminated the high profile Cannes Festival Palme d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Color which doesn’t open in France until Wednesday, nine days after the cutoff date. It’s a rule that doesn’t really reflect the realities of international distribution these days as some American distributors have recently complained. The Academy has maintained it is necessary just so all the films can be screened in time before nominations have to be announced in January.
Also, continuing controversies due to the increasing politicization of the selection process of Foreign Language film entries in their individual countries could lead to what returning Foreign Language Committee Chairman Mark Johnson termed “radical” changes in the process and rules leading to the choice of the final five nominees.
Johnson, who returned to the Academy’s Board Of Governors recently and was tapped by new President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to come back to the job he had previously held for 12 years (last year producer Ron Yerxa and former Academy CEO Bruce Davis filled in), has always been fairly quick to react to controversial problems in the Foreign Language selection process. He created an opportunity for the smaller Executive Committee to make three choices of finalists that might have international renown but somehow were overlooked by the larger committee after movies like City Of God and Four Months, Three Weeks And Two Days were passed by. He also then created the rule of nine finalists and the uber committee of 30 higher profile members (including the likes of Meryl Streep who has served the past two years) who choose the ultimate five nominees after viewing the finalists over the course of a long weekend.
Now he may be willing to go further after such high-profile contenders and award winners were overlooked like Japan’s Cannes Jury Prize winner and IFC pickup, Like Father, Like Son (which Jury President Steven Spielberg admired so much he bought it for a Dreamworks English-Language remake) and India’s The Lunchbox (which opened Critics Week in Cannes and was considered a shoe-in for selection by India) being distributed in the U.S by Sony Pictures Classics. These were both strong contenders to actually take the Oscar but were instead passed over by their local selection committees for more obscure films. Japan selected young director Yuya Ishii’s The Great Passage, while India surprised with the largely unknown Gujarat multi-storyline film The Good Road causing much controversy among factions in the country . Neither has a U.S. distrib at this point.
And Lebanon’s widely praised film, The Attack from director Ziad Doueiri which Cohen Media has already opened in the U.S. couldn’t even get to first base since Lebanon banned it from local theaters due to a 1955 law that prohibits all contact with Israelis – it was partly shot in Tel Aviv with Israeli actors in some roles. Lebanon instead chose Ghadi, a social comedy set in a coastal town but even that didn’t make today’s final list and they ended up submitting Lara Saba’s Blind Intersections to meet Academy requirements. The Academy committee which met Friday morning also rejected the Czech Republic’s submission of Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush, a five-hour HBO project (as seen recently at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals to great acclaim) that was re-cut into a feature. Holland also is Polish and not from the Czech Republic which could have been a problem since Academy rules lean heavily toward qualifying films directed by natives of that particular country. Czech Republic regrouped over the weekend and submitted Jiri Menzel’s The Don Juans instead. And just to add to the political intrigue this year U.S. distributor Adopt Films has picked up both the Israeli and Palestinian entries, two warring countries where it might be easier to find a solution than on the Academy’s Foreign Language committee.
Johnson is quick to point out the movies actually selected could be very fine – or even better – so isn’t quick to judge. But on the surface of things he suggests it’s worth at least finally investigating a tweak to the process that currently gives carte blanche to each country to control the conversation and the movies chosen. The escalating controversies over films entered is only bound to continue. This is much like the changes Johnson has endorsed in the past that were made to ensure the finalists were also reflecting the best in international cinema. It would certainly be embarrassing to the Academy to see the Golden Globes with a stronger list of Foreign Language nominees. But of course HFPA rules are much looser and don’t allow countries to control the selection process.
“I think it’s time. We made some radical changes several years ago with the Phase Two committee and even with the shortlist of nine and I think we should probably re-examine a couple of key tenets of this category… Different people over the years have said various things: ‘what about a couple of wild cards? Or what about picking festival winners that for some reason weren’t submitted?’, but we’re going to radically look at that,” he said. But he cautions that it would be against Academy tradition for the committee to bring in films not submitted by their country, and as it stands right now the award goes to the country, not the director even though the director accepts it. It’s a perplexing problem to tackle. “I just don’t know. I think there are some new ways of looking at this. I want to be careful about looking at the movies from Japan and India ….We can’t meddle in it. All we can do is evaluate whether or not the submitting committee is a good representation of the filmmaking community (in that country). I always use the example of the Spanish Academy of being the ideal because it is an Academy very much like ours. They submit, we don’t always agree with it but that’s not our call, it’s theirs. And then we know that some committees are much more political.”
Johnson also noted he hopes to involve more people in the Phase Two part of the process where right now a committee of 10 members in New York and 20 in Los Angeles pick the final five nominees from a list of nine films that have survived the elimination process. Without offering specifics he suggests that perhaps they could expand that committee to other members in some way, most likely taking small steps in that direction.
Johnson also said he is going to be watching closely how the newest rule works. For the first time this season, the entire Academy will be allowed to vote on the final winner with DVD screeners of the final five nominees sent to everyone, much like the animated and documentary features and shorts categories have adopted. It’s another example of the Academy broadening its voter base up and down the ticket.
Up to now members who chose to vote for the Best Foreign Language Film had to certify they had seen the nominees in a theater. That limited the voting pool to just a few hundred at best. But Johnson’s clearly concerned that the new rule doesn’t taint the process. “That’s something I want to watch very carefully because it is central to being what this award is, and as legitimate as it is, that everyone sees all five. There are dark horses and movies from obscure countries that need to be seen. I am going to do my damndest to make sure that anybody who votes in this category absolutely has seen all five, ” he said although he admits there’s no way to really police it other than to hammer home how important this is.
Although last year’s winner, Amour probably would have won under any circumstance since it was also the rare foreign language film that was also a Best Picture nominee, others in the past may have had tougher sledding. With the new rule I would say 2006 contender Pan’s Labyrinth, a multiple nominee and winner of three other Oscar below-the-line categories probably would have beaten the then- more obscure German film The Lives Of Others just due to name recognition alone. What would have happened to other recent winners like Argentina’s The Secret In Their Eyes or Japan’s Departures which both triumphed over better known films?
Several films like the Indian non-entry The Lunchbox have already caused upset and consternation with the process even if distributor Sony Pictures Classics had been down this road before. SPC co-President Michael Barker was understandably upset but realistic about the process when I asked him about the snub. “As you know the category of Best Foreign Language Film is always unpredictable. We’ve been here before. It is always surprising when an obvious choice is not submitted as an entry. We’ve been there when Akira Kurosawa’s Ran was not submitted by Japan and Almodovar’s Talk To Her was not submitted by Spain. Needless to say we are deeply disappointed by India’s choice as the critical acclaim and the ovations at Telluride have more than established Lunchbox as an exemplary film and one of the finest of the year,” he said. Sony Classics will be represented in the competition this year via entries from Saudi Arabia with female director Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda which had to jump through hoops and loads of red tape to even be eligible since Saudi Arabia has no theaters and it had to qualify by setting up screenings in obliging foreign embassies inside Saudi Arabia. And by Asghar Farhadi’s The Past from Iran, which due to political issues didn’t even submit a film last year despite winning its first Oscar the previous year for Farhadi’s A Separation. Farhadi’s latest is essentially a French film causing local controversy in Tehran because some think it is not Iranian enough. The issues go on and on.
Hopefully Johnson and his committee will find new answers to the prickly questions that always seem to keep the Academy’s Foreign Language process consistently controversial.
Nancy Tartaglione, Deadline’s International Editor contributed to this story.