Diane Weyermann and Larry Karaszewski are chairing the Academy’s Foreign Language Oscar executive committee for the first time this year, replacing Mark Johnson who had a nearly two-decade run. With 87 movies on the docket for consideration, and the shortlist reveal approaching on December 17, I spoke with them recently about what makes this race tick, its challenges and how they are expanding the group of voices who get a say as the Academy looks to become a more global enterprise.
This can be a controversial category (think: 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days or Elle being left off the shortlist) whose voting system has shifted over the years. Recently, the rule whereby members have to attend and vote for movies based on a specific color-coded group was kiboshed. In hopes of gaining more participation, Weyermann and Karaszewski also lowered the minimum required amount of films viewed to vote in Phase I to 12. Says Weyermann below, “We love this category, we love these films, we want them to be seen by as many people as possible.”
She is an industry veteran who is currently President of Documentary Film & Television at Participant Media (which backed last year’s FL winner, A Fantastic Woman and this year has Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma eligible). Writer-producer Karaszewski is an Emmy and Golden Globe winner whose credits include American Crime Story, The People Vs Larry Flynt and Ed Wood.
Here’s our chat:
DEADLINE: Coming in after Mark Johnson’s long run, what makes you two the right fit to lead the committee?
DIANE WEYERMANN: The committee is just one part of the voting, and Mark did an incredible job. We certainly all recognize that, but the Academy has rotations within every branch. I think one thing that seems to be not as well known is that there are hundreds of people that are participating in Phase I so it’s not that the committee or Larry and I have any great power over this process. This is a very democratic process. People who sign up and participate in Phase I are actively involved in the selection of six of the nine films that are (on the shortlist).
LARRY KARASZEWSKI: It’s really about the people who are the backbone of our Academy — whether it’s writers or producers or directors or costume designers — the people who take time out of their busy schedule and see six to eight movies a week almost. They’re there because of their love of cinema. I’ve been on this committee for a long, long, long time and I always call it the greatest film festival in the world because you really are seeing the best from every country, and every night you go, there’s some kind of surprise waiting for you.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about some of the changes you’ve implemented…
WEYERMANN: This year we no longer have the color category, so it’s really encouraging members to come to screenings and since the number is smaller than it has been in the past — it’s 12 films people have to watch in order to qualify to vote — the idea is, we love this category, we love these films, we want them to be seen by as many people as possible and really open up the voting process. The committee will also make sure that the films that maybe are the smaller films, or haven’t received the same type of exposure as some of the better known films, are also covered. We will be in charge of making sure that happens and possibly setting up extra screenings for the committee. We’re just trying to make sure that every film is seen and really considered.
DEADLINE: It seems every year the offerings get richer and richer. But this category has also had its fair share of controversy over the years. It’s got to be a massive task with so many voices from so many different places that are so interesting. What do you feel are the big challenges?
WEYERMANN: I would say that this year is an unbelievably powerful, really strong year. There are so many excellent, just fantastic films that have been put forward and it is really difficult. I mean, it’s great, I think that’s part of the excitement in participating in this process. You know, we have the opportunity to see extraordinary films that may be difficult otherwise to see. To the extent that we’ve spoken with people who are participating when we’ve seen them at these screenings, I think there is a very strong feeling among the committee and the people participating in Phase I that this year is exceptionally strong and it’s gonna be difficult. That’s a great thing I think because it means, to your point, countries are participating, filmmakers are excited to be part of this process and we’re seeing just extraordinary work.
KARASZEWSKI: Almost every time I’ve walked out of a screening I think, “Well that has to be one of the nominees.” This is an extremely exciting mix. We’ve got films from three directors that have previously won this category, three more from directors that have previously been nominated in the category. We’ve got like nine documentaries that are also up for Best Documentary — and we’re very excited that we have 20 films directed by women.
DEADLINE: To the point about documentaries, in 2016 director Gianfranco Rosi’s
Fire At Sea was up for both Foreign Language and Documentary, and some felt had a better shot at the latter so shouldn’t have been the Italian submission for FL. The notion has been put forward that the category should just be open to all foreign language movies rather than a country selecting a single entry. I’ve lived in France for 25 years, and the committee here can make some boneheaded decisions, for example. What do you think about that?
KARASZEWSKI: The problem with that is we obviously can’t see every foreign film in every country. As it is, it’s difficult to get us to see 90 films a year. So in a sense, our way of doing it is closer to, say, the Olympics where we tell every country to send their best — and yes, every once in a while that means that something gets left off. But France has won the Oscar many times, Italy has won the Oscar many times, so I don’t feel too badly for those countries. They seem to send a lot of really great films.
I think some countries try to overthink it and second guess, you know, “What’s an Academy film” as opposed to what they think actually the best film is. But I can’t see any other way of doing it unless you say a film has to open in Los Angeles and that would restrict it to a lot of other countries who couldn’t get a theatrical release in this country. As it is there’s almost too many films.
DEADLINE: One of the things that I have found so interesting about this category is the passion it inspires for the films and the filmmakers, once one really gets involved.
KARASZEWSKI: That was part of the reason to get rid of the color groups. There seemed to be all these zigs and zags you had to do in order to start the process. Diane and I felt that this is such a beautiful asset to the Academy members. So many people when I describe it, they all say they want to get involved and they couldn’t quite figure out how to get involved. If they missed the first couple of weeks because they were shooting a film, they would be all “I can’t just jump in, I’m a red group and that’s only on Wednesdays.” So, by simply saying to Academy members, “Come whenever you can,” we knew that once they came once or twice that all of a sudden they’d be hooked and they’d be like, “How many do I have to see before I qualify?” and then they’d keep going and going and before you know it, they’d seen 20 films.
WEYERMANN: The color groups were a barrier both psychologically and physically for many people. It put you into, “You have to go on X date as opposed to Y date” and it just didn’t allow for flexibility. People participating would look at the schedule and say, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to see 15 films, 18 films, 20 films.” In past years, there were higher numbers (required).
I totally agree with Larry that was a really big change and the other really big change, which started last year and that we completely support, is that in Phase II the voting is open to people all throughout Europe. So they’re streaming -– that used to not happen at all that there was any streaming or participation to a wider group of international members — and that resulted in a lot of people participating who are passionate.
DEADLINE: You’ve added a much wider offshore membership over the past few years and it seems only natural that they should all get to see these movies…
KARASZEWSKI: A lot of them are the actual foreign filmmakers who are in the Academy because of the films that were nominated from past years and they were not able to have a voice in this process because they just couldn’t get to Los Angeles to see the films in theaters. To have it open up, they feel like their voice is being included. It’s a case of the Academy trying to become a global operation.
But also one of the bigger changes too is anyone who qualifies to vote in Phase I Los Angeles does get to participate in Phase II as well. We’ll have screenings here to kind of reward people and keep people in the process because these are people who’ve given up their entire fall to see all these movies. We want their vote to count. They’ve made a big effort, so we want them to be taken seriously.
DEADLINE: So, you have six films that are voted upon for the shortlist by the general committee and then three, let’s call them “extra” movies. How do you intend to work with those?
KARASZEWSKI: What happens is in Phase I, the top six are selected automatically and then the executive committee gets together and basically says, “Is there anything that’s been sort of forgotten?” because people on the executive committee tend to have seen a lot more of the films and people in the room have seen almost every film that was submitted. So it’s a very long evening and a big discussion and people talk about films that aren’t on that six that might be worthy of inclusion. Then it’s voted on an additional three.
That’s where sometimes in the variances of voting something gets left behind that is actually quite an interesting film and moves on to Phase II where it gets whittled down to five and the executive committee has no choice in that five.
DEADLINE: Are you envisioning making any further changes to the category?
WEYERMANN: We’ll see how it goes this year, we’re open to suggestions and things that might work better, but for the moment we’re where we are.
KARASZEWSKI: When this is all finished, we’ll digest and see “Did this work? How can we improve this?” We’re always up for trying to improve the category.