On Thursday night, the shortlist of nine contenders for best foreign-language film will emerge from a set of strict and sinuous Academy rules. The behind-the-scenes process of getting there is the most pretzel-twisted and labyrinthine of any Oscar category, which is why so many argue that going back to something simpler — and digital — might be best.
In Los Angeles only, Academy screenings of 85 countries’ official submissions began in mid-October with Iran’s “The Salesman;” since then, foreign film czar and Academy Governor Mark Johnson told me, about 300 Los Angeles members from all Academy branches have watched movies from Albania to Vietnam. However, not every member’s vote may be counted. Each member is assigned to one of four groups; each group is assigned a set of films. Depending on their group, a member must view and rate the right number of films (at least 13-15), depending on the group, for any of their ratings to count.
The last screening was December 12. Oscar accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers have tallied the ballots and counted who’s seen the requisite number of movies. From there, they will tabulate a list of the six top-ranked films.
To reach the list of nine, three more are added by the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee that votes on Thursday afternoon. That group is comprised of 20 or so members, said Johnson, who have qualified for voting status, and has included such veterans as former United Artists executive Marcia Nasatir, Roadside Attractions co-head Howard Cohen, and producer Ron Yerxa (“Nebraska”), all hand-picked by Johnson. (For a closer look at the films I think will make the shortlist of nine, take a look at our gallery.)
Why the extra committee? It’s a little like the Electoral College: Johnson and others in the Academy don’t entirely trust Academy voters to pick the best foreign-language movies of the year. There is no branch of experts like, say, Art Directors or Documentary, to pick the best films. It’s a smattering of voters with the time and energy (read: retired) to devote to sitting through as many as 15 films in screening rooms. And during Phase I, publicists do their best to cater to them with glamorous luncheons and filmmaker Q&As, much like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
For years, ever since movies like “Run, Lola Run” and “City of God” were left out of the foreign selection, the Academy foreign voters picked nine and then a Phase II special committee picked the final five.
But after 2008, when the voters still left off Cristian Mungiu’s acclaimed Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” and Marjane Satrapi’s animated “Persepolis,” Johnson added the executive committee. “I remember saying, ‘My taste was not represented here,'” he told me. “So we came up with the change.”
One of the great parlor games in Hollywood is guessing which movies made the top six on their merits and which were added by the committee. (It is accepted wisdom that last year’s winner “Son of Saul” would not have made the final five without the committee.)
Often, Johnson is so open about his favorites that the answer becomes obvious. For example, if Germany’s three-hour comedy “Toni Erdmann,” which won five European Film Awards last weekend, is on the cusp and doesn’t make the first six, the committee will step in and no one will be the wiser. (Watch my video interview with stars Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek below.)
Is this a perfect system? Nope. Oscar watchers and Academy members have debated the best way to choose these films for years. Foreign Oscar voters insist that they are perfectly able to make their own picks.
Up next, another Johnson-picked Foreign Language Film Award Committee of 30 people — 10 in New York, 10 in Los Angeles, 10 in London — will screen the nine shortlisted films and vote by secret ballot to determine the category’s five nominees. He’s lining up his starry gang right now; while Johnson is proud of who he has landed, many don’t know who they are until they show up at the party. Last year the voters included Meryl Streep, Bennett Miller, Jesse Eisenberg, Lupita Nyong’o and Richard LaGravenese, and in London, Working Title’s Tim Bevan, Hugh Grant, and David Hare, and Johnson cites their integrity. “The last five winners: ‘Amour,’ ‘A Separation,’ ‘The Great Beauty,’ ‘Son of Saul’ are remarkable movies,” he said. “Those kinds of movies were never selected before.”
While Johnson is an enthusiastic supporter of foreign films and mounts the annual director symposium the week before the Oscar show, as well as a swell pre-Oscar party for the nominees, some say Johnson is too powerful, swaying his committees to vote for the films he supports each year: “We all sit there and bang our shoe on the table for a particular movie,” he said.
After the final nominations come in, everyone in the Academy gets screeners and pinky-swears on their honor that they’ve seen all five films before they vote. There’s a rousing tide of members arguing that it’s time to go digital and let a larger group vote on the foreign films as they do the animated films, from the comfort of their home via the Roku or Apple TV of their choice.