Now that a record 92 countries have submitted foreign-language Oscar contenders, the Academy has to figure out what to do with them. Screening and ranking that many films is a challenging process, and Mark Johnson, chairman of the Academy’s foreign-language committee, knows that it’s time for an overhaul.
“Ninety-two is a scary number,” said Johnson. “It keeps going up every year. I think it’s imminent that we will make some radical changes on how we whittle these down. I remember it was not that long ago that I would see 60 movies, that was the bulk out of 80. Now, we’ll see.”
Johnson is working on the problem with the Academy’s erudite new president, cinematographer John Bailey, who once argued rigorously in favor of Bela Tarr’s black-and-white masterpiece “The Turin Horse.”
First steps include widening and diversifying the Academy’s volunteer foreign-language committee, which draws from all 17 branches of their voting pool. These members (who now include the once-barred marketing and distribution people who also represent many of the submissions) can watch the official screenings at two theaters, the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills or the Linwood G. Dunn in Hollywood. They also can get credit for movies they’ve watched on other big screens in commercial or festival showings.
“You have to have seen them theatrically,” said Johnson. “In theory, you can never set foot in Beverly Hills. As long as you are an Academy member who has seen enough to qualify, your votes would count.”
Photo by Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock
The move to screeners and online streaming is still in the future, although the documentary and animation branches already converted to that process. But it will come. “It’s inevitable that we will address theatrical film, at some point, and amend that,” said Johnson. “Our goal is for as many members to participate as possible, and as many foreign-based.”
To that end, some Academy members will be able to watch the shortlist of nine films at screenings in London, San Francisco, and New York as well as Los Angeles to come up with the final five nominees. The Academy also wants to invite more members to attend screenings in those cities. (The entire Academy gets to vote on the final five.)
Each foreign-language committee voter will sign up for one list of about 15 films, according to where they want to see them and on which night of the week, although they will get credit for watching any submitted film. “We need to have some demarcation,” said Johnson, “because we don’t want people to cherrypick France, Italy, or Germany and not be required to see some more obscure movies.”
For now, seeing these movies in their pristine theatrical state is mandatory. “The online option, it’s inevitable,” said Johnson. “Talking about streaming is taking up a big amount of our time.”