One Year Later, Oscar's Foreign-Language War Still Rages

Unconventional Greek film “Dogtooth” remains a flash point for voters who feel disenfranchised by blue-ribbon committees

A little less than a year after one of the most daring Oscar nominations ever, the defiantly odd Greek film "Dogtooth," voters are still steaming over the foreign-language process.

Mark JohnsonIn fact, according to one Academy member who's been voting in the category for decades, a groundswell is forming to end the unique three-level process that they say turns over too much control to an executive committee led by AMPAS governor and committee chair Mark Johnson (left).

The system makes Best Foreign-Language Film the only category in which Oscar nominations are determined by a small, hand-picked committee rather than a larger body of voters. 

"It's infuriating," one voter told TheWrap recently. "If the Directors Branch tried to do something like this, where the final nominations were made by a small group, the directors would raise hell. So would any other branch. So why do we have to put up with it?"

But Johnson and producer Ron Yerxa, the co-chair of the Foreign-Language Executive Committee, defend a system instituted in 2007 in which the body of voters chooses six films to be shortlisted, then steps back while the executive committee adds another three and a hand-picked phase-two committee determines the five nominees.

"The change came at the request of the Board of Governors," Johnson told TheWrap, "and the board keeps telling me how happy they are with the way things have turned out. I've said this before: It's about what's best for the movies, not what's best for the voters."

Also read: Reviewing Oscar's Foreign-Language Contenders: Sure Things and Longshots

In fact, added Yerxa, other Oscar categories might benefit from the same kind of tweaking.

"Whatever additional and therapeutic role the executive committee has played in the process is proving to operate quite well," he said. "And with all the people being worked up over films like 'The Interrupters' and 'Senna' being left off the documentary shortlist this year, I can't help but think that maybe something akin to what we do should be implemented in the documentary category."

Academy president Tom Sherak told TheWrap that he's aware of the criticisms — and, to some degree, sympathetic with them.

"Do I think the process is perfect?" he said. "No. We know it's not perfect. We know there are people who feel disenfranchised, and those complaints are listened to. We continue to talk to Mark and work on ways to make it better.

"And the key thing we need to work on, to my mind, is opening up the process so that more members can see the movies."

The current process was instituted by Johnson, with substantial input from the Academy's then-executive director Bruce Davis, in the aftermath of the 2007 Oscars, when voters prompted outrage by the failure of number of acclaimed foreign films — including Romania's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," Germany's "The Edge of Heaven" and Mexico's "Silent Light" — to make the shortlist.

Under the system in place since then, submissions made by each participating country (63 of them this year) are screened at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater for volunteers from all branches of the Academy. These volunteers, most of whom watch at least 15 films over three months, make up what is known as the general committee.

After each screening, voters score the film on a scale of seven to 10. Once all films have screened, the films with the top six scores advance to a shortlist.

At that point, the executive committee meets, looks at the general committee's selections and adds three additional films to the shortlist. Although the Academy will not release information about which shortlisted films were voted in by the general committee and which were saved by the executive committee, numerous insiders confirm that "Dogtooth" was a save last year.

Also read: Here's Who Put 'Dogtooth' on the Oscar Shortlist

Finally, two more committees view the nine shortlisted films over a three-day weekend. These committees, a 20-person group in Los Angeles and another half the size in New York, are made up of 10 randomly-selected members of the general committee, plus 20 others recruited by Johnson and Academy officials.

Their votes determine the five nominees – and because this group is closer in makeup to the executive committee than to the general committee, the three executive committee "saves" tend to be well-represented on the list of nominees, Johnson told TheWrap.

4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 DaysIn recent years, this committee has included the likes of actors Ryan Gosling and Keanu Reeves, directors Jonathan Demme and Nora Ephron, writer Dustin Lance Black and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

The system almost certainly has resulted in strong slates of nominees that more closely match the critical consensus on international cinema, as well as minimizing shocking snubs like "4 Months" (although the committee's decision not to save the Italian film "Gomorrah" in 2008 raised eyebrows). 

But in setting up a system in which the main body of voters can only choose two-thirds of the shortlist, and in which all but 10 of them are then pushed aside for a blue-ribbon committee, Johnson and the Academy have angered voters.

Over the past month, I've gotten phone calls from members angry over the system, and heard them bash the executive committee at the foreign-language screenings and receptions that have proliferated this year under looser Oscar campaign rules.

"I've been on the general committee for 30 years, and it's an interesting, diverse group of people who are capable of nominating great films on their own, even if their nominations aren't to Mark Johnson's personal taste," said one member, who added that he'd been asked to join the round-two committee but declined because he didn't believe that committee should even exist.

"He says he's doing this to get better nominations — but it's really just his personal taste, what he thinks should be nominated."

Johnson disputes this. "Unless I'm missing something, I only get one vote," he said, adding that the executive committee and the round-two committee are made up of "strong individuals," many of whom have been participating in the foreign-language process longer than Johnson.

The Oscar-winning producer ("Rain Man") has served as chair of the executive committee for 12 years, three years longer than Academy bylaws normally allow. (A separate rule allows members of the Board of Governors to serve longer.) This should be his final year chairing the committee, he said.

As for the disgruntled members who told TheWrap that they're thinking about circulating a petition demanding an end to the special committees, Johnson said they're approaching the issue from the wrong direction.

"I'm sorry there are people who are not pleased," he said. "But if they're upset that other people are getting involved in the process without seeing as many movies or doing as much work as they're doing, they're missing the point.

Dogtooth"It's a privilege to see these movies. We want as many people as possible involved in the process – and those phase-two committees are not only representative of the Academy at large, they're all people at the top of their branches."

Of course, those people at the top of their branches happened to nominate "Dogtooth" (right), a film that by all reports was hated  by the general committee. And the ones who hated it haven't forgotten.

"It was all Mark Johnson's doing," fumed one member at a recent foreign-language screening. "He has these little committees, and they forced that one through."

In fact, according to some of those who participated, Johnson was not  one of the staunchest supporters of "Dogtooth" when the executive committee put it on the shortlist. But he does applaud the nomination.

"We are so proud of the nomination of 'Dogtooth,'" he said. "I've heard from so many people, whether or not they like the movie, about how it shows the world that we are unpredictable, not safe or conventional, and open to experimentation."

Tom Sherak, for his part, believes that technology, particularly streaming, may help make the submitted films accessible to more members, increasing participation in the process. "I want people to be able to see these movies and vote on them," he said. "This system will always be a work in progress until we can get these movies to all our members who want to see them."

In the meantime, if members think they've been disenfranchised by the system responsible for "Dogtooth," its architects are unapologetic.

"There are different forms of democracy," said Yerxa. "I think this one has worked out pretty well. And the fact that there's controversy is good, because it means we're putting forth some provocative films."