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Changes in the Controversial Oscar Foreign-Language Process? Don’t Hold Your Breath

New AMPAS foreign-language committee co-chairs Bruce Davis and Ron Yerxa say they support the three-step process that went up under Mark Johnson


Voters in Oscar's foreign-language category who feel they were disenfranchised when controversial new rules went in place back in 2008 … don't expect any relief soon.


Producer Ron Yerxa (below) and former Academy executive director Bruce Davis (left) – who took over in August when longtime chairman Mark Johnson was forced to leave his office because of AMPAS term limits — don't plan to do any tinkering with the three-step process implemented iduring Johnson's tenure.

This is especially true in a year with a shortened Oscar schedule and a record number of entries, 71.

Although some longtime voters are unhappy with the system that uses hand-picked committees for the two final rounds of nomination voting, the new co-chairs told TheWrap that they support the current system, which has by most reckonings produced more adventurous and critically-approved slates of nominees.

With official AMPAS screenings of the submissions beginning on Oct. 12, members have now seen almost half the eligible films. The volunteers that make up the Academy's "general committee" for the foreign-language category are separated into three color-coded groups, each with a list of films to see; they have screenings three nights a week and Saturday mornings, though the schedule will accelerate in December.

AMPASAt that point, the Academy will shift to a two-week, six-days-a-week blitz, with 25 films screening in the 13 days between Dec. 3 and the end of the screenings on Dec. 17.

Among the screenings have been the two films thought by most category-watchers to be locks for the shortlist, Michael Haneke's "Amour" (Austria) and Eric Toledano's and Olivier Nakache's "The Intouchables" (France).

Also playing well, according to members at the screenings, were Norway's "Kon-Tiki," Denmark's "A Royal Affair" and the Czech Republic's "In the Shadow."

Also read: Oscar's 2012 Foreign-Language Submissions: The Master List (Complete)

When all the screenings have concluded, voters' scores are averaged and the six films with the highest numbers make the shortlist.  A 20-person executive committee then meets in private, looks at the general committee's choices, and adds three more films of its own choosing. (According to those with knowledge of the process, that's how recent nominees "Dogtooth" and "Bullhead" got in.)

A pair of phase-two committees then screen all nine shortlisted films over a three-day period, and pick the five nominees.

Yerxa and Davis talked to TheWrap about what will be a busy year for voters, and about their take on a process that is still under fire from some members.

How did you two end up as co-chairmen?
RON YERXA We were both asked by [Academy president] Hawk Koch.

BRUCE DAVIS The president appoints the chairs of all the committees each year. He had us both on his short list, and he asked us if we'd be willing to work together. It's been pretty tense, but I think we're doing okay. [laughs] It's a tag-team chairmanship.

The changes that have been made to the foreign-language process are closely identified with Mark Johnson, but I always had the impression that you two were supporters. Do you plan to continue in same vein?

DAVIS I do too. This has been an awards category that I have taken a great interest in for years now, and I very much supported tinkering with the voting that took place under Mark's chairmanship.

red groupThis year, you have more submissions in the category than ever before, and less time in which to see them.
DAVIS Nicely put.

YERXA Exactly. That's created a crunch. It created additional Wednesday nights for the last three weeks, and starting Dec. 3 every day of the week except Sunday.

DAVIS It's tricky, and to be honest we don't get into the fine work of actually doing the scheduling. Torene Svitil on the [AMPAS] staff has the large supply of headaches there.

And it's not just squeezing them all in, though that certainly has become an exquisite problem this year. But you want to spread them out geographically, you want to give all the three groups some pictures to look at from the various continents available, and length plays a role. There are all kinds of things, and she does a great job laying it all out.

white groupEven with the larger number of entries, you downsized from four separate groups of voters to three. Why?
YERXA We just thought early on that it simplified the process. With four, it created a schedule with more staggered nights. You weren't really "the Saturday group" or "the Monday night group," just because of the logistics of scheduling the Goldwyn theater. Initially, our mantra was "let's make it nice and simple," and that seemed to be a small move in that direction. Of course, with more films it made the bar a little higher as far as how many films people have to see for their vote to be counted.

Since you've increased the number of films in each section from 16 or 17 last year to 23 or 24 this year, have you lowered the percentage of films that each voter has to see for his votes to be eligible?
YERXA I believe it used to be 70 percent, and we moved it down to 65.

DAVIS There have been years when it was 80 percent in your group. And you don't have to see them all in your group – if you don't quite see the requisite number in your group, for every three films you see outside your group, you get credit for two films in your group. We actually like that kind of cross-fertilization. We don't like for the three sub-groups to be completely isolated.

So far, has the level of participation been commensurate with the past?
DAVIS Very much the same. As Ron mentions, we've got a murderous December coming up, and we'll see if the numbers flag a little bit at that point. But we're not concerned that we won't have enough viewers to do the job.

The new system has been controversial among some members of the general committee.  I've received emails and calls from a number of members who aren't happy that their role ends after they've selected six of the nine films on the shortlist. One of them wanted me to ask you why you didn't consult with the members before making changes that "diluted our votes to the point of insignificance."
DAVIS That's silly. First of all, they get to pick the first six films. How is that insignificant? If the best five films pictures of a given year are within the six that they've picked, that's going to be recognized by the later round of voting, and they've picked all the nominees.

blue groupI know the gentlman you're talking about. He pretends to speak for an enormous subsection of the committee, and in fact he's got just three guys who stand around and grumble. And they are upholding the system that really wasn't working very well. It was by no means a failure, but the key change in the committe came the year that "City of God" was eligible. It was not one of the nominees in the foreign-language category, but the rest of the Academy gave it four major nominations [directing, writing, cinematography and film editing]. And at that point it became difficult to argue that this committee wasn't for whatever reason a little bit out of step aesthetically with the rest of the Acadmy.

And the reason we didn't do a lot of focus groups with the committee was that the changes came from the Board of Governors. The board said, "Fix this." We certainly respect the work that that big committee does in rating the best films out of a huge pile. That's a huge commitment of time, and you want good people dong it. But the system we've arrived at, I think, has been generally accepted as a significant improvement. Not that we weren't pretty much getting a really good winning picture every year, but the slate of nominees as a whole, I think, has been markedly stronger under this system.

I've only seen 15 of the 71 submissions so far this year, but I get the impression that it's a strong year in the category.
DAVIS Yeah. I think we all have a suspicion that it's going to be hard to get down to nine.

YERXA It's been true other years, too. I always say that there's roughly 20 exceptionally strong films, and another 20 that are really good. And some of them are just so interesting for what they show about the culture. They might not be the most sophisticated films, but what a window on another consciousness.