Can Dark Horses Survive Under the Oscars’ New International Voting System?

Rule changes in the Best International Feature Film category might make it difficult for smaller films to advance to the upcoming shortlist

"Corsage" (IFC), "All Quiet on the Western Front" (Netflix), "EO" (Sideshow/Janus)

There are lots of questions surrounding the Oscars shortlist voting that has now concluded in seven different categories, and will take place in sound, visual effects and makeup on Saturday. For instance: Can Diane Warren remain in the race for another Best Original Song nomination for a song from a movie that almost nobody has seen, “Tell It Like a Woman?” How many showbiz documentaries can advance to that shortlist? Will the insanely over-the-top visual effects of “RRR” make it the first Indian film to advance in that race?

But mostly, I’m wondering how this year’s new rules will impact the Best International Feature Film category and its 15-film shortlist, which will be announced on Dec. 21 along with all the other lists.

In a change that has caused a lot of concern among voters and category strategists, the international category this year separated its voters into 11 different groups, and required voters to see every one of the eight or nine films in their assigned group in order for their ballot to count.

(In the past, you had to see a minimum number of films, which was usually in double digits, but it was never mandatory to see everything in your group; voters had some leeway about what they could choose to view.)   

And a couple of weeks after that rule was revealed, a second major change dropped when voters were told that instead of scoring each film as they’d done in the past, they would simply be asked to rank their top 15.

The first of the rule changes does something very valuable: It makes sure that every one of the 92 eligible films will be watched by a reasonable number of voters. Under the old rule, a voter could look at a group of, say, 18, watch the highest-profile films and then pick up a few more from other groups; there was little doubt that some films were watched by a lot more voters than others. But if voters are divided evenly into 11 groups, and the voters in each group are required to watch all the films they’ve been given, no films can be lost in the shuffle. (The Documentary Branch does something similar.)

But the new rule requiring voters to watch every film in a group could also have the effect of driving some of them away. Particularly in the groups without any high-profile contenders (and there are definitely a few of those, since the biggest films are distributed more randomly than evenly), watching eight or nine films could become a burden. True, many members volunteers for this category for the pleasure of discovery — but it’s also true that at least a third of the films in any given year have virtually no chance of advancing, and getting a string of those in your group could start to feel like a chore rather than a pleasure.

And while the old system of giving each film a number score advanced the movies with the highest average score, the new method of listing your favorite 15 has the potential to reward the highest-profile watched by the most people. That rule could make it much harder for dark horses and surprises to sneak onto the shortlist – sorry about that, whatever this year’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” happened to be.

It also means that voters who could only watch their required minimum may end up listing every movie they saw on their ballots, giving improbably high placement even to films they didn’t like. Meanwhile, conscientious voters who’ve watched dozens of contenders will have to be far pickier about which films they list, in effect hurting what might be a very strong fifth, eighth or tenth pick. Will that force the shortlist to be distributed more evenly among all 11 groups, a couple of which on paper seem unlikely to produce a single shortlisted film?

That’s something to watch for: Will, say, “Argentina, 1985” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” both of which would seem to be locks for the shortlist, be penalized by the fact that they’re both in Group 9, alongside other contenders like “Cinema Sabaya” and “Eternal Spring?”

This year’s voting may turn out to be a balancing act between the thing that could increase the number of voters (lowering the number needed to vote) and the one that could decrease it (not giving voters choice in what they watch). And with the smaller groups of required films, it also means that most voters will have more catching-up to do in the second round, where you need to have seen all 15 of the shortlisted films in order to vote. That could reduce the number of participants in the crucial Phase 2, which takes 15 shortlisted films and selects the five nominees. 

The new rules are well-intentioned and there’s a chance they’ll increase participation in a category that to all appearances has always been measured in the hundreds of voters rather than the thousands. But they’re also a risk—although, to be fair, the air of secrecy that surrounds Oscar voting means that we’ll never really know whether they work or fail.

In the meantime, watch for Germany, Belgium, South Korea and Norway to breeze onto the shortlist, for Mexico and Poland to have enough fans to make it as well, and for Argentina, Austria, Denmark, France and maybe Ukraine to make it as well. And then keep an eye on Venezuela, Spain, Morocco, Sweden, Pakistan, India, Ireland, Italy and Cambodia – and cross your fingers for the dark horses who’ll be fighting an unfriendly new system.