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Great Films, Few Voters: Oscar's Foreign-Language Problem

In one of Oscar's strongest categories, the film that wins is simply the one that connects with the small group that sees all the films

It's safe to say that the Mexican film "Biutiful" has more fans in the Academy than all of its contenders in the Best Foreign-Language Film category.

And that won't mean a thing for the film's chances of winning.

Biutiful"Biutiful" and its fellow nominees --- Algeria's "Outside the Law" ("Hors La Loi"), Canada's "Incendies," Denmark's "In a Better World" and Greece's "Dogtooth" – are in one of the few Oscar categories where you can't vote unless you've seen all five nominees.

Also read: Can Oscar's Foreign-Language Problems Ever Be Fixed?

And as AMPAS foreign-film screenings wind down after the recently concluded Foreign Film Weekend at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater, those who've attended the films say that crowds have been sparse, with screenings typically attracting fewer than 200 people (which includes both voters and their guests).

This is a category in which the final vote will likely be made by a few hundred people, rather than the nearly 6,000 eligible to cast ballots in most of the other races. 

In a Better WorldChances are good that "Biutiful" will be viewed by more Academy members than the other four films combined, because star Javier Bardem also received a Best Actor nomination, the film is in theatrical release and Roadside Attractions has screened it aggressively.

But even if a voter saw and loved "Biutiful" – or "In a Better World" or "Incendies," the films most likely to be its main competition – he or she can't cast a Foreign-Language ballot without seeing the other nominees as well. This means that the voting body will be restricted to the number of people who went to see the least-attended of the nominees. 

In an attempt to make sure its fans know the rules and can see all the other contenders, Roadside's Academy ads for "Biutiful" have lately included screening information for all the other nominees as well. 

And as time winds down on what is one of the strongest and most varied of any of the Oscar categories, it's possible to glean a few things about the race in a category where the usual rules for predicting Oscar wins don’t apply.

DogtoothFor one: "Biutiful," which on the face of it might seem to be too dark and unrelenting for the often-conservative voters in this category, has been playing extremely well in its Academy screenings, according to those in attendance.

Also: Susanne Bier's "In a Better World," which in a way fits the mold of usual winners more closely, has been well-received and could easily take the prize as well. As could Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies," the category's third heavyweight.

Also read: Susanne Bier Looks for 'Better World' in the Mainstream

And: "Dogtooth," probably the most bizarre film ever nominated in this category, has not the slightest chance of winning, and has also stirred up anger among voters who can't understand why it was nominated.

To come out on top in this category, it doesn't really help to be the film with the biggest buzz, the most critical respect or the most fans. Instead, the film that wins is simply the one that connects with a smallish group of Academy voters when they watch the films.

IncendiesSo last year the less-heralded Argentinian film "The Secret in Their Eyes" beat the far more high-profile "The White Ribbon" and "A Prophet." The year before that, the largely unseen Japanese film "Departures" won over tougher fare like "The Class," "Revanche" and "Waltz With Bashir."

By my reckoning, based on conversations with voters and reports from Academy screenings, "Biutiful" may have a slight edge over "In a Better World," with "Incendies" close behind. "Outside the Law" and especially "Dogtooth" are bystanders.

Outside the LawWith a final night of screenings remaining, each film will end up showing five times for members in Los Angeles, twice in New York and once in San Francisco and London. In L.A., four of the five screenings take place at the 286-seat Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood; last weekend's took place at the 1,012-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy's Beverly Hills headquarters.

But they didn't need all those seats. According to people in attendance, fewer than 200 people attended the noon Saturday screening of "Incendies" at the Goldwyn, which likely means about 100 voting members. Fewer saw "Biutiful," which followed, though their applause was louder. And when "Outside the Law" screened at nine p.m. that night, the crowd was estimated to be fewer than 100 (and the audience reaction negligible).

It'd be nice to think that the rest of the Academy has already caught up to all the foreign nominees, but I can't say that I'm optimistic.