Oscar’s Foreign Language Chair Promises Big Changes After This Year’s Awards

Change is imminent, says Mark Johnson, head of the Academy’s foreign-language committee

OscarWrap_Race-Begins-2013-coverA version of this story first appeared in OscarWrap: The Race Begins

As the Academy’s foreign-language screening process heads into its final three weeks and 21 screenings, the man who leads the committee told TheWrap that big changes may be in the works for the controversial three-part system.

This year, 76 films were submitted by AMPAS-credentialed bodies in their home countries – a list that set a new record in the category, but notably didn’t include the acclaimed “The Lunchbox” and “Like Father, Like Son,” which were passed over by the Indian and Japanese selection committees, respectively, and the Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” whose French distributor refused to move up its release date to meet academy requirements.

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All 76 films are currently being viewed by volunteer members of the Academy; their top six choices will go onto a shortlist that will be announced before Christmas, joined by three additional selections made by a hand-picked executive committee. Two additional round-two committees will then view the nine semi-finalists and choose the five nominees.

Mark Johnson, one of the architects of that system, has returned after a year off to chair the Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee for the 12th time in the last 13 years. Johnson, who just won an Emmy for producing “Breaking Bad” to go with the Oscar he won for “Rain Man,” told TheWrap that change is definitely on the agenda.

This year, most of criticism of the foreign-language race has been directed not at the two-stage process, but at the idea that there might be something wrong with the one-country, one-film process, because some countries aren’t submitting their best films.
I’ll start off by saying that I’m quietly thrilled that now we’re complaining about what’s being put in the hopper, as opposed to how our filters are working. And I think even the old guard, the people that have been on the foreign-language committee for a while, have accepted that we’re not going to overturn that particular process.

But this year, we are missing films that maybe we should have, and I do think we have to find a different way to deal with that side of the process. I don’t know how to do it. In the current system, each country has its submitting body, and we respect those institutions to deliver us what they think is their best film. We try to be rigorous in approving the selection committees, but it’s clear that there are certain movies we’re missing, that were not submitted for reasons that we think are in some cases other than aesthetic ones.

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And I don’t know how to tamper with that. It would be the height of arrogance to go in and say to somebody, “No, you’re submitting the wrong movie.”

So then you have to radically look at how films are submitted in the first place. Do we have some wild card entries? Do you automatically add the movies that won four or five of the major festivals? Or should it be just the best foreign-language films out there, and maybe there will be three from France and two from Italy? I would hate to not find a film that is worthy enough from any small country, because one of the things I’m proud of is that we see more movies from more countries than any other competition out there.

Since you returned to the committee, have you had conversations about changing things?
At the first meeting after I got back, I posed a lot of big questions, many of which you just heard. Is the structure of this wrong? Is the award itself mislabeled? Should we reshape it? I posed all those questions to the executive board, and said, “When we meet again, let’s all have some answers.”

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Do you expect significant changes after this year’s awards?
Yes, I do. I really do. You know, we made the big changes [in 2008] with the executive committee and the phase-two process, and I think we’ve been celebrating those changes for too long. Those are good, but what else can we do to make it better? I’m sure we’re going to do something big.

This year, you’re asking your members to see and judge 76 movies in about two months. Are you overloading them?
Well, I don’t know how we can physically do any more than this. I’m really proud of the fact that you have to see them on film, the way they’re intended, and see them with an audience. It’s not like a DVD that you can turn off and go eat a ham sandwich in between. But I saw two last night, there are two Wednesday night, two Friday night, two Saturday and two Sunday. It’s next to impossible.

Also read: Academy’s 76 Foreign Language Entries Set New Record

On that subject of theaters vs. DVD, let’s talk about a change that has already happened. In the final vote this year, members will receive screeners of the five nominees for the first time, and will no longer be required to see them in a theater before voting. Are you worried about how that could affect the voting?
I was not the chair last year when that decision was made. And I would have been a little bit more cautious about it. I have heard from a number of foreign-language filmmakers who have won this award in the past and are very upset with this new rule, because they don’t think their film would have won if it had been in effect. Yes, it was a shame that it was such a small group of actual voters [in the past], but the beauty of it was these were people who had actually seen all five films on a screen. Consequently, while there were fewer votes, the votes that did come in were really informed and had their integrity intact.

I’m not suggesting that this isn’t going to work. I just think that we need to be really rigorous in making sure that everybody does see all five. We have to hammer down the fact that if you’re going to vote in the foreign language film category, please, please, please make sure you see all five films.

Directors like Pedro Almodovar have been critical of the idea that the film officially goes to the country that submitted it, not the filmmaker who made it. Should that change?
I would like to put the director’s name on the Oscar, and I’m going to try to get the Board of Governors to accept that. It’s not the country that made the movie. I love the idea that it’s a matter of pride for the national cinema of the winning country, but I know it’s important to the directors, as it should be.