Oscars Foreign Language Chief Hints at ‘Dramatic Changes’ in the Works

Mark Johnson says that changes “in the very near future” could affect the rule that requires voters to see the contending films in a theater

The Academy’s Best Foreign Language Film category has always had one hard-and-fast rule: To vote for a film in the nominations round of voting, you have to see it in a theater.

And despite recent rule changes designed to make it easier for voters to participate in the category, the longtime chairman of the Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee, Mark Johnson, told TheWrap on Thursday that the theaters-only rule remains in place.

For this year.

Maybe.

In an interview in which he clarified some of the new rules, Johnson said that the prohibition on voting for films after viewing them on screeners or screening links remains in place. But, he added, “Without being able to be specific, I think that we can anticipate in the very near future some changes in terms of whether or not you have to see a film theatrically.

“What we’re trying to do is to encourage as many members to be involved in the selection process as possible, and as many foreign-based members to be involved as well. Obviously, if you’re in Madrid, you can’t go to an official Academy screening. So I think we’re on the verge of making some dramatic changes.”

But could those changes affect this year’s race, in which members screenings of all 92 eligible films will begin a week from Monday? “Maybe,” he said. “I can promise that we have some very healthy discussions going on.”

For now, though, members who wish to vote in the category will need to see the eligible films at AMPAS screenings, which will take place at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn and Linwood Dunn theaters from mid October through early December, or at outside screenings of the films, including TheWrap’s Foreign Language Screening Series.

In the past, voters have been separated into different color-coded groups, each of which is asked to attend a series of specific screenings (typically double features). Those committees have been eliminated, with each member instead assigned a specific group of films to see.

But Johnson said that members who can’t make it to every film on the “required viewing list” will be able to make up for it by seeing other films. “You’ll need to see a minimum of about 15 for your vote to count,” he said. “What I keep telling everybody is to see as many as you can – and if you don’t see enough to qualify, you’ve still seen some great movies from around the world.”

The goal of the new rules, he said, is to make it more flexible for members to choose the films they see and the screenings they attend. And because the voters give each film a number grade on the scale of 6 to 10, the results are based on average grades and won’t be skewed if some films are seen by far more viewers than others.

“We’re doing whatever we can to increase the number of members who can participate,” he said. “We’re desperately eager to do that, and so far we’ve had more early interest than we’ve ever had.” Part of that, he said, comes from the fact that new Academy president John Bailey is an avid fan of foreign-language films who has personally encouraged members to vote in the category.

Another recent change did away with the conflict-of-interest rule that prevented members who had worked on or promoted one of the contenders from voting. Johnson said he expects that change to “slightly expand” the number of participating members, as well as bringing the category in line with the rest of the Oscar categories.

“I love the tradition of this category, but as times changes so do our rules need to,” he said. “I think maybe it was my mistake, and we should have proposed getting rid of the conflict-of-interest rule long ago.

“Listen, there’s no secret that I’ll probably vote for ‘Downsizing’ for Best Picture,” added Johnson, who produced that Alexander Payne movie. “Why shouldn’t that be able to happen here too?”

Phase 2 of the foreign-language nominating process, in which hand-picked committees view the nine shortlisted films and vote for the five nominees, will also undergo a change this year, Johnson said. In addition to the usual committees in Los Angeles, New York and London, a fourth committee will be added in San Francisco. In addition, he said, there’s been talk of expanding the number of Phase 2 committee members, which is currently set at 20 in L.A. and 10 in New York and London.

Of course, all of these tweaks won’t change the fact that foreign-language voters are facing a truly daunting task this year, with the 92 eligible films setting a new record for contenders in the category. (The old record, set last year, was 85.)

“It’s an astonishing number,” Johnson said. “On one hand it’s great that international filmmaking is so vibrant, that countries are making films and deeming them worthy of this competition. On the other hand, it’s a huge challenge for us.

“Some of us on the executive committee went to a screening of [the Lebanese entry] ‘The Insult’ the other day. And as we were leaving, one of them turned me me and said, ‘One down, 91 to go.'”