Oscars Shake Up Voting in the Best International Feature Film Category

New rules in what used to be Best Foreign Language Film will allow all members to choose the five nominees, and will permit streaming for the first time ever in the category

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has dramatically expanded the second round of voting for its Best International Feature Film award, the category formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film.

In emails that went to three different groups of members on Thursday, AMPAS announced that for the first time, all Academy members will be able to cast ballots to narrow down the 10 shortlisted films to five nominees, provided they have seen all 10 films on the shortlist.

In addition, members will be able to view those 10 films by streaming them on the Academy’s secure members’ website. This is a dramatic change in a category that until now had insisted that voters see films in a theater in the nominating round.

The change could allow far more voters to participate in choosing the five nominees. It could also dramatically lessen the importance of the category’s executive committee, which was created more than a decade ago to prevent the kind of embarrassing oversights that once plagued the category.

“We want to be as inclusive as we can,” International Feature Film Award Executive Committee co-chair Larry Karaszewski told TheWrap. “The films are so strong and so good that it seems unfair to limit voting to the people in New York and Los Angeles.”

The current three-step nominating process in the category was created in 2007, after a year in which volunteers from all branches of the Academy (the “general committee”) viewed all the eligible films but failed to nominate or even shortlist many of the year’s most celebrated films from overseas — including “Persepolis,” “Silent Light,” “The Orphanage” and, most egregiously, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu‘s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”

A new process was designed in which the general committee would still view all the eligible films at official Academy screenings, but would only select six of the nine films on the shortlist. The hand-picked executive committee would then add three more, focusing on the kind of challenging films that might have been overlooked by the general committee.

Then three Phase 2 committees — 20 members in Los Angeles, 10 in New York and 10 in London — would watch the nine shortlisted films (which has been expanded to 10 this year) over a three-day period and choose the five nominees.

Because the Phase 2 committees were largely hand-picked and tended to have adventurous taste, their selections often seemed to be heavy on the films that had been “saved” and put on the shortlist by the executive committee. (The Academy never reveals which shortlisted films were general-committee selections and which were exec-committee saves — but, for example, “Son of Saul” and “The Great Beauty” were widely whispered to be saves that went on to win the Oscar.)

In recent years, the Academy has gradually opened up voting in the category to more members. Two years ago, Phase 2 voting was extended to any members who wanted to participate in L.A., N.Y. and London, and to international members who were allowed to stream the shortlisted films rather than seeing them in theaters.

And last year, all L.A.-based members who’d taken part in the first round of voting were invited to vote in Phase 2 as well, providing they’d seen all the shortlisted films in theaters.

“We allowed international members to stream films on the shortlist,” Karaszewski said. “That went so well, and we already have the system set up for streaming, that we’ve decided to open up the short list to all Academy members everywhere.”

Karaszewski’s co-chair, Diane Weyermann, added that the change was also being made in recognition of the shorter voting period necessitated by an Oscar show that is taking place two weeks earlier than usual.

“We’re doing it with a very, very tight nomination voting period,” she said. “We will still have theatrical screenings of the 10 shortlisted films in L.A. and New York and London, but not everyone is going to be able to see those 10 films in a theater. People that may have seen all of the films except one, but maybe they’re not around on that one day for the screening — if we didn’t allow the streaming to happen, they wouldn’t be able to vote.”

By opening up the final stage of nomination voting to a wider group and taking that choice out of the hands of carefully selected committees, the Academy could well find that the artier, more challenging films that are saved will become nominees less often. With Phase 2 voting opened up to all international members last year, for instance, it seems likely that for the first time ever, the nominated films included five of the six general committee choices and not a single save.

And now the Academy has gone even further down that road. Voters who do the heavy lifting by seeing all the eligible films (a record 93 this year) can no longer complain about being cut out of the process after the shortlist — but as their importance increases, the executive committee responsible for some of the most acclaimed nominees may sometimes find its role reduced to simply putting quality films on a shortlist where voters can overlook them once again.

The category already has a new name this year, but that might be the least of its changes.

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