Oscar bids lost in translation

Times Staff Writer

They are among the most acclaimed and popular foreign-language movies of the year: “Maria Full of Grace,” “A Very Long Engagement,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Bad Education.” And they all share something else in common -- not a single one is eligible for the foreign-language Academy Award.

Each film was disqualified for a different reason, but all were victims of Oscar rules that several critics say fail to recognize the increasing globalization of film production. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences concedes that there has been no recent year in which a variety of its bylaws conspired to thwart so many well-received foreign-language titles.

Thanks to these rules, even Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which is told entirely in Aramaic, can’t compete for the foreign-language Oscar.

“It’s embarrassing,” says John Lesher, an agent at the Endeavor talent agency whose filmmaking clients include “Motorcycle Diaries” director Walter Salles. “They have an anachronistic system, and they need to get into the 21st century.”

Adds Paul Mezey, the producer of “Maria Full of Grace,” whose application for consideration in the foreign-language Oscar race was rejected by the academy: “Maybe this will bring the issue to the forefront.”


The academy is concerned enough that it has held informal internal conversations about changing its foreign-language rules, although no easy solution is at hand.

“Some of these things are not easily solvable,” says the academy’s executive director, Bruce Davis.

The main dispute centers on a long-standing academy directive that allows overseas countries to submit only one film a year for Oscar consideration. Critics say the rule punishes prolific filmmaking countries such as Spain, which had to choose between two very strong contenders this year.

The academy guidelines also ignore the boom in international co-productions, where any number of countries may join forces to make a single movie. It is up to the academy’s discretion, however, to determine whether any one of the countries involved can then claim the film as its own. As “Motorcycle Diaries” proved this year, academy rules cannot always accommodate such multi-continental endeavors.

“I don’t have an answer, but it’s important we find one. This system doesn’t work,” says producer and academy member Samuel Goldwyn Jr. “The academy’s job is to pick the best foreign-language picture of the year. But what happens when two of the best pictures of the year are both made in France? Or suppose you had Italy’s ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and ‘La Dolce Vita’ in the same year. It would be criminal if you could only pick one.”

The stakes for foreign-language films are surprisingly high.

While Oscar attention can multiply the box-office returns of big studio movies and English-language art house films, it can spell the difference between life and death for subtitled movies.

Obscure movies receiving an Oscar nomination can suddenly attract an American distributor when no interest existed before. A few underdog movies that win the foreign-language statuette -- such as the 2003 Oscar winner “Nowhere in Africa” -- can be propelled into theaters nationwide.

“Maria Full of Grace,” “A Very Long Engagement,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Bad Education” now must compete only for Oscars such as best actress, best screenplay and best picture. But these are trophies by and large handed to English-language movies backed by the kind of multimillion-dollar award campaigns that would be impossible for less commercial foreign-language releases to afford.

To streamline its many submissions, the academy asks that foreign-language films be submitted by the country from which the movie originates. (That killed the chances of “The Passion,” since there is no country in which Aramaic is the native language.)

Three academy committees then divide up and watch these films (there are 50 titles this year, from Afghanistan to Venezuela), scoring them on a scale of 6 to 10. The five movies receiving the highest average scores become the nominees, and academy members who sign an affidavit stating they have seen all five nominees can then vote for a winner.

Spain was forced this year to choose between submitting writer-director Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” as its official Oscar entry or director Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside.”

It selected “The Sea Inside,” which has attracted strong reviews, especially for its star, Javier Bardem.

Sony Pictures Classics, the distributor of “Bad Education,” is pushing Almodovar for best original screenplay.

The downside of the academy’s rule limiting one film per country is that “certain filmmakers who are deserving get short shrift,” says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

“Maria Full of Grace” thought it had a sponsoring country -- Colombia, where the film’s story is set -- but the academy disallowed the film. While the film is performed entirely in Spanish and features Colombian actors, its writer and director, Joshua Marston, is from the United States, as is producer Mezey, and the film was financed by cable television’s HBO Films.

“The academy determined ‘Maria Full of Grace’ did not have enough Colombian participation among the key creative roles,” says Marston. “We’ve encountered a lot of disappointment, because the movie looks and feels Colombian.”

The academy allowed Colombia to submit another film in “Maria’s” place; the country chose “El Rey.”

The foreign-language Oscar chances for “The Motorcycle Diaries” were dashed by its very nature: a road movie filmed across South America with a cast and crew from around the globe, with talent representing Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and Argentina. No single country, in other words, could rightfully claim the film as its own.

As a result, the film’s producers petitioned the academy to be considered in the foreign-language category, even though the film did not fit into the existing rules; the academy denied the request.

“ ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ may be the first movie I ever heard of that we might not have accepted” even if it had been submitted by any one of its potential countries, the academy’s Davis said. “We’ll know in five years if [such an international co-production] is a fluke or the edge of a trend.”

Says David Linde, co-president of “Motorcycle Diaries” distributor Focus Features: “I don’t think it’s a one-shot thing. I believe it’s the future.”

Finally, “A Very Long Engagement,” currently in U.S. theaters, could not even be considered as France’s official selection under academy rules because it did not open in that country early enough this year.

France instead submitted “Les Choristes.”

The academy pledges to address many of the issues surrounding foreign-language films in its regular spring committee meetings.

Some people say the academy could form a panel that would add one or more “wild card” film each year that otherwise would be ineligible. Others suggest that any foreign-language movie playing for at least a week in U.S. theaters (what it takes for American movies to qualify) would qualify for consideration.

Says producer Mark Johnson, who chairs the academy’s foreign-language committee: “The next couple of years could be interesting, and some radical changes could be made.”