To learn more about the process of selecting the nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Award, we had an interview with Larry Karaszewski—Governor for the Writers branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences—and Diane Weyermann, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a member of the European Film Academy
Larry Karaszewski, with his writing/directing/producing partner Scott Alexander, are best known for writing unusual true stories. They created the hit television miniseries “The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” for which they won the Golden Globe, the Emmy, the PGA and WGA Awards. They also won the Golden Globe and WGA Award for the film “The People vs Larry Flynt.” Other movies include the Oscar winning “Ed Wood” (WGA nomination), “Big Eyes” (Independent Spirit nomination), “Auto Focus”, “Man on the Moon” and the upcoming “Dolemite Is My Name!” The team has been inducted into the Final Draft Screenwriting Hall of Fame. Larry is an active Los Angeles cineaste hosting a long running film series for the American Cinematheque. He is also a Governor for the Writers Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
As president of Documentary Film and Television at Participant Media, Diane Weyermann is responsible for the nonfiction feature film and unscripted series slate. Participant’s recent documentaries include “Aquarela”, “American to Me”, “RBG”, “Human Flow”, “Far From the Tree”, and “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”. Previous films include the Oscar winning “Citizenfour” and “An Inconvenient Truth”, as well as Oscar nominees “The Look of Silence”, “The Square”, and “Food, Inc.” Prior to joining Participant, Weyermann was the director of the Sundance Documentary Film Program. During her tenure at Sundance, she created the Sundance Documentary Film Fund, a program supporting a multitude of international films focused on contemporary human rights, social justice, civil liberties and freedom of expression. She also developed and ran the Sundance Documentary Edit and Storytelling Lab and the Documentary Film and Composer Lab. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a member of the European Film Academy.
BIJAN Tehrani: First off, have there been any changes in the methods used to select the Best Foreign Language Film Award in the last few years?
Larry Karaszewski: Yes. There have been a lot of changes—this year, primarily—in terms of how the academy members see the films and how they qualify the vote. It was changed in terms of how the foreign films are screened or fanned through. In previous years there were a lot of rules for academy members in the Los Angeles area that dictated which night they would have to go to see a film. I mean, we must see eighty movies this year. So they used to be divided into color groups and it was kind of a system where you had to sign up and you could only go on a Monday night or only go on a Wednesday night. So, this year we have encouraged the people to come and take advantage of this wonderful film festival we have here. Therefore, we’ve knocked down those color groups and told people they can come whenever they want to. Of course, they still must see a certain number of films in order for their ballot to count, but we are just encouraging our academy members to see these magnificent films from around the world.
Bijan: Can you give us a brief breakdown of the process from the initial eighty-plus films to the short list, then the nominees, and eventually the winner?
Diane Weyermann: Sure! Phase one begins with the eighty-seven films. This year there are eighty-seven films screened for academy members. They can opt-in and participate in the voting that Larry described, and this year people who participate in phase one must see twelve films to vote and at this point we still require that those films be watched in the cinema. After this phase there will be a vote and the top six films from the vote of the whole membership that has participated in phase one will be tallied. Then, the executive committee, which is the committee that I co-chair, will meet and will know the six films that have been voted on by the larger group. The executive committee discusses all the other films, and we have an opportunity to increase the number of films from six to nine because the executive committee gets a chance to see virtually all the films. It’s a way that we can hopefully add-in films that maybe not as many people have seen or haven’t had as much exposure, so the shortlist then goes to nine. Once we have the nine shortlisted films, we enter in phase two. Phase two is then open to everyone who qualifies for phase one. They can come and vote again if they see all the nine films and also the nine shortlisted films are screened in other cities—London, San Francisco, and New York. They are also made available for international members by streaming, which is something that we added last year—streaming throughout Europe. We are really trying to increase the number of members who are interested and passionate about international cinema to participate in this process. So once you have the nine shortlisted films and you go through phase two, five films are nominated from that list. The five nominated films can be voted on by anyone who is in the academy. Those films are sent to everyone in the academy, as they have been in the past. The entire membership of the academy votes for the winner.
Larry: I really want to emphasize what Diane said about phase two. We really try to figure out ways to include our international film members, and we really want to include people in the academy who don’t live in the Los Angeles area because so many of the international members are in this category because they were nominated or were a part of films that were in the Best Foreign Language Film category. We wanted to give them a voice in the selection of these films, so that is why we added that additional element of providing the streams to international members who don’t live in any of these larger cities where they can see the films in the theaters.
Bijan: Are there any opportunities for fans and experts in international cinema to participate or even potentially vote?
Larry: No, it is simply only members of the academy who are eligible to vote in the Academy Awards. That’s what makes them the Academy Awards, so hopefully they are the best in each of their branches—whether it’s cinematography or production design or costume design—and the academy has done a really good job in the past several years of trying to do member outreach to the international community. If you look at the list of new members for the past three or four years, you will see how many international members have joined the academy. We have really searched for the best in world cinema, and I think we are quite happy with the way things are shaping up.
Bijan: Absolutely. At least with the forty-eight different countries that are in touch with CWB, they are very happy about the new selections of members to join the academy.
Larry: We believe we are doing exactly what your organization Cinema Without Borders is about. Film is an international language and always has been, and so many times things are very Hollywood-centric. We want to be open to motion pictures from around the world.
Bijan: Thank you! We had tons of questions pour in when we announced that we would be speaking with you, so we picked a couple out to ask you. Here’s one: Why is the category of Best Foreign Language film limited to just one entry from each country, when there is a disparity in quality and quantity of films from one country to the other?
Diane: Yeah, frankly, I think that is just a matter of bandwidth. There are so many amazing films being made around the world, and if the process was open so that anyone that could submit their film from any country from around the world, we would certainly have hundreds and hundreds of films. It was setup so that all these countries could participate by entrusting the nomination process specifically to the individual countries to determine which film would be put forth. Frankly, it is just a matter of not being able to really handle hundreds and hundreds of films that may not have been seen here, so getting people to see them would be a real challenge. Even with the eighty-seven films we have now, it’s very hard for people to see all of them and that is why we also have an executive committee that Larry and I co-chair because we try to make sure that every film is seen by at least a certain number of people so that they can also be fairly considered in the voting process.
Larry: You said it very well. There is simply no way our committee can see every release in every country, so we had to come up with a system that filtered them and the closest analogy was the Olympics, where you have each country send their best runner or their best pole vaulter or the best swimmers and some countries may be stronger in certain areas, but you still have to limit them to a certain amount, so that’s the system that we have.
Bijan: There’s another question that’s been asked again and again: Why not Foreign Film instead of Foreign Language Film? For example, a few years ago there was a beautiful film from Israel, “Band’s Visit”, which was introduced by Israel to the Academy Awards and then the academy rejected the film because most of the film’s dialogue was spoken English. Therefore, Israel had to submit a second film to the Academy Awards. This is something which is confusing for our audience and for many international filmmakers that we have spoken to.
Larry: Right. We do not accept U.S.-based films—even if they are in a foreign language—and we don’t accept foreign films that are in the English language. The thought in both cases is that it would give them an unfair advantage as majority of the academy members are English-speaking. Any kind of rules you make, you will occasionally come up with something that will happen where you say “Wow, we missed that thing!” or “That didn’t go the way we wanted.”, but I do think that the idea is to give international cinema a chance in the Academy Awards. Sometimes I think, perhaps the name of the category should be changed to International Film instead of Foreign Language Film, but the way it is now is just a way of setting down some guidelines to let the countries pick the best films.
Bijan: Another reader asked: Can an international film get a nomination in categories other than Best Foreign Language Film? For example, this year I have seen about thirty-five films from the selections and I have seen a few exceptional performances from actors and actresses, and even some award-worthy screenplays. Is there a chance that there could be categories like, for example, Screenplay for a Foreign Language Film?
Diane: Yes, there is a chance. I believe there have been some cases where an actor or actress has been nominated in a foreign language film for best actor or actress, and in fact, I think has also won that category.
Larry: Right, Sophia Loren won for “Two Women” and Roberto Benigni won for “Life is Beautiful.”
Larry: There have been many times when foreign language films have been nominated in other categories. Liv Ullmann was nominated for best actress in “Autumn Sonata.” Fellini was nominated for best director for “Satyricon.”
Diane: Yes, and there have been some picture nominations as well. They haven’t won best picture and best foreign language film yet, but just to answer the question, it is possible to compete in any of the categories. It can also be for cinematographer, best composer, etc. So, a nominated foreign language film is not limited to foreign language award. Even the documentary films that are nominated by nine countries this year—they qualify for our other awards as well. It would be great because these are amazing films that we are seeing, and to the extent that they can be recognized in all the other various categories that exist, there’s no barrier to that.
Larry: Yeah, the only barrier I believe is that they must qualify in the same way that all films qualify for the categories. They must play for a week in Los Angeles. There have been lots of movies over the years that have been nominated in regular categories as well as foreign language, like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It was nominated for cinematography and music. Recently, “La Vie en Rose” won best actress. It happens quite a bit. Vie was nominated for best picture.
Bijan: Why do you think it is so important for major players in international cinema to be nominated in the Academy Awards? For example, I am sure that winning an Oscar for Best Actor would be very important for the talented Iranian actor, Navid Mohammadzadeh, who plays in the Iranian entry “No Date, No Signature,” Why is that?
Larry: I just think it tends to be an award that really stands for excellence around the world, and I think so many people—myself included—grew up watching the awards on television when you are ten years old, watching these awards, all of these great films, classic movies and classic movie stars, classic directors and craftsman. You sit there and practice your speech in front of the television, and one day you are there. I think that is a universal thing. There are many, many awards show out there, but there really is only one Oscar.
Bijan: Sometimes, winners face backlash. In Eastern Europe during the communist era and even in Iran after Asghar Farhadi won two Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, there were attacks in the media on both filmmakers and the Academy claiming that the awards were politically motivated. Some claimed that Farhadi was only given awards to make political statements against the current administration. These complaints have been becoming more common, so we are fighting back by explaining the process. What is your take on this?
Larry: Our take is that it is all about the film. We do not look at the politics, we try to judge it on the film.
Diane: Our work is about watching the nominated films. The films are nominated by country, and we in the committee take that very seriously. At the end of the day, five nominated films are voted by the entire academy, and that’s what we do. We don’t comment on politics or anything beyond that.
Larry: Yes—we are an artistic organization, not a political organization.
Bijan: Absolutely. I agree with that. That’s what we try to convey in our articles. Here’s another question from our readers: Does the travel ban have any effects on international filmmakers that want to attend the Academy Awards ceremony?
Larry: I do not think we know yet. Since the films haven’t been nominated yet, I can’t really say. They are dependent on upon that. We don’t know what films and what countries and what filmmakers a part of will be the five.
Bijan: How could winning Best Foreign Language Film, or even getting a nomination or just being on the shortlist helps the chances of a film in the U.S. market?
Diane: Winning the Foreign Language Film Award brings a lot of focus onto the film that it might not otherwise have, so I think it certainly helps. It is not like there is a formula that says if you win an Oscar, then you will do substantially better at the box office, but what it certainly does is it celebrates the film and it brings attention to the film. Therefore, it raises interest about the Oscar winning film in the general public. I think that it certainly is a very positive thing for a movie that wins a Foreign Language Award. It has the potential of giving a film a better chance of distribution in this country after winning, but it is hard to really say. I think it really depends on the film itself, but certainly distributors and filmmakers know that it is a positive and wonderful award to win for the movie.
Larry: And I think in every category, not just foreign language.
Diane: Yes, exactly.
Larry: An Academy Award is a prestigious award and it is seen around the globe, and people tend to trust the academy’s decisions. We have nothing to do with the box office or distribution of movies or how films get released, but certainly when a film wins Best Picture or Best Foreign Language Film or Best Actor, then attention is paid to it and hopefully more people want to see it.
Bijan: You’ve seen a lot of films over the years. What kind of improvements in quality have you noticed in the pool of international films recently?
Larry: I have been seeing foreign language films since I was a very young man, and while I can’t say that quality changed, I will say that this year’s selection is extraordinarily strong. It is going to be very difficult to come up with only nine films that are left and only five nominees. Everybody always talks about the films that got snubbed or the films that got left behind, but this year every time I walk out of a screening, I am left with a feeling of “Wow, what a fantastic movie! That has to be included.” I have now said that like twenty-five times. So, there will be some controversies because some movies didn’t get nominated, but that is only because the category this year is extraordinarily strong.
Diane: Yeah, I totally agree with Larry. It has just been a magnificent year with incredible films. The quality is astonishing and off the charts. There are so many fabulous foreign language films, and it is going to be a very difficult process. I must say it has been a total joy for us to be able to see these films because they are really extraordinary. It is an amazing year.
Bijan: It was a great pleasure talking to you guys. Thank you very much!