International Film Race Gets Thrown A Curve With Shortlist Expansion

Usually, the twists and turns during awards season are prompted by scandals, public relations goofs, or films that simply didn’t play as expected. This year, the ongoing pandemic has created changes in the process itself that continue to surprise longtime observers. The latest was the revelation last week that the International Film Oscar’s shortlist, a crucial part of paring down the usual 90+ submissions to an eventual five nominees, was being severely tinkered with.

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Since 2008, the International Film committee has helped determine the 9-10 films on the shortlist beyond the traditional voting process. Volunteer members in numerous cities (ie, usually retired members no longer working regularly) would vote for a majority of the shortlist, but the committee would have the option of selecting three committee “saves” to make sure the Academy wasn’t embarrassed by any potential snubs. This safety valve put into motion after the omission of4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days caused an uproar during the 80th Oscars. Already into the same process this season, the Academy decided to drop the “saves” and expand the shortlist to 15 films via popular vote, effectively doubling the number of member selections up for consideration.

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The excuse for the change was that the committee, which has met over zoom, was worried about security. This is somewhat bizarre as other committees and the Board of Governors, which have much more delicate matters on its plate, have been meeting via zoom for months. It’s also put studios and consultants working on individual campaigns on high alert as the decision was made with just three weeks left in voting. Again, a bit of a head-scratcher that truly benefits no one.

We are willing to look at the situation like a glass half full, however. The good news is that more members will volunteer to participate this year. AMPAS members have had films in their screening cue for months and can rate any film outside the 12 they are formally tasked to review. Many members have also been on a long hiatus with the winter COVID surge halting production in LA and other cities across the globe. And that should mean a more diverse pool of voters.

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Again, this is all in theory. It’s not like the Academy reveals details over who volunteered to the public let alone other members. Moreover, even with the new system in place, films you could easily argue were middling such as “On Body and Soul,” “Never Look Away,” “Corpus Christi” and “The Insult” not only made the shortlist, but eventually earned nominations over much worthier fare. So, maybe the Academy and the International Film committee feel it’s smarter to put the responsibility on members tasked with cutting 15 films down to five. That’s really assuming, however, a great film isn’t snubbed for the top 15.

Let’s talk about the films that were always likely safe despite the rule change. “Two of Us” (France), “Dear Comrades!” (Russia), “Another Round” (Denmark), and “I’m No Longer Here” (Mexico) have been expected to make the shortlist for months and it would be somewhat shocking if that didn’t occur at this point. On the other hand, there is a much larger list of films that the change should absolutely assist in making the cut.

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The critically acclaimed documentary “Collective” (Romania), wasn’t guaranteed enough popular votes when the shortlist was just at seven slots and word has it most members of the committee had other films far ahead of it for one of the three saves. Now, it has a much better chance of saying in the mix. “The Mole Agent” (Chile), “My Little Sister” (Switzerland), “Charlatan” (Czech Republic), and “Never Gonna Snow Again” (Poland) are all non-English films that have thematic scenarios that should appeal to voters with, um, let’s just say more “commercial” taste. “Night of Kings” (Ivory Coast) and “Quo Vadis, Aida?” (Bosnia and Herzegovina) are impressive, but challenging films (to a degree) that might just make the cut now. Three other films that could be surprise benefactors of the new rules are “Asia” (Israel), “Arract” (Ireland), and “Toorbos” (South Africa).

And then there are the films that could have been committee saves but are now gonna need a lot of luck to make the shortlist. Those submissions include U.S. critics’ favorite “A Sun” (Taiwan), “Vitalina Varela” (Portugal), “Atlantis” (Ukraine), and “Beginning” (Georgia). And then there are higher profile players such as “Apples” (Greece), “Charter” (Switzerland), and “La Llorona” (Guatemala) that are simply just borderline. They were borderline committee saves, they were borderline popular vote-getters with just 10 shortlist slots and they’ll be borderline popular vote players with 15 overall selections.

But again, we get back to the $1 million question: Why would the Academy make this change now? We still don’t have an answer, but it’s not difficult to invasion a scenario where the shortlist and the eventual five nominees end up embarrassing the membership overall. Obviously, you want the best films from all over the world, but if there isn’t one Asian film on the shortlist after South Korea’s “Parasite” became the first International Film submission (and winner) to win Best Picture that’s not gonna look great. If “Night of Kings” or another African film doesn’t make it, it’s going to look bad. If 10 or more films out of the 15 on the shortlist are from Europe? That’s going to be a major “yikes” all around and certainly won’t fit into the diversity paradigm the Academy is striving for. Especially with so many worthy nominees from South America, Central America, Africa, and Asia.

So, if you think the only big Oscar questions are surrounding how many Best Picture nominees the streamers lank, you need to look around Oscar world. Because this late change could be a big ol’ mess for another prestigious category. Or, the first-round voting members might just surprise the hardcore skeptics who have seen them blow it time and time again.

The Oscar shortlists will be revealed on February 9.