Oct. 1 is the deadline for Oscar foreign-language submissions, and there are already some benchmarks: Saudi Arabia offered up its first-ever entry, and Pakistan will be part of the race for the first time in 50 years.
But the real gamechanger this year is in the voting rules at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. For the first time since the category was created in 1956, the entire voting membership can determine the foreign-language winner.
On the upside, it gets the 6,000 members more involved in the category. And it eliminates some logistical problems: Under the old system, anyone who voted in the category was required to see all the contenders on the bigscreen, which wasn't always easy.
Now, the nominations will still be determined by committee. But in the final voting, the Academy will provide screeners of all five nominated foreign-lingo contenders. So, as with all the other categories, the big question is whether voters will watch all the contenders before they vote.
Tom Bernard, co-topper of Sony Pictures Classics, said to Variety, "One of the most important thing when any Academy member votes: You have to see the film. In the old rules, anyone who had seen all five (foreign-language contenders) could vote. Now the Academy is leaving it up to the constituency. Hopefully, everyone will take great care with these new rules and be responsible."
He underlined the importance of the vote, noting that a nomination represents "a great cultural moment" for each country.
SPC co-topper Michael Barker added, "If the voters see all these films, it's a great move. If they don't, it makes it a popularity contest. But the Academy is doing something very smart, by sending, at their own cost, all five to voters. This helps the countries that may not have the budget to do that."
In the next week, Academy reps will review the entries, to make sure all of them meet the eligibility requirements.
Phase I voting is unchanged: Several hundred Los Angeles-based members will divide up the contenders (last year, there were 71) and form three or four committees. The groups will watch their portion and rate the films numerically.
An exec committee will take the top six vote-getters and add three other selections, based on merit. A few years ago, the Academy took a lot of heat when some films failed to gain a nomination, like the 2007 Romanian pic "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." Since then, there have been some offbeat and worthwhile nominations, such as Greece's 2010 black comedy "Dogtooth" and Belgium's 2011 "Bullhead"; however, the Academy consistently refuses to divulge whether any of the five nominees came from the exec committee.
The list of nine semi-finalists will be announced in early January, then winnowed down to five. Those contenders will be announced with all other Oscar noms on Jan. 16. Then all the voting members will have to start their homework and watch films.
One Acad voter (who asked not to be identified) says foreign-language films often require more work of voters, since there are subtitles and the films may reflects different cultures and different sets of values. "When you're 'forced' to see a film on the bigscreen, it's easier to see its merits. When you're watching a screener at home, with interruptions, it may create more problems for films that are more complex and that require full engagement."
In addition to the screeners, however, the Academy will continue its tradition of offering theatrical screenings of all its nominated films, so voters can have the bigscreen experience.
Mark Johnson (who just won an Emmy, as exec producer of AMC's "Breaking Bad") is again chairing the foreign-language committee. Bruce Davis and Ron Yerxa served that role last year.
Last week, Variety ran a guest column by Toronto Fest artistic director Cameron Bailey, who posited the idea that countries ought to be allowed more than one submission. So obviously, the discussion this season about the category and rules is just beginning.
Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences created the category, Pakistan has submitted only two previous entries, "Jago hua savera" in 1959 and "Ghunghat" in 1963.
Under Acad rules, a film has to play continuously for a week in its country of origin. The Saudi government banned movie theaters in the 1980s, but the restrictions have eased a bit. An Academy rep said the film clearly qualifies, and played at screenings on military bases and oil fields in the country.