When it comes to its influential foreign-language film category, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (Ampas) was aware of shortcomings in the criteria for submission and selection of nominees. It seemed each year threw up a controversial omission - the fact instant classics such as Three Colours: Red (1994), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and Hidden (2005) were ineligible since they fell through national cracks, or the fact that celebrated but challenging submissions such as City Of God (2002), The Return (2003) and L'Enfant (2005) were routinely being overlooked.
However, 2006 was a good year, according to Mark Johnson, the prolific US producer with credits from Rain Man to The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe who is also chair of the academy's foreign-language film committee. 'The five nominees - After The Wedding, Days Of Glory, The Lives Of Others, Pan's Labyrinth and Water - were all substantial films which were reviewed very well,' he says. 'Many people felt The Lives Of Others and Pan's Labyrinth were the best movies of the year.'
Johnson and Ampas executive director Bruce Davis are somewhat relieved 2006 went smoothly, since it was the first year of a revamp in the category that aimed to loosen certain national restrictions and adjust the voting procedure to a wider demographic of Academy member.
'We thought it over for a couple of years,' says Davis, 'and waited for the best time to do it, which we deemed was when (former Ampas president) Frank Pierson left and (new president) Sid Ganis came in. The need for changes had been building up. People sometimes don't understand we want to find a way to accept every film.'
Submissions can now be in any language or combination of languages so long as the dominant language is not English. The change immediately saw Canada submitting and being nominated for Deepa Mehta's Water, a Hindi-language movie set in India and shot in Sri Lanka.
'The creative team still needs to have some major elements from the submitting country,' explains Davis, adding that in the case of Water, there was a Canadian, Lisa Ray, in the lead part as well as Mehta, producer David Hamilton and some key below-the-line talent. Nationality of financing is not factored into the equation.
Davis says the system is, as was always the case, geared around one film submission per country and if major international films are excluded, that is down to the country in question. Hence, when Spain opted not to submit Pedro Almodovar's Talk To Her in 2002, that was a Spanish decision. 'It's almost invariably forgotten that a foreign-language film is not disqualified from other categories if it's not submitted into the foreign-film category,' adds Davis. Talk To Her went on to win directing and screenwriting nominations for Almodovar that year.
Perhaps more significant was last year's procedural makeover that saw a shortlist of nine films being drawn up by the committee at large and the final five nominees being decided on by a second-phase group of 30 members.
It is well known in Hollywood circles that the time commitment required by volunteers on the foreign-language committee meant it consisted principally of older members with more conservative tastes.
'It's a very rigorous screening schedule and it's very hard to see enough films in order to qualify to vote if you are in the middle of daily life,' says Johnson. 'The committee was made up of older members with aesthetically, not politically, more conservative tastes which meant films with a difficult structure, for example, had an uphill struggle. They are amazingly enthusiastic people and I would hate to sound ageist, but I don't think the committee was reflecting the Academy in general in terms of age and outlook.'
The submissions are divided into three groups, and committee members are required to watch about 20 movies over a two-and-a-half month period. The minimum to qualify for voting is 13 to 14 films or six to seven double features, which are mandatory to attend. 'I'm proud you have to see the films on the big screen,' says Johnson, 'but it represents a time commitment. It's been my thrust to bring in as many new members to the committee as possible. It's the unknown secret of the Academy what a pleasure it is to see all these films. I always tell my peers that it's also a great way to spot new talent.' He says new committee members include producers such as Kevin Misher and Scott Kroopf and film-makers including Paul Weitz.
Under the makeover, the committee of 400 or so operates as before but now votes for a shortlist of nine films. The new second phase sees three 10-person committees assembled by special initiative voting by secret ballot on the final five. 'One group consists of 10 members drawn by lottery from the general committee,' says Davis. 'One group consists of 10 invited members from New York who have never been involved in the process before and one group consists of 10 invited people from LA who are not on the original committee.'
The invited members are, says Johnson, 'people we know to be discriminating film-makers and film-goers.'
The system, which sees the 30 members watching three films a day over one three-day weekend, hopes to guarantee there is more discernment in the final nomination process. 'The new system is likely to produce a more remarkable slate of nominees,' says Davis.
'Ultimately we've picked the correct film to win,' says Johnson. 'We're very proud of the winners, but sometimes I've cringed in the past at some of the nominees.'
The final voting process is open to all members of the Academy who can prove they have seen all five nominees on the big screen. Davis dismisses rumours that distributors can manipulate the final voting process by with-holding screenings. 'It's nonsense. We screen the films ourselves on numerous occasions.' He adds that the Academy sources the print from the country of origin.
Neither Davis nor Johnson know how many members vote on the final award, though because of the effort required to see all five films at screenings and not on DVD, they say it is definitely a 'subset' of the 6,000-strong membership.
Which is why, says Johnson, he was not surprised Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives Of Others won last year. 'The US press thought it was an upset that The Lives Of Others beat Pan's Labyrinth, and there's no question that more Academy members saw Pan's Labyrinth. But because you could only vote in the foreign-language category if you've seen all five nominated films, it wasn't a surprise to me.'
'A Spanish producer once told me he heard the voting was rigged,' smiles Davis. 'I can guarantee it's not. None of us knows anything.'