Sundance Selects fails in plea against 'Blue' Oscar ineligibility

Posted by · 3:05 pm · July 17th, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, the news landed that this year’s vastly acclaimed Palme d’Or winner, Abdellatif Kechiche’s romantic drama “Blue is the Warmest Color,” is ineligible to be the French entry in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. The simple reason: its domestic release date falls nine days after the submission deadline, making it eligible for consideration in the category next year, but not this time round.

It’s a tough break for a great film — but in a problematic category plagued almost annually with controversy and injustice, this hardly registers as a scandal. Every Oscar race, after all, has an eligibility calendar: if you fall outside of it, you don’t compete. “Blue”‘s US distributors Sundance Selects, however, feel sufficiently hard done by to voice their dissatisfaction with the system to Deadline’s Pete Hammond.

“It”s a global business right now and [it’s not good] to hold the Foreign Language titles to a September 30th date,” says Sundance Selects president Jonathan Sehring. “This present Academy administration has been really great about revisiting things that don”t really make sense and I”m just hoping that will happen.”  

Sehring reveals that he pleaded with the film’s French distributors, Wild Bunch, to move up the local release date in order for the film to qualify — though the company, understandably more concerned with giving the film the most commercially advantageous date possible than with the Oscars, chose to stay put. (A limited qualifying release was mooted, though Academy rules demand that the film be widely released at home before the cutoff date.)

Again, this strikes me as unfortunate rather than unfair. Hammond describes the eligibility date as “arcane” and the situation as “embarrassing,” but the submissions process would be unworkably inconsistent without a precise 12-month eligibility period. That period may run from October to September rather than the calendar-year framework that applies in the general race, but that’s a necessity of the category’s more time-consuming viewing and voting process: switching to a January-to-December window, and therefore inviting countries to prematurely submit films that may not yet have been released by September, makes little sense.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” isn’t the first festival hit to fall foul of this cutoff date: Greece’s “Dogtooth” wound up nominated for the Oscar nearly two years after winning the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, while “The Hunt,” if selected as Denmark’s submission this year, could follow a similar course.

The differentiating complication in “Blue”‘s case is that the film’s US release date is set for October 25, meaning it could theoretically be nominated in such general categories as Best Picture, Director and Actress this year, while entering (at France’s discretion, of course) the Best Foreign Language Film race next year, an odd situation the Academy would likely devise some rule to prevent. (Note that I said “theoretically”: superb as it is, I find it hard to imagine the sexually explicit drama gaining traction in the general Oscar race. Backed by a smart Sony Pictures Classics campaign, “Amour” made the transition last year, but it should be obvious that this is a very different proposition.)  

I remain unconvinced that “Blue,” while a likely executive-committee pick, would necessarily have been a top contender even in the foreign-language race. Sehring and Hammond both speak as if the film was the most viable choice for the French, but as I discussed earlier, its ineligibility means they could well end up competing with something more readily Academy-friendly.

The obvious solution to the category’s multiple problems, I maintain, would be to abandon the national selection system and adopt a process closer to the current one used for documentary features: attentive Academy committees could monitor and consider all the foreign-language titles being theatrically released in the US that year, giving the Academy a more active role in their own award, while making it more relevant to movie-going audiences. But we’re still a long way from there. I’d venture that the standard of winners and nominees in the category has been raised in the last couple of years, in part because of the Academy’s willingness to experiment with a system still ridden with flaws — of which the September deadline seems to me a minor one.

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