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Rules of the Oscar game

How do they pick those foreign-film and documentary categories?
Why was the brilliant Caché shut out of the foreign-film category?
Why was the brilliant Caché shut out of the foreign-film category?Sony Pictures Classics
/ Source: Forbes

Oscar devotees know too well the fatigue that sets in right around the hour mark in the program, when the Academy doles out its most obscure awards to recipients who are often unglamorous and numerous.

Though we might use this endless stretch of time to refill the chip bowl or retally our pool ballots, these categories deserve special attention because they shine a spotlight on Oscar’s strangest and most controversial rules.

Each year seems to bring at least one serious bust-up over Academy nominations. This year, the foreign language film category shut out four submissions on the grounds that they weren’t in the language of their submitting country. The entry from Italy, “Private,” was disqualified because the dialogue was mostly in Arabic. (The movie is about Palestinian refugees in the Middle East but was filmed in Italy.)

The Academy eventually allowed Italy to submit another film for consideration. Other countries weren’t so lucky. Greece and Singapore were disqualified because their films were primarily in English. Neither country was allowed to enter an alternate film.

Also rejected was Austria’s entry, the Sony (nyse: SNE - news - people ) Pictures Classics release “Caché (Hidden),” which was shot in French with a combination of French and Austrian money. According to the Academy, Austria submitted a German-dubbed print of the film. This clearly didn’t fool anyone.

The current chairman of the foreign language selection committee, Mark Johnson, says he tries to be flexible within the Academy’s strict boundaries. “We realize that this is a multicultural world and that a lot of movies get their financing from multiple countries,” says Johnson. “I thought ‘Caché’ was a brilliant movie. Had France decided to submit it instead of Austria, we certainly would’ve accepted it. We try to be as accommodating as possible, and sometimes we go as far as to bend rules to include a film we think is especially worthy. But in the end, rules are rules. We have to maintain a sense of order, otherwise things would become chaotic.”

In the past, the documentary category has been the Academy’s biggest source of grievance. In 1995, the universally praised “Hoop Dreams” failed to land a nomination prompting critics and journalists across the country to denounce the category’s cryptic voting methods. Members of the nominating committee, who screen the movies together, are allowed to shut off a film after the ten-minute point if a sufficient number of voters raise their hands. Over the years, this ritual has lead to the omission of such now-classic documentaries as Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz.”

Another much-contested Academy rule disqualifies all movies that premiered on television, even films that had a theatrical run following their TV debut. In 1995, The Last Seduction was ruled ineligible because it premiered on HBO. The movie played in theaters following its cable run, and many critics praised lead actress Linda Fiorentino. But the Academy decided not to accept it. This rule also disqualifies many European productions that first aired on television in their native countries and had theatrical-only releases in the U.S.

Watching the Oscar ceremony can be such a bore — an anti-climactic exercise in industry self-congratulation. Knowing a little about the Academy's obscure rules can make the evening more interesting, revealing the many deserved movies and filmmakers that Oscar has quietly swept under its red carpet.