Could the Oscars’ Foreign Language Award Use an Overhaul?

Could the Oscars’ Foreign Language Award

Guest author Cameron Bailey says the Academy should consider scrapping the one-country, one-film rule

From India, surprising news: Ritesh Batra’s acclaimed Cannes debut “The Lunchbox” will not be India’s submission for the best foreign-language film award at the Oscars. The news from Japan was no less startling: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s equally acclaimed “Like Father, Like Son” also failed to win its nation’s nod. Instead, Japan will submit Yuya Ishii’s “The Great Passage,” and India has put forward Gyan Correa’s “The Good Road.”

With no disrespect to the submitted entries, “The Lunchbox” and “Like Father, Like Son” are highly acclaimed films that launched to great success at Cannes, were bought for U.S. distribution — by Sony Pictures Classics and Sundance Selects, respectively — and have gone on to festival success ever since, including at Toronto. By any estimate, they were their countries’ best bets for Oscar success, but both failed to clear the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ first hurdle.

And then there’s Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which won the Palme D’or at Cannes and has been one of the most talked about films of the year so far but was disqualified for the Academy’s foreign-language award because its French release date falls outside the Academy’s Sept. 30 deadline. French distributor Vincent Maraval, of Wild Bunch, has said that the Academy’s foreign-language rules are “unique, specific and make no sense.”

Harsh.

Like every coveted prize, the foreign-language Oscar can also be hotly contentious. Perhaps because it began as an annual competitive prize only in 1956, when European arthouse films were beginning to be more widely noticed in the U.S., it has skewed very much toward Europe: 52 of the 65 awards given to date. And perhaps because it mirrors the Academy’s overall record of awarding uplifting films of wide audience appeal, it hasn’t included some of the film world’s acknowledged masters: Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Ousmane Sembene, Andrei Tarkovsky, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-Hsien have a combined total of zero nominations.

But change is possible. Before 2005, countries were limited to submitting films in their “official” languages. Since then, Canada has submitted Deepa Mehta’s Hindi-language “Water,” and this year the U.K. will submit the Filipino-language “Metro Manila.” For the 2010 Academy Awards, Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” was nominated. Given the film’s avant-garde narrative, this was a surprise, but a new process opened the nominations to new voices.

So, in the hope of further change, some suggestions:

Scrap the significance of nation. Although the winning film’s director generally accepts the prize, the Academy’s foreign-language film award is technically given to the country that submitted it. Nations regularly cheer their film’s win as a group. The fact is, though, that most significant foreign-language films have more to do with individual creative achievement than a country’s cinematic genius. With co-productions so common and so many filmmakers frequently crossing borders — Austria’s Michael Haneke shooting “Amour” in France, Denmark’s Susanne Bier setting much of “In a Better World” in Sudan — does national origin really matter much anymore?

Scrap the one-country, one-film rule. While this rule may have been intended to level the playing field for countries, whether they produce many or few films each year, it’s become an unintended barrier to great movies. Relying on national film organizations in each country to submit only one film leaves the process wide open to abuse. Influential entertainment journalist Anne Thompson recently wrote: “One of the problems of letting individual foreign countries make the call is that they are often myopic if not corrupt and do not necessarily select the film that might best compete against other films for the Oscar.” Why not remove the one part of the process most prone to problems?

Or find a compromise. If the national agency submissions are kept, supplement that with the Academy’s own recommendations to fill out and improve the shortlist. Could an Academy committee sift through foreign-language premieres at 10 major festivals, for instance? Would surveying Sundance, Berlin, Guadalajara, Tribeca, Cannes, Locarno, Venice, Toronto, Busan and Dubai offer a richer resource?

Institute a U.S. release requirement. Unlike most other categories, the foreign-language branch does not require nominated films to be released in the U.S. before nomination. If this rule were changed, it might encourage distributors to acquire and release more foreign-language films, building earlier awards campaigns around the year’s strongest contenders. It’s almost certain that already successful films like “The Lunchbox” and “Like Father, Like Son” would benefit.

We’ve come a long way from that first annual prize in 1956, when North America was just waking up to the shocks and pleasures of Fellini and Bergman. The Academy’s foreign-language Oscar has grown in importance since then. I can’t wait to see where it grows from here.

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  1. Brian W. says:

    I’m torn here. I agree with a lot of what’s said in this column but also with some of the other comments as well. The problem with the one film/one country rule is that great films get neglected due to globalization and these restrictive limitations, but at the same time it gives countries from around the world a reason to nominate their film as a chance to score a win for their whole country and a chance to nominate films that get overlooked at festivals. What’s more, there have been a number of rule changes in recent years to the documentary category that have made that field even more complex, ultimately only nominating populist films that people have heard of and neglecting some of the finest, while also giving the nominating branch way too many films to work with. I think the idea of getting distribution for your film ahead of time is a great idea all around, but then that too could be a barrier to entry to some tiny film in a small country.

  2. Christophe says:

    I approve this article. Smth ought to be done. Same rules should apply as the main competition: US release during the calendar year which acts as some sort of pre-selection (Blue would’ve been eligible), scrap the one-country, one-rule absurdity, and set up a foreign film branch made of foreign filmmakers or any academy members who are knowledgeable and informed abt foreign films and let them vote as other branches do.

  3. Evan says:

    In defense of the country-based approach, it gives directors from countries without a filmmaking tradition a chance to get their film seen by wider audiences. Through the committee process as well as festivals like Palm Springs that emphasize the national selections, being a national submission is a launch pad to Western audiences. How else would a film from Azerbaijan or Nepal or Colombia be seen by the Hollywood crowd? This process also gives countries a chance to assert their own tastes, which is why I cringe at the article’s suggestion that India and Japan should have submitted “The Lunchbox” and “Like Father, Like Son” simply because they’re friendlier and better known to American audiences or stand a better shot as winning the Oscar. This whole process is geared toward winning the Oscar, yes, but why should countries have to kowtow to Oscar’s presumed tastes? Greece has made it a priority to choose “weird” films in recent years instead of “Oscar bait”; in my mind, the category is better for it. And of course, as with Dogtooth in 2010, sometimes “different” pays off.

    Similarly, I’m skeptical of the idea that limiting the field to US releases would encourage distribution of foreign films. It might encourage faster release of festival films that already have buzz, but I doubt it would sway someone into distributing a small film that stands little chance of Oscar recognition or that needs that success to build a audience base. Not to mention that these films would probably be released during the pre-nominations end-of-year glut rather than February-April as is currently the norm, only exacerbating current imbalances in release dates.

  4. Laurent Boye says:

    In a world of international co-prods, as the Globes can get several submission from one country, and I am not sure the right movies are being submitted, I do agree with Mr Bailey.
    An US release rule identical to the one that the English speaking movies have to follow, would level the field. The academy could give it a try and see.

  5. I disagree with the text and quite agree with the academy and its one-country, one-film rule.
    If all countries send only the acclaimed on festivals, the chance of other films appear would be even smaller, and rules serves to be fulfilled, not changed all the time, and the rules for this category in particular, even with the recent changes, it is still the most fair of the Oscars.

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