How to Fix Oscar’s Foreign-Language Problem (Opinion)

A simple change could fix big headaches in Oscar's outdated foreign-language prize, by qualifying films as they do in every other category, via a qualifying run in U.S. theaters.

It’s time for the Academy to change the way it awards foreign-language film.

This year, 92 distinct nations have selected and submitted what the Academy blindly accepts as each country’s best film to compete for the foreign-language Oscar. However magnanimous the Academy’s intent, that’s an overwhelming number of movies that now need to be divided up and screened by a dedicated subset of the membership in an imperfect process that results in a shortlist of nine movies, from which a separate committee will choose the final five nominees.
Ironically, while 92 is a record-setting number for this category, the year’s best foreign language film may not even be among them. That’s because the system — a squirrely, ever-evolving set of rules — is based on a pair of outdated premises.

First, the award was created in 1945 to raise awareness for foreign cinema at a time when overseas movies were either dubbed or ignored in the U.S. (Prior to the new category’s creation in 1947, only one foreign film, Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion,” had ever been nominated for best picture.) The prize was originally decided by a small committee of studio execs — Robert M.W. Vogel of MGM, Luigi Luraschi of Paramount and Bill Gordon of RKO — and later expanded to include reps from the other four majors, who proposed a single exceptional foreign language film “released commercially in the United States during the awards year” to receive a special award from the Academy.

Second, in 1955, the Academy officially adopted a dedicated foreign-language category, designed to function like the Olympics or the World Cup of film, where the prize would be awarded not to the director, but to the nation that stood behind him. Each country would send one team to represent itself, and they should all compete on equal footing for the prize (as such, every film is screened and scored individually, meaning that an Azerbaijani film has the same odds as an Italian one).

This model no longer makes sense. Today, there exists a healthy (albeit limited) market for non-English-language cinema in the States, and even if these imported gems seldom earn more than $1 million in theaters, hundreds are released in Los Angeles theaters each year (although only about 40 bother to submit the official screen credits paperwork that qualify them for best picture). Considering that volume, it’s unfair to limit prolific countries to a single film — a process that inevitably invites needless political squabbles over which film gets picked.

It’s time that the Academy scrap its current, needlessly convoluted foreign language contest and switch to one that better reflects the marketplace for subtitled movies — and the Oscars at large. Critics perennially grouse about high-profile “snubs” in this category, while ignoring that Oscar nominations represent the Academy’s consensus preferences, rather than any one person’s exceptional good taste. That lesson should also apply to foreign- language committee chair Mark Johnson, who has created elaborate workarounds to overrule his own branch’s often-embarrassing biases — which have historically relied on those members with enough free time on their hands (typically the oldest and least active professionally) to screen two dozen or more films each November, resulting in nominees about very old men (“To Begin Again,” “The Grandfather”), very young kids (“Secrets of the Heart,” “The Thief”) or some combination of the two (“Cinema Paradiso,” “Kolya”).

Rather than tweaking the rules each year to make the nominees more respectable, Johnson and company should push to adopt the same process by which feature films qualify for every other Oscar category: with a seven-day theatrical release in Los Angeles, ads in a local paper and the submission of credits forms.

Bizarrely, under the current system, international films can be eligible in two separate years: first, for the foreign-language award the year they debut in their native country, and then for every other category after receiving an Oscar-qualifying run in the U.S. As it is, a film could win the foreign language Oscar one year and be nominated for best director the next (as happened to Federico Fellini on “Amarcord” and François Truffaut with “Day for Night”). Rather than ghettoizing foreign movies to the one category, the Academy should be encouraging its entire membership to see and consider as many foreign films as possible in all categories.

Now, imagine if the Academy made the following logical change: What if the foreign category weren’t listed on the nominations ballot at all, but instead, the five subtitled films that received the greatest number of best picture mentions from the entire Academy were then announced as the finalists for the foreign language prize? Naturally, they would still be eligible to compete for best picture (the way “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Amour” did in their respective years) without being arbitrarily disqualified from the foreign-language race (the way “City of God” and “Talk to Her” were when the committees in their home countries decided to submit other films instead).

Granted, obscure films from countries such as Latvia and Kyrgyzstan wouldn’t stand a chance. But who are we kidding? They don’t stand a chance now, and asking Academy members to sit through these instead of the year’s most visible foreign releases is a waste of their time.

To put it bluntly, the Oscars’ purpose is not to help small movies. Rather, they celebrate impact and excellence. Many countries have yet to produce a single film that your typical Academy voter might consider “Oscar worthy,” while others — including France, Italy, Romania, South Korea and Israel — generate multiple Oscar-caliber movies a year, many of which aren’t eligible under the current rules. France alone is responsible for generating between 60 and 70 films released in the U.S. each year (noteworthy 2017 breakouts include “Personal Shopper,” “Frantz,” “Heal the Living,” “Lost in Paris,” “The Midwife,” “Raw” and “Faces, Places,” none of which are eligible). The country’s selection committee tries desperately to second-guess Academy voters by selecting the one film most likely to be nominated, to no avail. France has not won the award in 25 years, since 1992’s “Indochine.”

And yet, when considering global cinema, it’s unrealistic to think of a film as belonging to any one country. Filmmaking is an expensive pursuit, and apart from the U.S., few nations have an industry expansive enough to produce a film entirely from within. Rather, most international movies represent a confluence of different countries coming together to back a project they all believe in.

To then put the eligibility of each film in the hands of a committee (often a mix of bureaucrats, professionals and pundits) inevitably leads to problems like last year’s scandal, in which the Brazilian committee reportedly nixed “Aquarius” because the film’s director and cast had taken a stand at the Cannes film festival against the political coup unfolding back home at the time, or recurring cases in countries such as Iran where films critical of the status quo have been sidelined in favor of government-backed propaganda.

What if the Academy told American distributors — including studios that produce and release dozens of critically acclaimed films per calendar year — they could only submit a single movie to compete for best picture? The one-film-per-country rule is just as arbitrary toward countries, even as it allows English-speaking countries (such as Australia, Ireland and the U.K.) to participate. Imagine if the U.S. was required to select just one film to compete for the foreign language prize at France’s César Awards. How would they choose? (In 2005, all five of the César foreign language nominees were American. Surely, the Oscars could allow multiple French films to compete in a strong year for the country.)

And what about foreign language movies made by Hollywood directors? But surely Mel Gibson’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ” (in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew) and “Apocalypto” (in Mayan) ought to qualify as “foreign language” just as Clint Eastwood should have been rewarded for his decision to shoot 2006’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” in Japanese. A filmmaker shouldn’t be forced to rely on receiving honorary Cambodian citizenship to qualify, the way Angelina Jolie did with “First They Killed My Father” this year — that film deserves to compete on its own merits.

Some have proposed expanding the eligibility to include foreign films that win prizes at major international film festivals, like Cannes (repairing the fact that France passed over Palme d’or winners “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “Dheepan,” for instance), but again, that relies on pre-selection by a small, fallible group of people outside the Academy, and does not reflect the way foreign films resonate with American audiences.

The only system that makes sense is one tied to a film’s U.S. release, open to all subtitled movies that Academy members could have seen in theaters that year. Such a change still allows plenty of room for debate over whether the nominees are indeed the “best,” while ensuring that all foreign-language films shown that year in theaters are at least eligible.

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