×

Could the Oscars’ Foreign Language Award Use an Overhaul?

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.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Jon Favreau'The Lion King' film premiere,

    Jon Favreau 'Holding Out Hope' for Spider-Man to Remain in the MCU

    Spider-Man’s potential exit from the Marvel Cinematic Universe could throw a wrench in Happy and Aunt May’s relationship, but Jon Favreau is “optimistic” the love affair will continue amid Sony’s dispute with Disney. “You never know what’s going to happen. I’m holding out hope and being optimistic that this isn’t the final chapter of the [...]

  • Cara Delevingne'Carnival Row' TV show premiere,

    Cara Delevingne Talks Immigration, Taylor Swift's Battle With Scooter Braun

    Cara Delevingne, whose faerie character in “Carnival Row” finds herself washed ashore as a refugee in a foreign land, said she was immediately drawn by the show’s fantastical take on issues of immigration and assimilation. “It’s a cause that I have been involved in for a long time,” Delevingne told Variety at the premiere of [...]

  • John Travolta, Fred Durst. John Travolta,

    John Travolta Recalls Fans Breaking Into His House: 'I Was Scared the First Time'

    Nobody can accuse John Travolta of not being gracious to his fans, whether it’s an autograph, a selfie or, you know, a home invasion or two. “I’ve only had two people that actually invaded my house,” Travolta told Variety at the premiere of “The Fanatic” at the Egyptian Theater on Thursday night. “They were just [...]

  • Romulus TV Show Italy

    Behind the Italian Scenes on Upcoming TV Blockbuster 'Romulus'

    On a hilly patch of greenery outside Rome, a group of extras is milling about in a meticulously reconstructed eighth century B.C. village wearing leather sandals, coarse red tunics and baseball caps. It’s scorching. The set is on a vast backlot on the grounds of the Cinecittà World theme park where during a period of [...]

  • James Wan's Horror Pic Adds George

    James Wan Finds Male Lead for His Next Horror Movie (EXCLUSIVE)

    British actor George Young has landed the male lead role opposite Annabelle Wallis in James Wan’s top secret horror pic, sources tell Variety. Wan is tackling the movie, tentatively titled “Silvercup,” this fall before beginning preparations for DC’s “Aquaman” sequel with Jason Momoa at the top of 2020. Plot details are currently being kept under [...]

  • Catch-22 Cinecitta BTS

    Rome's Cinecitta Makes Major Upgrades to Soundstages, Backlot

    Italy has always been attractive as a location, and now that increased global TV and film production is filling up soundstages around Europe, Rome’s Cinecittà is gunning to regain its global status as a top studio. The fabled facility, located on 99 acres of public land, had lost some of the luster of its 1950s [...]

  • Francis Ford Coppola Apocalypse Now BTS

    Why Everything About 'Apocalypse Now's' Production Was Unorthodox

    Lionsgate and American Zoetrope are releasing “Apocalypse Now Final Cut,” the third version of Francis Coppola’s 1979 war epic, to commemorate the film’s 40th anniversary. While multiple versions of any mainstream movie are unusual, everything about this movie was unorthodox. On Oct. 14, 1969, Variety reported that Warner Bros. bought the script by John Milius, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content