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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.

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