Only PriceWaterhouseCoopers knows the final tally, but from the sidelines, it sure looked like last year was the closest the Academy has ever come to awarding best picture to a foreign-language film. Instead, an old-school studio movie, Peter Farrelly’s feel-good “Green Book,” took the top award, while Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white Mexican art film “Roma” won three of its 10 nominations: director, cinematography and foreign-language film.
Collecting his “foreign-language” Oscar last year, Cuarón quipped from the podium, “I grew up watching foreign-language films and learning so much from them and being inspired — films like ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Jaws,’ ‘Rashomon,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breathless.’”
That joke underlined an important change to the category this year, which will henceforth be known as the Academy Award for international feature film.
“That’s a phrase that maybe came from the 1950s, but no one ever really did anything about it,” says executive committee co-chair Larry Karaszewski, who, along with Diane Weyermann, took over for longtime category overseer Mark Johnson last year. “We faced no opposition to changing it. There’s nothing foreign about these movies; they all deal with universal themes.”
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The universality of cinema — along with billions of dollars spent in worldwide marketing — explains why American movies translate so well abroad. But foreign blockbusters seldom get a fair shake with U.S. audiences. Often, the best they can hope for is an English-language remake (this year, “The Intouchables” adaptation “The Upside” earned a whopping $108 million). Take Chinese animated sensation “Ne Zha” as an example. The record-setting CG film has grossed more in China than “Black Panther” did in the U.S. But in U.S. release, it did just $3.7 million — a huge success by foreign film standards, but still less than some of this year’s documentaries.
Market challenges aside, the Academy seems open to honoring international achievements now more than ever. “Last year was a great example,” says Karaszewski. “It wasn’t just the ‘Roma’ phenomenon. ‘Cold War’ was on the ballot for director and cinematography, and ‘Border,’ which wasn’t even nominated in the foreign-language category, got a makeup nomination. We might be going through what might be a golden age for international film.”
In fact, while the quality of Hollywood productions waxes and wanes over the decades, international film has always been strong — maybe not all over the world at once, but at any given time, somewhere on the globe, there are countries where helmers are innovating and experimenting in ways that transform the face of filmmaking as we know it. What might seem like a tiny drop in the world cinema ocean ripples outward, hitting Hollywood with disproportionately large force.
A few years ago, it was the Romanian New Wave and the so-called Greek Weird Wave, and before that, Iran and Hong Kong shook things up. In previous decades, France, Japan, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic have all had their turn, as did Lars von Trier and his dogmatic fellow Danes. These days, talents from South Korea and Mexico are pushing the boundaries of the medium. (It’s no coincidence that Oscar winners Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu have dominated the directing category in recent years, or that South Korea’s “Burning,” from Lee Chang-dong, was such a phenomenon with critics in 2018).
American producers crave fresh approaches and inspiration, and the easiest way to achieve that is to co-opt bright ideas from abroad.
In a business desperate to bring directors as diverse as Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Bernardo Bertolucci and Yorgos Lanthimos into the fold, it seems only fair that the Academy would properly acknowledge the non-English-language work that made them hot in the first place — if not with awards, then at least with inclusion among its ranks. As it happens, the Academy has launched an aggressive initiative of inclusion, not just of women and people of color, but also in terms of geographical distribution. In 2015, just 13% of the membership was international. Today, it’s closer to 20%, with fully 40% of the latest crop of new members based outside the U.S.
Film editor Monika Willi has been working with Michael Haneke since 2001’s “The Piano Teacher,” developing a style far different from the typical nominees in her category. As of this year, she belongs to the Academy. Japanese animation maestro Makoto Shinkai may not have been nominated for “Your Name,” but as a new member of the Academy, he can theoretically help change the organization’s anti-anime bias.
“It’s heartening to see international feature films being recognized in various voting categories,” says Weyermann. “This reflects a welcome trend that greater numbers of voters are watching and recognizing these superb films as well as a concerted effort on the part of the Academy to expand its membership to exemplary industry peers, irrespective of geography or nationality.”
The irony of all of this is the fact that foreign movies seem to be having a tougher time than ever before in finding a theatrical audience in the United States. This year, Palme d’Or winner “Parasite,” by Bong Joon Ho, and Oscar-winner Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical “Pain and Glory” are both being seriously discussed as candidates for best picture. At the same time, recent nominations for Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”), Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) and “Roma” actors Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira bode well for “Pain and Glory” star Antonio Banderas’ chances.
Still, in order for international films to earn nominations in other categories, they need to be seen by a broad enough swath of the Academy to make an impact on their ballots. Neon-distributed “Parasite” opened strong in October, earning $7.4 million so far in the U.S., while “Pain and Glory” (released by Almodóvar’s go-to American distrib, Sony Pictures Classics) tallied $2.1 million.
For a non-English-language art film to crack $1 million is quite a feat in the U.S. This year, “Parasite” and “Pain and Glory” are practically the only highbrow imports to have done so. By contrast, well-reviewed Cannes and Berlin film festival breakouts including “Birds of Passage,” “Woman at War,” “Climax” and “Transit” all stalled out in the six-digit range.
Netflix is rumored to have spent as much as $50 million on “Roma’s” Oscar campaign. And yet, the film’s financial results remain a mystery, since the company refuses to report theatrical grosses or streaming figures. Professional estimates predicted the film could have made $10 million to $20 million with a conventional theatrical release, a high sum for a foreign language film. Only 32 foreign-language films have broken $10 million domestically (although, to be fair, Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También” was among them).
Even so, there’s no question that more people have had the chance to see “Roma” by virtue of it being made available via streaming on Netflix than ever could had it been released by a traditional theatrical distributor — where the film would have likely opened in New York and Los Angeles and platformed out to other markets, never reaching corners of the country where limited-release foreign and indie films don’t play.
Anecdotally speaking, I remember celebrating Christmas in California’s Inland Empire (a zone where arthouses are all but nonexistent) and having an in-depth conversation with relatives who’d already seen the film on Netflix. Steven Spielberg can say what he will about the streamer, but the company is aggressively acquiring solid foreign-language movies and making them available far and wide to subscribers: Releases from the past year include Cannes sensations “Girl,” “Happy as Lazzaro” and “Shéhérazade”; well-reviewed Ghanian thriller “The Burial of Kojo”; and upcoming French animated feature “I Lost My Body.” Again, we don’t know how many people have seen these films, but chances are, even with minimal promotion, audiences are finding them on Netflix that wouldn’t necessarily pay $15 to see them in arthouses.
There’s another phenomenon afoot in America that seems unlikely to be reflected at the Academy Awards, of which the aforementioned Chinese hit “Ne Zha” is a part: Crowd-pleasers like Pantelion’s Spanish-language “No Manches Frida 2” and a crop of hit Indian and Chinese imports are performing extremely well, playing almost exclusively to their respective communities. For example, Hindi-language action movies “Uri: The Surgical Strike” and “War” earned $4.2 and $3.6 million, respectively, while the spectacular Sino disaster movie “The Wandering Earth” (which earned just shy of $700 million in China) took in an impressive $5.9 million in the U.S. about two months before landing on Netflix.
To even be considered for Oscar’s international prize, these movies must be selected by an approved committee in their native countries and officially submitted to the Academy, whose one-film-per-country rule has resulted in a record 93 foreign contenders this year.
But as Karaszewski points out, “Any of these films are eligible for best picture.”
Nearly every other country’s national film academy focuses on its own local industry when honoring the year’s cinematic achievements — France’s Césars, Israel’s Ophirs, the Japan Academy Film Prize and so on — typically relegating American movies to some kind of “foreign” category. The Oscars have always been an exception. As far back as 1938, the Academy nominated French director Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” for outstanding production.
Eligibility questions aside, in the Oscars’ 91-year history, only 10 foreign-language films have been nominated for best picture — not counting 2011 winner “The Artist,” a French-made “silent” film whose only line of dialogue was spoken in English. “Roma” may not have won best picture, but in breaking out of the foreign-language box, it has already changed the conversation.