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Oscar’s International Film Race Hits Road Bumps

Pain and Glory Penelope Cruz
Courtesy of Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Clas

“I grew up watching foreign-language films,” director Alfonso Cuarón quipped after his “Roma” won the Oscar for foreign-language film last year. “Learning so much from them and being inspired. Films like ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Jaws,’ ‘Rashomon,’ ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breathless.’”

For foreign-language committee co-chairs Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, who had taken over the position that year from Mark Johnson, the co-chair for 17 of the previous 18 years, Cuarón’s joke was enough to prompt a change that had been a long-standing debate within the Academy. The category that had been called foreign-language film since 1956, when Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” won the award, was changed to international feature film, to reflect a more inclusive understanding of global cinema.

“It was something that has been discussed for years and years and years,” says screenwriter Karaszewski, whose latest, “Dolemite Is My Name,” co-written with longtime creative partner Scott Alexander, is up for Oscar consideration this year. “Just the idea that the word ‘foreign’ was starting to seem strange, because there was really nothing foreign about the movies that we were seeing. They were just not in the English language. And we actually met zero pushback when we suggested it. Everyone thought it was a great idea, and it is a great idea.”

“We think it was a really positive, inclusive idea to create a name that reflected the larger community that we feel part of as Academy members,” adds Weyermann, chief content officer for Participant Media. “It’s not us versus them, or us and them. It’s all of us.”

Yet the rollout for international feature film has not been without some unforeseen bumps in the road. As flawed as foreign-language film might have been as a category name, one major requirement for submission was right there in the title: In order to qualify for a nomination, the majority of the dialogue had to be in a language other than English. That rule hasn’t changed with the rebranding, but it has inadvertently renewed an argument about the predominantly English-speaking countries that surely qualify as “international,” but lose out on a technicality.

At the center of the controversy this year is “Lionheart,” Nigeria’s first submission for Oscar consideration, which was disqualified for being primarily in English. Genevieve Nnaji’s drama, about a woman who tries to save her ailing father’s business, premiered at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival to kind reviews and was picked up by Netflix for distribution. Though a portion of the film is in the Ibo language, the predominant use of English reflects everyday life in Nigeria, one of several African countries once colonized by the British.

“If you didn’t draw the line on language,” says Karaszewski, “it would be almost no different than best picture. These [bigger English-speaking countries] are currently able to submit films, but they have to be films that have been shot in a language that is not English. Otherwise, every year ‘The King’s Speech’ would win best international film, and that was never the purpose of this award.”

“It’s just unfortunate,” adds Weyermann. “There have been other types of disqualification too. Sometimes it can be language, sometimes it can be other aspects of the rules that haven’t been complied with. We certainly did not feel that changing the name was going to result in anyone being disqualified, because the rules are very clear.”

Karaszewski says such disqualifications were not uncommon in the past, either, despite flying under the foreign-language film banner.

“‘The Band’s Visit’ from Israel was disqualified a few years ago because it had too much English in it. Every couple of years, there’s a film or two that gets deemed ineligible because they don’t meet the category rules. And all the rules are sent to each country.”

Other changes to the rules this year have reflected the desire for greater inclusivity, especially in the voting process. As in the past, there are two phases for determining the nominees and winner: Phase one considers all the submitted titles — unlike nominees in other categories, they don’t have to have a domestic theatrical run to qualify — and Academy members need to see at least 15 titles, all on the big screen, to help whittle it down to a shortlist. Phase two requires members to have seen all the films under consideration in order to vote for their favorites.

There are two tweaks this year to open up the category, one relatively minor and one more significant. The shortlist has expanded from nine films to an even 10, which Karaszewski and Weyermann feel is a less-arbitrary number. (“I think we should be like Spinal Tap and take it to 11,” he jokes.) But for the first time, the phase two voting will allow for shortlisted films to be streamed online through the Academy’s screener site. That means Academy members that don’t live in Los Angeles and New York, where the titles have been traditionally screened, will be able to participate in the process.

“The big change was, once again, trying to be inclusive to our international members, particularly with the new name and the global reach of the Academy,” says Karaszewski.

The Academy quietly started to stream shortlisted film for members abroad who wanted to opt-in; it was encouraged enough by the response to expand access.

So far, the reaction has been ecstatic with Academy members, he says. “I think there’s a lot of people who are on a film shoot, or they’re at [Pinewood Studios] in Atlanta. Or they’re in Vancouver. Even if you’re making a movie in Los Angeles, you’re busy, busy, busy. You can’t do it, but then you come home at night, and if you could watch one film every night, you could probably be eligible to vote.”

In the past, Weyermann notes, screening schedules haven’t been easy for voters to keep, either, even if they lived in Los Angeles or New York.

“There were people who were incredibly frustrated,” says Weyermann. “They may have seen eight of the nine films in the past and were missing one film and couldn’t see it, because we didn’t allow it to be streamed. And so they couldn’t vote, which wasn’t fair to them.”

With more voters gaining access to the shortlisted films, Weyermann predicts that international features stand a better chance of infiltrating other categories as they did last year, when “Roma” and Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” spilled over into nominations for other major awards.

“That’s an incredible thing,” she says, “because I think it shows that these films were getting out, that more people were seeing them, and that they could get support in other award categories, which is thrilling for us.”