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How the Academy’s International Membership May Have Helped ‘Parasite’ Make Oscars History

Parasite” made history at the 92nd Oscars by becoming the first non-English language film to win Hollywood’s biggest prize: best picture.

Many pundits predicted that Sam Mendes’ “1917” would take home that honor because the Motion Picture Academy membership didn’t seem ready to embrace a subtitled movie outside of the international award category, which director Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” also won. After all, these are the same voters who nominated only one person of color for best actress (Cynthia Erivo of “Harriet”) and not a single woman in the director category.

Lorenza Muñoz, the Academy’s managing director of membership and awards, believes that, for “Parasite,” the road to Oscar glory was aided by an increase in the organization’s international voters.

“The Academy is global,” she told me the day after the ceremony. “It’s more inclusive than ever, and we are all the better for it. And with the laser focus we’ve had on growing our international efforts, this is the outcome of hard work and a lot of determination from people who really wanted these great films and filmmakers to be recognized. And we saw the fruits of our labor last night.”

Muñoz came to the Academy in 2015 after covering film at the Los Angeles Times and later working as a policy and media director for Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. In her Academy role, Muñoz was tasked by CEO Dawn Hudson with increasing outreach to international members and non-members. Munoz was only five months into the job when the Academy was rocked by #OscarsSoWhite in January 2016. As the organization was being maligned for its lack of internal diversity, the board of governors undertook plans to course correct by enacting A2020, an initiative to increase inclusion and representation within its ranks.

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Four years later, the Academy’s international membership is at an all-time high, with 20% of its nearly 9,000 members coming from 58 countries outside the U.S.

Muñoz says a key to expanding the ranks as well as visibility for filmmakers from all walks of life is tapping the Academy’s network of members all over the world. Case in point: After the Academy was introduced to director Maïmouna Doucouré through its members in Paris, she was given a $22,000 grant from its Gold Fellowship for Women program to help her complete her feature directorial debut, “Cuties.”

Just days after “Cuties” premiered at Sundance’s 2020 World Cinema Dramatic Competition, where it won a directing award, Netflix bought world rights with plans to have the film translated into 40 languages and available in the streamer’s 190 territories.

“Aside from being readily available to me, listening to me, supporting and encouraging me, the Academy designated one of its members to mentor me, who advised me and provided me with some tools to prepare for my career as a female director,” says Doucouré.

Muñoz has also increased the Academy’s presence at film festivals. In fact, the organization made its first trip last year to Cannes, where it hosted a members’ reception. “We started looking at all of the potential partnerships we could have with international film festivals in a way that is very much a collaboration, and where we could partner with filmmakers,” she says.

Next up, Muñoz, who is Mexican American, is working on a formal partnership with a festival in Mexico. “I would also love to do something in Argentina, Brazil, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco,” she says. “There are a lot of hubs we’re trying to figure out incrementally.” She won’t reveal exact figures, but she says the Academy has increased her budget: “The governors understand that the growth is international, and that’s where we should be focusing a lot of our efforts.”

In other words, another “Parasite” may be just around the global corner.

“‘Parasite’ resonated so much with our members because not only is it an amazing film and on every level — acting, writing, set design, directing obviously — everything was incredible,” Muñoz says. “But it was also a story that was local and yet universal. That movie could have been set anywhere in the world with all the social inequity that’s happening. And it spoke to people, but it also had the comedy and the horror. And it just happened to be in Korean, and it happened to have a Korean underlying storyline.”

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