The Oscars International Feature Film Category Needs a Total Overhaul. Heres a Simple Fix

It’s time to change the Academy’s award for international films. Not just the name of the category — which switched from foreign language film to international feature film in 2019 — but the whole way it is administered. 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the award be abolished. Just because “Parasite” finally overcame what director Bong Joon Ho called the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” to win best picture in 2020 does not mean the Academy’s increasingly international membership will make a regular thing of awarding its top prize to non-English-language films. The award still serves an important purpose for the largely America-centric organization. 

Nothing short of a total overhaul of the category is in order. Every year, the Academy tweaks the rules, trying to improve the controversial and oft-criticized process by which the international nominees are selected: They rejigger the committees who screen the submissions, inviting additional members to participate. But they won’t get it right until the Academy rethinks the flawed logic behind the category. 

The problem with this backward award — which was formally established in 1956 after a decade of giving one-off prizes to films from Italy, France and Japan — is that it was created in the spirit of honoring foreign movies at a time when American audiences were only starting to embrace world cinema. It has not adapted to reflect the new reality: Compared to Hollywood blockbusters, non-English-language films earn relatively little at the American box office, and yet — and this is key — they comprise nearly one-fifth of the total number of movies released in U.S. theaters each year.  

Every other Oscar category — from best picture to the narrower documentary and animated feature races — bases eligibility on whether the film in question receives a week-long theatrical qualifying run in one of six markets: Los Angeles County, New York City, the Bay Area, Chicago, Miami or Atlanta. But the international feature category still follows an outdated “one country, one film” rule, which treats the prize like the World Cup for cinema, giving every nation a chance to field its best team. 

There are countless reasons that system doesn’t work, but let’s focus on three. 

First, it’s neither realistic nor accurate to think of most global movies according to a single country. In the U.S., films are traditionally made with nothing but American backing, which no doubt explains the bias. Overseas, filmmakers must often be more creative with their funding, setting up international co-productions between multiple countries to get their projects made. It’s not unusual for Oscar-nominated directors such as Felix van Groeningen (“The Eight Mountains”), Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Broker”) or Ali Abbasi (“Holy Spider”) to make a movie outside his home country — but only one of these will compete this year. 

Second, the choice of which film to submit is made by an easily corruptible committee with different rules and standards in each country. Some try to second-guess the Academy’s taste, putting forward the movie they think Oscar voters will appreciate most — or whose team pledges to campaign most generously. In countries such as Russia and Iran, the most deserving films may be critical of the regime and are therefore passed over for less controversial selections. Elsewhere, industry politics inevitably play a factor: For more than a decade, Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux sat on France’s committee, reportedly pressuring the organization to submit films that had premiered at his festival. Last year, edgy Palme d’Or winner “Titane” was picked instead of Venice Film Festival discoveries “Happening” or “Lost Illusions,” which almost certainly cost France the nomination (if not the win). 

Third — and most important — why should any country be limited to one selection? Italy’s David di Donatello Awards and the Japan Academy Prize put no such limits, frequently nominating multiple American films in their foreign film category. This year, fans of bombastic Bollywood hit “RRR” are upset that India unanimously voted for “Last Film Show” instead. With Frémaux off the committee, France chose “Saint Omer” over Mia Hansen-Løve’s well-liked “One Fine Morning.” Danish-Icelandic-French-Swedish co-production “Godland” ought to be eligible, but it wasn’t submitted by any of those countries. There’s no reason that Oscar voters shouldn’t be able to nominate “RRR,” “One Fine Morning” or “Godland” for the international prize if they want to.  

To put the absurdity of the current system in perspective, imagine if the Academy told every distributor in the U.S. they could pick just one film to compete for the best picture Oscar. Would that really put Netflix, Warner Bros. and A24 Films on “equal” footing, or would it just disqualify a bunch of great contenders?  

I’ve raised this issue with Academy reps countless times over the years, and they always give me the same response: It’s not their fault that the selection committee system is broken — except, it totally is. They literally created this problem. Some patronizingly add that the current approach gives films from obscure countries exposure they would never otherwise receive. But when was the last time you watched the Oscar submission from Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kozovo or Kyrgyzstan (to name just the K’s)? No one’s rushing to release these movies. 

My suggested fix is simple: Hundreds of foreign films open in the U.S. each year. Make that the pool from which nominations are eligible. The most widely seen contenders would naturally rise to the top, but then, the Oscars have always been a popularity contest. Until the Academy starts regularly nominating non-English-language films for best picture — a category the BAFTA Awards once called “Best Film from any Source” — it makes sense for the one that was seen and adored by the greatest number of voters to win the international feature prize. As the Academy now handles it, that film might not even be eligible. 

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