Hollywood has always been in one identity crisis or another. Does it tell neat stories about family and home and friendship, or messy stories about scandal and sex? Is Hollywood a liberal propaganda machine or an upholder of fundamentally conservative ideas peddled by rich people? Should the movies make us see the world for what it really is, or help us escape from it?
The answer, in general, is “yes,” and that’s been true for the latest quandary. Is Hollywood the soul of the American movie industry, or is it the seat of the global film business? And are the Oscars, given out by Hollywood’s most prestigious professional association, the biggest prize in the world — or just in America?
It’s a question that’s become more pressing in recent decades. Hollywood’s attempts to hang onto its foothold in the global entertainment landscape — to remain the source of the world’s entertainment — have become more noticeable over the past few years. In the face of flourishing film industries abroad, particularly in China, movie studios have worked harder to compete, casting movies with faces more recognizable on other continents than in the US. Multiple blockbusters over the past few years have contained jokes in languages other than English (particularly Mandarin) that poke fun at English-only speakers. And companies like Netflix have found success not just exporting American-made entertainment but importing shows like Squid Game and Lupin to Americans. The world is changing, and the movie business has always been shoved around by new technologies. To stay relevant, and maybe even solvent, Hollywood needs to change and expand as well.
To be sure, in 2020, for the first time, a non-English-language film (Parasite) won Best Picture, and it’s a thriller produced outside the American movie machine. But for the most part, the Oscars remain a curious pocket of provincialism, and a mostly English-only one at that. One could argue that they’re like the British BAFTAs or France’s Césars — centered in and focused on US-made films, an awards ceremony for and about the American film industry, which operates almost entirely in English. And yet, Oscar aspirations and occasionally the awards themselves have always gone far beyond American borders. As the awards have evolved, they’ve tried to make space for those aspirations, aiming to be not just the American movie awards, but the world’s movie awards.
But change comes slowly. The way the Oscars recognize international films is, to put it in technical terms, pretty janky, ridden with problems that allow countries to bury films they don’t find flattering to their national image. And if Hollywood really wants to maintain its claim to being the center of the movie universe — a perhaps dubious claim to begin with — then the Academy is going to have to lead the way.
The Oscars were created to save Hollywood
The first Oscars were given out in 1929, part of a plan by the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image in the mind of the American public. Plagued by scandal — from tawdry tabloid headlines to actual murders — the new art form’s US incarnation had been struggling throughout the 1920s to stay afloat. And on top of the seedy stuff, labor disputes were beginning to crest the horizon.
MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, in an attempt to keep Hollywood’s writers, actors, and directors from unionizing, came up with the idea to create an “Academy” that could negotiate with the worker bees in the movie industry, keeping them from organizing. As a bonus, that Academy would give out awards, the better to serve as what historian David Thomson calls a “public relations operation that pumped out the message that Hollywood was a wonderful place where delightful and thrilling stories were made to give the folks a good time.” (Sound familiar?)
From the start, the focus was thoroughly American. Back then (and still, in most cases, now) only movies that had played in American theaters were eligible for the Academy Awards. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was far more logistically complicated to even get a print of a foreign movie on American soil, let alone into a movie theater. There were no streaming services or digital rentals to solve that issue. If you wanted to see a movie, it had to play in a theater, and that theater had to be near you.
It wasn’t impossible for a foreign film to be nominated — not at all. In 1932, at the fifth Oscars, the French movie À nous la liberté became the first non-English language film to be nominated (for art direction, the category now called production design). In 1938, another French movie, Grand Illusion, was the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture. And in 1946, the Swiss film Marie-Louise was the first to win, for Best Original Screenplay.
But it wasn’t until 1956 — the 29th year of the awards — that a category was created to recognize the “best foreign language film,” as the Academy chose to name the award. Beginning in 2020, the category’s name was changed to Best International Feature Film, reflecting the Academy’s slow-dawning recognition that languages other than English are not “foreign” to Hollywood’s home country. (After all, in Los Angeles, where the movie business is headquartered, over half of residents speak a language other than English — mostly Spanish — at home, according to 2019 census data.)
Whatever its name, that category served a worthy purpose, ensuring that at least five films from outside the predominately English-speaking world would be recognized by Hollywood each year. (Filmmakers and performers from the UK have never had much trouble getting recognized.) The majority of winners have been European; Italy has won 14 times. Nominees in this category don’t have to play in American theaters to be nominated — the only feature category for which that’s true — and that means a nomination in the category could lead to a distribution deal and increased career opportunities. Two of Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s films, for instance, were nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film (The Wedding Banquet in 1993 and Eat Drink Man Woman in 1994), and in part helped him launch his international career; in 2000, his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for Best Picture.
And for movies that already have a distribution deal, the nominations serve a curatorial function, prompting global audiences to actually seek out and watch the movie. Post-nomination, that might become easier, since nominated films often earn a wider release in more cities than they would otherwise.
But films don’t escape the siloed category all that often. To date, 12 non-English, non-American films have been nominated for Best Picture, including this year’s Japanese entry Drive My Car. Only one, the Korean film Parasite, has won the top prize. Over the years, many other films have managed to get nominations in other categories, and the 2022 nominations also include several non-English films produced outside of Hollywood in director, actress, and both screenplay categories.
Taken as a percentage of the whole, though, it’s mostly movies in English, and largely movies produced in America, that get nominations and win awards. In the past, that might have seemed understandable. But increasingly, it’s starting to feel like a sign of Hollywood’s coming irrelevance on the world stage.
The Academy says it wants to celebrate “the rest of the world.” We’re still waiting.
In 2019, Academy President John Bailey told an audience at a film festival in Poland that he was hoping to grow the international profile of the Oscars. “One of the things I am most committed to is expanding awareness and visibility for the foreign language award,” he said. “To me that award is every bit as important as the best picture award. It’s the best picture award for the rest of the world.”
There’s at least one cynical reason for that desire. Viewership of the Oscars has been dropping precipitously over the last decade, and growing the global interest in the ceremony could lead to growth in numbers, too.
But Bailey’s “rest of the world” comment belies the contradiction at the heart of the category, and the awards more generally. The idea that a category with five nominations can somehow encompass the best movies that have been produced in the entire world effectively projects a hilariously US-centric belief: that no country other than America, and maybe the UK, really make movies worth paying attention to.
On top of it all, the Best International Feature category is hopelessly broken, as I argued in 2020. It’s a messy situation, but in brief: Countries choose one film to submit to the Academy from their country each year, and those entries are then turned into a short list and eventually a set of nominations. But many of the world’s greatest filmmakers — especially in places like Russia, China, and Iran — are blacklisted by their country’s governments, sometimes even imprisoned, and their films will never be submitted.
Furthermore, in some (though not all) cases, films that are politically problematic to the ruling party in a country aren’t submitted either. (It’s possible that’s what happened to Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodóvar’s highly lauded film that’s partly about the Spanish Civil War and wasn’t even submitted by Spain for the international category; Penélope Cruz got a Best Actress nomination for it anyway.) That means those films have a harder time getting international distribution and making waves on the international stage; it can also keep opportunities away from talented filmmakers.
Setting aside the problems with the international film category, the Academy’s reluctance, on the whole, to nominate international films outside the category is a sign of its identity crisis. After several years of embarrassment over the lack of diversity in its membership and its nominees, the group has been on an aggressive push to add members from underrepresented groups. Part of that push has included considerable expansion of the international membership; last year, almost half the newly invited membership were from outside the US.
That’s had an impact on the nominations, as we explored last year. But it’s also a sign that the Acadamy wants the Oscars to be seen not just as the American film awards, but the world’s film awards.
And no wonder. Netflix, one of the “big six” studios in Hollywood, has had success with American viewers watching international imports, mostly but not exclusively TV. The success of non-English films — the streaming service is full of Chinese blockbusters, Bollywood and anime have been hugely popular for a long time, and 26 million people watched the Korean Netflix blockbuster Space Sweepers in early 2021 — might indicate that Americans are getting ready to take the same subtitle-reading, culture-crossing plunge that everyone else took decades ago.
Plus, as Hollywood becomes increasingly focused on blockbusters featuring superheroes and warmed-over IP, international cinema often offers a breath of fresh air. Both Drive My Car and The Worst Person in the World, nominated in multiple categories, are the kinds of small, personable stories that don’t get made as often in Hollywood as they used to. Expanding the awards’ reach might help re-establish the vitality of cinema as a place to tell all kinds of stories, not just escapist fantasies and movies designed to rake in maximum profit. If the Academy aims to honor the best in film, and not just the “most,” then that seems like a worthy goal.
A generation of young people raised on the internet might be more open to the possibilities of global cinema, more tuned in to what’s making waves on the world stage. And if the Academy really wants to remain relevant, and its awards to maintain the dominance they’ve enjoyed for nearly a century, it’ll need to adapt — and a lot faster than it is right now.
Movies don’t respect borders anymore. Why should the Oscars?