Why Foreign-Language Films Still Struggle to Get U.S. Oscar Voters’ Attention

This awards season presents one of the most robust slates of international Oscar contenders in recent memory. With “Close” (Belgium), “Holy Spider” (Denmark) and “Saint Omer” (France) leading the way, there’s also an avalanche of luscious storytelling in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Germany) and “Argentina, 1985” (Argentina). Even larger-than-life actioner “RRR,” distributed by Variance Films, remains one of the most talked-about movies of the year, despite being overlooked as India’s submission for the Academy Awards in favor of “Last Film Show.”

And yet, even with such a rich diversity of movies on offer, international contenders still struggle to find a profile outside of the best international feature film category. Only recently, since the 2020 best picture win of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” have non-U.S. titles received the investment — and confidence — required to campaign in other categories.

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It’s not that Academy voters aren’t invested in films outside of their own culture: once engaged, the themes and magic of cinema tend to speak for themselves. The struggle, it seems, comes with getting voters to press play, and a lack of transparency around who, exactly, is voting in the first place.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences comprises about 10,000 entertainment professionals worldwide (around 7,500 U.S.-based). When submitting for international feature, each country can choose one film in any other language but English. But what people may not realize is that every Academy voter has to opt in to watch the international features.

The Academy then assigns a required viewing list for each member, which is roughly 20% of the total movies submitted (this year’s total submissions have not yet been announced but are believed to have surpassed 90 films). These required viewing titles must, at minimum, be watched in order to vote for the first round of voting, which narrows the field down to 15 features. After the shortlist is announced in December, the same members must watch all 15 selections to vote during the nomination voting period that ultimately determines the five Oscar-nominated films.

But there’s one glaring issue from the get-go: movie studios and awards publicists don’t know who opted into the voting process, nor the number of voters who did. For all they know, it could be 10 people or all 10,000. That anonymity forces studios to push those films to the widest audience possible, rather than tailor campaigns to a specific group, which would be far more effective and help certain movies get a more solid footing during awards season.


Elsewhere, there are also commercial barriers affecting how far an international film can realistically go.

In 2016, AMPAS introduced the Academy Screening Room (ASR), a digital platform for voting members to screen films for awards consideration. It was launched initially for specialty categories and then expanded in 2019 for general entry. It’s a vast improvement on the “old days” of limited screenings, says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. Back then, “you had the films play once at the Academy in Los Angeles, so if you wanted to vote for the shortlist — or, before they had the shortlist, for the five [films] — you literally had to go to the one screening. That caused fewer people to be able to vote.”

There’s no charge for submitting to the ASR for an international feature, but for movies that are seeking nominations outside of the category, including best picture, there’s a $20,000 fee. Per the Academy guidelines, this covers the cost of an invisible watermark and its technical team’s extensive quality control review.

As you can imagine, for smaller films from less affluent countries, $20,000 is mighty steep. The submission fee alone could comprise half the modest budget for an entire campaign season. However, there is an application for which studios and filmmakers can apply if their films were made with a budget under $10 million U.S. dollars. If approved, they receive a reduced rate of $8,000.

“It would be amazing to have every film, from every language, get recognized, but that’s not the reality,” says one prominent studio executive. “It’s easy to say that voters don’t watch movies, and that’s true. But also true [is that] even though it was nominated for best picture, ‘Drive My Car’ didn’t sell out AMC Theatres.”

For voters like this studio executive, awards recognition isn’t enough: there has to be a pay-off at the box office, which isn’t always guaranteed with international titles. “Drive My Car,” a three-hour Japanese film from Janus Films, grossed just $2.3 million domestically and only over $15 million worldwide.

Read: the latest predictions, visit Variety’s Oscars Hub.

Meanwhile, international feature film wins aren’t even given the same recognition as other categories at the Oscars. While studios covet the highly sought-after statuette for best picture, the less-than-glossy prize for international film Oscar is the only category with no official person officially receiving the award.

Even though the film’s director typically accepts it, the nomination and eventual statuette goes to the respective country. For example, Asghar Farhadi’s films “A Separation” (2011) and “The Salesman” (2016) have both won for his native country of Iran previously, but he’s not technically an Oscar winner. Likewise, Pedro Almodóvar’s Academy win is for original screenplay for “Talk to Her” (2002) and not in the history books for his international feature Oscar win for “All About My Mother” (1999).

Ultimately, there’s still work to do for inclusiveness in Hollywood, but consumers have to pitch in as well. If you haven’t heard of it, and know nothing about it, that’s the best time to watch a movie. You might surprise yourself.

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