After Cannes, Hit International Titles Must Contend with Local Politics and Academy Rules

Cannes is the birthplace for any number of future Best International Feature Film Oscar nominees, like last year’s Grand Prize winner “Close,” or winners like 2021 Competition entry “Drive My Car.” This year’s possibilities include the UK’s rapturously received German-language from UK filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest;” Argentina’s Un Certain Regard entry “The Delinquents,” a three-hour existential heist movie picked up by Mubi; or Japan’s “Monster,” the latest film from Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose “Shoplifters” scored both the Palme d’Or and an Oscar nomination. However, before they can be nominated they must be submitted — and that, as Academy members well know, is the rub.

The demand for reform boils down to this: Too often the decision of Oscar submissions belongs to decision-makers instead of filmmakers, and that can lead to some… frustrating choices. Last year India did not submit “RRR” and Italy declined to select well-reviewed Cannes entry “The Eight Mountains,” which was directed on location in Italy by the Belgian team of Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch. “If I could change [the Oscars], it’d be this idea to have the category be more open, so any movie could apply for it,” van Groeningen told IndieWire. “Then it would be a process of natural selection.”

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Countries choose their Oscar picks in different ways. Some appoint small committees; some have a national Academy. In Brazil, Iran, and Russia, the committee are dominated by their governments; even in a democratic country like France, the selection process is dominated by industry powermongers. Cannes director Thierry Fremaux was on the committee for years and was often accused of favoring Cannes titles.

This year, among the myriad Academy rule changes was a new rule for Best International Feature Film that requires each country’s Oscar submission selection committee be comprised of 50 percent “artists and or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures.” This doesn’t exactly qualify as radical reform: Prior to its codification as a rule, a 50 percent “guideline” (one that was unavailable to public view) was in place for years. Still, to the extent that countries around the world care about the Oscars, most are likely to comply.

Even so, the new rule does little to address how AMPAS should deal with exiled and banned filmmakers, or with otherwise orphaned films that have no home. International Feature Film executive committee co-chairs Danish Oscar-winner Susanne Bier (“In a Better World”) and MoMa’s chief curator of film, Rajendra Roy, who have been deeply researching the processes behind making international Oscar selections, have yet to figure out a solution to these issues. So they started with a smaller step.

Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest"
“The Zone of Interest”A24

“The thing that was clear to both of us was that there was a real need for more transparency for submitting countries,” said Roy on the phone. “There’s obviously a need for transparency… there still seemed to be confusion amongst the countries about how to submit. There just wasn’t a lot of consistency, but the thing we needed to be true was that people who make movies, and all those in whatever form that takes, are part of at least 50 percent of that process.”

Every year, questions to the Academy abound from selection committees about International Feature Film category awards rules, committee guidelines and criteria, and the submission process. When Bhutan tried to submit for the first time, they had no approved official selection committee. The country needed help from the Academy to establish a selection committee and submit a film. Ultimately, Bhutan earned a surprise nomination for Pawo Choyning Dorji’s “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM, 2019. © Samuel Goldwyn Films / Courtesy Everett Collection
LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM©Samuel Goldwyn Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Attempts to reform the Academy’s foreign-language selection process have included the 2006 change in which a submitted film no longer had to be in the language of its own home country. That allowed Denmark, for example, to submit the country’s Profile Pictures production “Holy Spider” last year; the film was shot in Persian in Jordan. After Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” was passed over for a 2008 nomination, the Academy formed a foreign committee that weighs in on the final selection. That committee was abandoned in 2021, but the Academy expanded the shortlist to 15 and added online viewing to a wider slice of global voters.

To manage international submissions, in April 2022 the Academy hired former Sundance programmer Dilcia Barrera as the Academy’s new senior VP of member relations, global outreach, and administration. She works closely with Meredith Shea, a former AMPAS membership and awards exec who returned to the Academy fold this April as chief membership, impact, and industry officer. “It was an important step for the Academy to find the right staff person to step into the role, someone to focus on international,” said Roy.

While the Academy has long asked countries to submit selection committee memberships to scrutiny, the official rule plus an identifiable enforcer provides more heft.

PALM SPRINGS, CA - JUNE 20:  Short Film Programmer for the Sundance Film Festival Dilcia Barrera speaks on a panel at the 2015 Palm Springs International ShortFest on June 20, 2015 in Palm Springs, California.  (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images)
Dilcia Barrera at the Palm Springs International ShortFestGetty Images

If Roy has his druthers, the next guideline-that-could-become-a-rule will ask the countries to impose term limits on their selection committees, much like the AMPAS board of governors’ three years. (The Academy suggests six-year cycles separated by two-year hiatuses.) Filmmakers have expressed frustration, Roy said, that there’s often no room for their inclusion.

One step at a time. Clearly, the Academy has no plans to throw out the entry model of one film per country anytime soon. For now, Roy said, it’s a matter of finding “ways of making it work better.”

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