In Oscar Seasons To Come, Foreign Voters Will Bring Their Tastes With Them

Alejandro G Inarritu Oscars 2016
AP Images

Did you feel it last year, that tug-of-war between Spotlight, a very American movie (though shot in Canada) about the dying domestic news industry and priestly sexual abuse in Boston, and The Revenant, an essentially global film, with locations that ranged from Calgary to Tierra del Fuego, an international superstar in Leonardo DiCaprio, and a director whose name, Alejandro González Iñárritu, requires a load of diacritical marks?

(Spotlight got less than half of its ticket sales from abroad, The Revenant about two-thirds.)

Come Oscar night, the more domestic film won. But that will almost surely change as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its evolving membership cast their votes in coming years.

ABC logo 1

The inexorable internationalization of the Academy, and of the movie business at large, must figure in the thinking of ABC as it contemplates prospects for its just-announced long-term contract to broadcast the Oscars through 2028. The potential impact of increasingly global choices on ABC’s domestic broadcast ratings for the Oscars make the agreement to go with an eight-year contract — rather than 10 years, as in the past — look like a break for the network.

The Academy doesn’t publicly disclose how many of its members are based in the U.S., and how many are abroad. But it revealed that of this year’s large crop of new invitees, 283 out of 683 — about 40% —were from 59 foreign countries. Those included Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai, Tunisian cinematographer Sofian El Fani, and Spanish director Isabel Coixet. This week, two of four artists tagged to receive honorary Oscars at the next Governors Awards were from abroad: international action star Jackie Chan and British film editor Anne V. Coates.

Slowly, but surely, the Academy is getting in line with a film business that receives more than half of its revenue (and a higher percentage for major studio blockbusters) from abroad. In an interview earlier this year, Cheryl Boone Isaacs said internationalization was high on her priority list.

The realignment makes sense. But the change is almost certain to affect Oscar voting in coming years, pushing it further away from the domestic favorites that prevailed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Academy was more wholly American and voted for films like Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, The Silence Of The Lambs and Dances With Wolves, and toward a more cosmopolitan mix, as in the mid-1960s. Back then, when Brits and Europeans were a strong presence in the film industry, the big winners were Lawrence Of Arabia, Tom Jones and My Fair Lady.

Probably not by accident, the last awards cycle saw a roster of acting nominees that was, as almost everyone noticed, all white, but also included — as was not widely spotted — half of its contenders from Commonwealth countries. Among those were Eddie Redmayne from The Danish Girl, Charlotte Rampling from 45 Years, and Cate Blanchett from Carol, all small films in box-office terms. It was only the second time the Commonwealth hit the halfway mark since the ’60s (the other being 2002, when Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman were among the nominees). In the mid-’80s, the acting nominees were far more heavily American-born.

The Academy, which appears to have been expanding its foreign membership since the mid-2000s, is likely to accentuate that trend, as it casts a wide net for female and non-white filmmakers in its ongoing diversity push.

Denis Villeneuve

Those new members from abroad will inevitably bring their tastes with them. This year, that could for instance, mean a boost for Arrival, with its French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, and a slight drag on Clint Eastwood’s Sully, which is more nearly all-American. Over the long haul, internationalization of the voting pool might also make it harder for African-American filmmakers, who have always had a tough time selling their essentially domestic stories abroad; and it might make things much tougher for ABC, as it fights for domestic ratings with a film mix that is likely to be increasingly foreign.

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