The International Feature Film Oscar shortlist is due a little less than a month from now. And while it’s again a hotly-contested race, just a slight change this year — which had nothing to do with the eligibility rules — has made headlines. In an era where the Academy is endeavoring to be more inclusive and global, it also has looked to open up the traditional “foreign language” field. But in name only. That’s made more clear by International Feature Film executive committee co-chairs Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann. We recently discussed the state of things.
DEADLINE: This year, you changed the name of the category from Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Feature Film. What was the impetus?
LARRY KARASZEWSKI: We just though the title of the category was a little outmoded. Filmmakers are not foreigners, they’re part of the international filmmaking community. The language is not English, otherwise you’d have competition from English-speaking British films, Canadian films, Australian films. That was never the purpose of this category. And when we announced it, we announced it as a title change and nothing else.
DEADLINE: And yet, there seems to have been some confusion with the excising of the words “foreign language” from the title…
DIANE WEYERMANN: It was definitely a title change and of course the nominating committees received the full rules. I think they probably went out a few times. Now that it has come up, it is something we’ll discuss in the future. But I think they’re being conflated in a way that isn’t really accurate. So the title of the award was changed to be more inclusive and less sort of distancing.
As Larry said, the use of the word “foreign” can have, particularly in this charged polarized world that we’re living in, it can have a polarized distancing negative connotation and as a global community of filmmakers and artists, this title change was really meant to reflect an inclusion and being part of the whole community.
The differentiators in terms of the guidelines and rules have always included that the film has to be in a foreign native language. It clearly did not affect the rule itself which has been a standing rule.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting because BAFTA’s similar category is called Best Film not in the English Language
WEYERMANN: I think the thing with that is you would then have films made in the States, for example. There are many that are made here that are not in the English language and again the idea is not to give more opportunity to those films or filmmakers, but really to highlight work that is happening around the world that isn’t in the U.S. and that is really decided by these nominating committees.
KARASZEWSKI: I’m not sure why we are beholden to having our rules in the title of the category. It’s the titles of the category and then there are certain rules underneath that.
DEADLINE: And yet, because this category has had its share of controversy in the past, when you were changing the name, did you expect there to be any issues?
WEYERMANN: No. With the change of the name certainly we did not anticipate any problems because the rules weren’t changed. We did not anticipate that a name change would lead to an issue when the rules didn’t change. Had the rules changed, then there would have been an issue. In another direction, because frankly if the rules changed to say it was fine to include films in English if they are from other countries, then you would have countries like the UK where English is the main language and all of those films that would be eligible.
So it’s a bigger issue other than a rules issues, it’s a language in the rules that is not connected to the title of the award. I think it is probably something that now gets discussed by the committee. But you take one step in one direction, we certainly didn’t anticipate this, it’s unfortunate that it happened, but a rule change could then lead to another series of issues that could be more problematic so it’s just something that has to be discussed.
We’re really trying to improve because this category, as you know, we’re all really dedicated to it and love it and believe in it. We think it’s really important, so we’re trying to make changes to improve. This is just something that is obviously incredibly unfortunate.
KARASZEWSKI: The good thing about this category is there are 90+ films and sometimes movies that aren’t on the radar pop because we give a fair shake to everyone. And there is an opportunity for filmmakers from smaller countries.
DEADLINE: Larry, you and I spoke just after Nigeria’s Lionheart was ruled ineligible because of its use of English. You said, “If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award, I would think you should look at the rules.”
KARASZEWSKI: It’s slightly growing pains in the sense that it was the first year we did it. I still think the title is correct and unfortunately this happened, but because of this everyone is going to be very aware this is a category for non-English films.
DEADLINE: What was the thinking behind expanding the shortlist from nine to 10 films?
KARASZEWSKI: Year after year the films were so strong, and nine felt like an arbitrary number. Most other shortlists were ten or fifteen. Our goal is to aim a spotlight on great international cinema, so we felt adding an additional worthy title was a good idea.
DEADLINE: Why did you open the voting for the nominees to all Academy members?
KARASZEWSKI: We want to be as inclusive as we can to all Academy members. We had already opened Phase Two to international Academy members, and since we already had that infrastructure in place, why not open it to members in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and the rest of the country? There is so much excitement about this category and the quality of the films that we kept hearing from Academy members who were not Los Angeles based that they wished to be a part of the process. Now they can.
DEADLINE: This year again feels like an embarrassment of riches from confirmed filmmakers and again from newcomers. How is everybody feeling about the crop we have this year?
KARASZEWSKI: We are very excited. It’s nice when we go to these screenings and you come out of the movie and everyone is like, “Wow, that was a great film.” I think we’re in a golden age of international films right now. As Hollywood product has become so blockbuster oriented, it’s really cool. It’s really refreshing to go to some of these screenings to see such a diverse slate and topics being covered that you wouldn’t ordinarily see and not necessarily in America. That’s why this category is so exciting and has so much excitement around it.
WEYERMANN: It does seem to be, to your point, another stellar year of just incredible work, some from very established filmmakers and others from emerging filmmakers, some from countries that don’t have a lot of film production. You see a film and it’s remarkably refreshing and a view into a different culture and type of storytelling. It’s been a really terrific year so far. We’re still watching a lot of the films, but I would say overall the responses of people who are participating have been incredibly positive.
DEADLINE: Is it particularly gratifying when you guys see a foreign language film move into other categories?
KARASZEWSKI: It’s very exciting and it just confirms that this is the category that has been very strong. Last year, we had two Best Director nominations, three Best Cinematography nominations.
WEYERMANN: And acting nominations and it wasn’t just Roma. Opening the process up so that more people in the Academy are able to participate, I think that just more people saw these films and they did find their way into other categories which is incredibly exciting. I think also some of the films that are just doing really well and getting out to the marketplace that are successes in their own right, this award aside, that they are getting into the culture and into the zeitgeist and really performing, we love it. Larry and I both do, and a bunch of people in the Academy, when you see these films being nominated in a number of the other categories it’s incredibly gratifying.
DEADLINE: On the streaming issue, is that helping or hurting? I’ll forever remember seeing a Bergman movie at the Paris Theatre in New York as a kid, which wouldn’t be possible today. In a twist, Netflix recently moved to screen there. Is it better now that there’s a democratization because of the platforms and also a mix of a short theatrical window?
WEYERMANN: I think that because the exhibition space is so competitive, and it’s not just international films but also independent films, we all know this is happening. It’s been the trend, it is the trend. It’s somewhat terrifying that these films that say don’t perform the first week they’re on the screen, they’re off the screen. So the truth is unfortunately the days when you could go see a Bergman film in an art house cinema and it would play for months and months, those days are over and it’s really sad that they are. But they are, so the fact that there are still opportunities to see these films in some cinemas, even if not in as many as it used to be, it’s awesome.
I completely agree that seeing a film on the big screen the way it was intended with great sound and great image and being completely immersed is an incredible experience and one that is unforgettable. However, the opportunities that we have to actually see movies that we would not otherwise see because they are available on streaming platforms is kind of great. For me it is just the way that of what’s happening. It’s not a matter of the Academy, it’s a matter of the industry as a whole — this is the direction of the industry. So I think a lot of people have seen these films that otherwise would never have been able. It’s better than not having the opportunity at all. I’m a big proponent of a cinema experience and I really hope that distributors still take these films out. Look at Neon with Parasite this year, it’s doing extremely well and that’s great. I love to see a film get out there and work in the cinema. But having said that, we all know there are limited opportunities and so having other ways that we can access this amazing work is great.
DEADLINE: What about how themes and stories are changing. What have you noticed particularly?
WEYERMANN: We’re getting more documentaries, we’re getting more animated films that are coming through, more films directed by women. Maybe this is just reflecting changes within the industry as a whole, but I think we’re certainly trying to recognize, and not just we because it’s kind of the nominating committees and what they nominate, but starting there and then we get to see all these and celebrate all these different stories and voices and cultures.