In the modern Oscar season, there are two camps: One wants to see old-school Hollywood studio filmmaking return to the forefront, with “Top Gun: Maverick” leading the charge. The other, galvanized by the success of “Parasite,” “Roma,” and “Drive My Car” and their migration beyond the Best International Feature Film category, wants to see the Academy further embrace international cinema.
That side of the conversation will accelerate in the coming months. Indian crossover hit “RRR” didn’t get submitted by its country, but could have potential in major categories, including Best Picture. Cannes Best Director winner Park Chan-wook could make it into that same category for the Oscars with Korean submission “Decision to Leave.” Lea Seydoux may get a Best Actress campaign for “One Fine Morning.” All of these possibilities and more are on the table — if some facets of the Academy can get over their lingering stigma with foreign-language films.
Bill Kramer, the new CEO for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, has waded carefully into the divide in an effort to please both contingencies. In recent weeks, Kramer traveled to festivals around the world and put renewed efforts into engaging the 25 percent of Academy membership that lives outside the U.S.
These efforts, coupled with the Academy’s attempts to diversify its revenue streams with overseas funding, point to the organization’s global future whether or not certain movies make the cut.
“The Academy has been honoring international cinema since the 1940s,” Kramer said over coffee at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month, referring to the earliest foreign-language Oscar handed out in 1947. “I really see the Academy as sort of introducing the U.S. to Fellini, De Sica, Rossellini, Kurosawa. Early on, we really exposed international filmmakers in a big way, so this has always been a focus for us.” Then he backtracked to make it clear — without naming names, of course — that embracing international cinema didn’t come at the expense of box office hits gaining ground at the Oscars as well.
“I would love to see popular films nominated on the show,” he said. “I think we all would. I love that we have 10 Best Picture nominees. One of the goals there is to have a wide variety of films in that category. We want it all.”
Much of the awards infrastructure feels the same. “I don’t want those kinds of movies to win,” one veteran awards publicist with a diverse portfolio told me, “but I do want them to get nominated, so that people watch the show.”
That’s a desperate plea for a program that drew 16.6 million viewers in March, a formidable 73 percent climb from the 2021 edition, but more or less even with 2020 numbers and not particularly impressive by event TV standards (this year’s Super Bowl averaged 112.3 million viewers). Kramer has assured Academy voters that the broadcast will incorporate craft winners after last year’s embarrassing decision to push them off the air, but if the show doesn’t celebrate commercially successful movies that general audiences know, it will need to figure out another way to lure them in. The Academy has handed that particular conundrum to the 2023 show producers, Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner. According to Kramer, the telecast’s appeal doesn’t have to revolve around which films are nominated. “An expansion of our thinking on our engagement internationally does not necessarily mean on the Oscars telecast,” he said.
Kramer has been making the rounds ever since he was hired from his perch as the director and president of the Academy Museum in June. He’s connected with as many members of the press and industry as possible, assuring them that Will Smith slapping Chris Rock was not the Oscars’ death knell. Instead, it was a metaphor for a broader wake-up call: This insular Hollywood institution needed to emerge from its ivory tower and engage with the world. This month, Kramer put many jet-setters to shame by traveling from Venice to Telluride and Toronto in the span of a week, and he said that was just the beginning of efforts to deepen the international identity of awards season.
The Academy, which maintains a U.K. office, will continue to show its face at festivals in London, Copenhagen, and Busan, among others. “You’re going to see us in all these markets much more,” Kramer said. “All of that is in motion and growing — how we connect with members, how we go to film festivals, the way we educate international members about how they can be eligible for Oscars.”
At an all-member meeting of the Academy last weekend, newly elected president Janet Yang announced that the organization hired Dilcia Barrera, a former Sundance and LACMA programmer, as senior VP Academy Member Relations and Awards; her duties include addressing questions pertaining to the International Feature category, including thorny issues related to language qualifications. (An Academy member from Nigeria, where most movies are in English, asked a question that prompted the announcement.) The role also adds a central resource for international films that want to make headway in other categories.
“I think you will see different sorts of filmmakers honored at the Oscars,” Kramer said. He declined to comment on whether the rules for international Oscar submissions would be altered in the future, but this would be a logical next step in the evolution of the process.
Every country’s film body is allowed to submit a single film for the foreign-language category and has been for decades. This means that the Academy outsources the qualification and remains at the mercy of countries that sometimes have questionable criteria. It has led to extreme situations like Iran, which has jailed dissident filmmakers like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, but extends to other puzzling scenarios in which a country’s most obvious Oscar hopeful is shut out (see: India’s “RRR” and Romanian Cannes favorite “RMN”). The Academy might consider a wholesale makeover for this system, perhaps extending its festival presence to include international committees of its own.
Whatever they decide to do, Kramer is leaning into the possibility of change, and the industry has started to take notice. They’re embracing the arrival of a team player who sees the survival of the Oscars as one that requires embracing its base, not alienating it. “He seems to be a big thinker in terms of his international understanding of things,” Telluride director Julie Huntsinger told me. “We’re involved in the exact same thing — promoting and highlighting the best of cinema, with an eye to the future.”
Like much of the industry, Kramer embraced the 2020 Best Picture win for “Parasite” in 2020. “People started feeling differently about international cinema, if they weren’t already engaging with it,” he said. “I see this as additive and growth for us, not at the expense of incredible Hollywood films.”
In the most recent additions to Academy membership, which expanded the number of members past 10,000, nearly 50 percent are international (around 200 people). “We have so much access to international films now, and streaming has a lot to do with this,” Kramer said. “This is becoming our cinematic universe in a way that I don’t think it was even five or 10 years ago. Our membership is starting to reflect that. When I think about some of the big films from last year — ‘Drive My Car,’ ‘A Hero,’ ‘Worst Person in the World,’ ‘Parallel Mothers’ — they were discussed as much as ‘CODA’ was discussed among our membership.”
Some may dispute the designation of those titles as “big,” although the awards season has grown more holistic. Members can stream all submissions on the Academy Screening Room, a level playing field where international entries have just as much of a shot at getting seen.
If a foreign-language movie pierces the Oscars conversation, it can reverberate for years. This year’s Korean entry, “Decision to Leave,” puts longstanding genre auteur Park Chan-wook on a platform built by the success of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” two years ago. That phenomenon also laid the groundwork for other Korean success stories, including “Squid Game” on Netflix.
“‘Parasite’ made what was impossible to imagine possible,” Park said in an interview with IndieWire from TIFF, where “Decision to Leave” made its North American premiere. “If not for ‘Parasite,’ I wouldn’t be able to imagine my film crossing over. It was a monumental moment in the history of cinema.”
Park’s Oscar expectations for the movie have grown since Cannes. He expressed a desire to see his actors compete in the lead performance categories, and was happy to have his work embraced beyond the genre community that has celebrated “Oldboy” and his other gorier undertakings for years.“A lot of Asian films were consumed by Western viewers under a category of ‘extreme films,’” he said. “After the rise of Netflix, I feel that foreign audiences’ resistance to subtitles has been reduced, and more diverse Asian films have been introduced to more audiences. The time has come.”
If Park can get into Best Director with his Korean potboiler, it opens up other questions about this year’s contenders: Why not push for 84-year-old Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski, whose nearly wordless donkey drama “EO” won the jury prize at Cannes and became the Polish submission over the summer? Could “RRR” director S.S. Rajamouli join them?
Of course, some longtime Academy members eager to embrace Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” may be threatened by the idea of the Hollywood stronghold giving way to other nations’ film industries. Kramer did his best to assuage that fear. “We are an international organization,” he said. “If you look at our museum, in terms of international cinema versus domestic cinema, it’s like a 25-75 split. If you look at all our screenings and exhibitions. Spike Lee will be replaced by Agnes Varda, Miyazaki is now the history of American Black cinema. People are seeing this as a seamless conversation, and not either-or.”
He added that the international growth of the Academy had an upside for its business as well. The Academy operates on a $180 million budget, with $130 million coming from all things Oscars; another $40 million comes from the museum and its fundraising gala, while additional streams stem from membership dues and other ancillary revenue.
Although the Oscars have not generated much in the way of international revenue, Kramer’s optimistic spin is that the Academy’s opportunity lies with overseas growth more than anywhere else. Recent international partnerships on grants and other initiatives with Cinecitta, Rolex, and Televisa speak to that.
“The Oscars are shown all over the world, so we already have deep international partnerships around the show,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean our engagement will be connected to the Oscars. It could be, depending on what’s nominated that year, but we’re much more than just one show on one night.”
Kramer’s fixation on growth certainly helps take the spotlight off the mess of last year’s show — the untelevised categories, the bad jokes, the Slap. This year’s contenders could further shift the tenor of the conversation, but the March broadcast will have the final word on the Oscars’ next chapter.
“All I can say about that is we are moving on and we have moved on,” Kramer said. “The rehashing of last year does not help us.”