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Until the #OscarsSoWhite controversy exploded in 2016 — when, for the second consecutive year, no non-white performers were nominated for acting Oscars — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was inviting roughly 300 people to become new members each year. Afterward, it welcomed considerably more diverse classes of 683 in 2016, 774 in 2017, 928 in 2018, 842 in 2019 and 819 in 2020, the year its “A2020” equity and inclusion goals were met, before returning to a more traditional 375 in 2021. In other words, 4,421 of the Academy’s approximately 9,400 current active members — or 47 percent — weren’t part of the organization just six years ago.
A byproduct of the Academy’s diversity push has been a huge increase in the number of its members who are based outside of America: up from 12 percent in 2015 to more than 25 percent, with 75 countries across six continents now represented. As a result of that — as much as, if not more so than, the Academy’s increase in diversity — I believe that the Oscars are now harder to predict, and that non-English-language films are more viable, than ever before.
The strongest hints about what the Academy will recognize with Oscar nominations and wins have long come from Hollywood’s guilds (e.g., SAG-AFTRA’s SAG Awards), trade associations (e.g., the Producers Guild of America’s PGA Awards) and honorary professional societies (e.g., the American Cinema Editors’ ACE Eddie Awards) because the majority of Academy members belonged to these organizations, too. But the same is true of very few filmmakers based abroad, which means that, these days, the tastes of one-quarter of Academy members aren’t accounted for when those groups weigh in, something that may explain the organizations’ recently spotty track record of “predicting” Academy behavior.
Moreover, many of the Academy’s international members are less deterred by subtitles than Americans, having grown accustomed to them by watching Hollywood’s English-language films. I suspect that this explains how Spanish-language Roma became only the 11th non-English-language film ever nominated for the best picture Oscar (and its two principal actresses received noms despite having been snubbed by the SAG Awards); how, a year later, Korean-language Parasite, became the 12th and the first ever to win that prize (the SAG Awards were the only precursor to honor it); and how, a year after that, Korean-language Minari became the 13th (and its scene-stealer Yuh-jung Youn became only the sixth winner for a performance given in a spoken language other than English).
International members also are considerably harder to reach through traditional Oscar campaigning than domestic members. Even before the pandemic halted in-person gatherings, no distributor had the resources to hold screenings or events in anywhere near 75 countries. And these members are obviously not going to commute past a Sunset Boulevard billboard or a Times Square subway station poster or make it to a talent-attended luncheon in New York or Q&A in Los Angeles.
The pandemic, of course, has shifted the equation. Academy members everywhere are interacting with one another less and relying more on critics to guide their decisions about which films to prioritize. Critics are generally more open to international fare than others, as demonstrated this season by the decisions of the L.A. Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics to name Japan’s Drive My Car as 2021’s best film.
This season also is the first in which hard-copy screeners aren’t allowed to be sent to Academy members, which levels the playing field. Producing and sending DVDs to Academy members globally was expensive, sometimes costing as much as six figures, particularly when anti-piracy watermarks were required. As a result, many non-English-language films were sent only to select Academy branches (e.g., actors or writers), limiting their viability for best picture. Now, for a considerably lower fee of $12,500, any qualifying film can be uploaded to the Academy’s members-only streaming service. Right now, among the 157 titles listed under “best picture” on that platform are 10 of the 15 that were shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar and six others that weren’t.
So just because the SAG Awards didn’t nominate Parallel Mothers’ Penélope Cruz or The Worst Person in the World’s Renate Reinsve for best actress, the PGA Awards opted not to highlight Drive My Car and the DGA Awards will alomst certainly pass over A Hero’s Asghar Farhadi or The Hand of God’s Paolo Sorrentino, doesn’t mean that any of them should be counted out for the Oscars. For the Academy, it’s a whole new world.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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