39 Percent of New Oscar Voters Hail From Outside the U.S.

Courtesy of Neon
'Parasite' actor Song Kang-ho

Behind the Academy's international push, which helped drive historic nominations for 'Parasite.'

In August, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho and his South Korean movie's star, Song Kang-ho, were resting under the shade of a pine tree at a picnic table in Colorado, having just made a 27-hour journey from Seoul to the Rocky Mountains to kick off their Oscar-campaigning season at the Telluride Film Festival.

Bong and Song were invited to join the Academy in 2015, a year before the organization's concerted diversification push that has seen 39 percent of new members coming from outside the U.S., according to a THR analysis. When asked about his relatively new membership despite his 20-year-plus acting career in Korean cinema, Song paused. "I'm going to vote for Parasite for everything this year," he said, with a wink.

Six months later, it's clear that Bong and Song's charm offensive has worked. Parasite, which has grossed $161 million worldwide, with more than $30 million of that for U.S. distributor Neon, is up for six Oscars, including best picture, the first Korean movie to be so honored. This is the second year in a row that a non-English film is a best picture contender, after Netflix's Mexico-set Roma was up for 10 Oscars in 2019 and won three. A non-English film never has won best picture (The Artist was French but silent) and only nine have been nominated, but as the Academy's subtitle-averse American voters are joined by more international members, the chances of breaking that barrier grow.

Of the new international members, the largest group are European, with 23 percent coming from the U.K., including two Spider-Men (Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland), and 16 percent from France, including several female directors (Mia Hansen-Love, Catherine Breillat, Mélanie Laurent). Mexico is responsible for 6 percent, some thanks to Alfonso Cuarón's Mexico City-based Roma's cast and crew (production designer Bárbara Enríquez and actress Marina de Tavira). China also accounts for 6 percent, including actress Fan Bingbing and Huayi Brothers executives Wang Zhongjun and Wang Zhonglei. Korea accounts for 4 percent.

The Academy's newest class of 842 members, invited in July, drew from 59 countries, and the group, once narrowly focused on Los Angeles and New York, has recently held member events at a 17th century palace in Rome and at the five-star Le Meurice Hotel in Paris. The Academy has also toasted its members in Madrid; London; Torun, Poland; at the Morelia and Los Cabos film festivals in Mexico; and, for the first time in May, at the capital of international cinema in Cannes. Some of the international engagement is with an eye toward fundraising for the Academy Museum, slated to open this year.

"Film is not just the United States, it's a global industry," says Lorenza Muñoz, the Academy's head of member relations and awards, explaining the push. "We want to make sure we're engaging with our members who are in these countries."

The Academy's globalization does mean higher costs for Oscar campaigners, who must now make sure subtitled screeners are available in more languages and may choose to hold campaign events in more countries — in the fall, Martin Scorsese traveled to Paris for an Academy screening of The Irishman.

And the changes haven't been without their bumps. In April, the board of governors voted to change the name of the foreign-language Oscar to the "international feature film award," a move that sparked confusion in November when Nigeria's first Oscar entry, Lionheart, was disqualified for having primarily English dialogue. "The intent of the award remains the same — to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English," the Academy said at the time.

But the overall goal, to make the organization one that better serves a shrinking world, seems to be working. "When I first came here I felt very distant from this whole scene," says Parasite producer Kwak Sin-ae. "Now thanks to our film, I feel like that gap has closed a bit more." 

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This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.