Oscars: How 'Roma' Can Beat the Foreign-Language Film Curse

Illustration by: Daniel Downey

An all-subtitles movie has never won best picture, so for Alfonso Cuaron's personal drama to make a successful bid, it must employ a specific campaign strategy to overcome its weaknesses.

Alfonso Cuaron's semi-autobiographical drama Roma, about a middle-class family and its maid in 1970s Mexico City, enters awards season with the kind of hoopla that usually precedes near-certain winners such as 2007's No Country for Old Men and 2008's Slumdog Millionaire. And yet, says one veteran strategist, "If I had to bet, I'd say its chances of winning best picture are one in a hundred."

That's because the Netflix release is in Spanish, and none of the 10 foreign-language features that have earned a best-picture nomination in the past has gone on to win the top award, though four of them did land the foreign-language Oscar.

There are reasons besides prejudice. First, some Academy members don't like to read subtitles; second, some older members still feel a Hollywood picture should win; and any campaign is complicated when you're competing in two picture categories — best picture and best foreign-language picture — as Roma (Mexico's entry) is doing this year. There's a real danger you'll split the vote.

Foreign-language contenders have paid the price for straddling two categories: 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won foreign-language at the 73rd Academy Awards but lost best picture to Gladiator. France's The Artist significantly avoided such vote-splitting because France submitted Declaration of War for foreign-language that year; The Artist, named best picture in 2012, wasn't actually foreign-language since it had no dialogue.

Roma has other strikes against it. It was filmed in black and white, and there's been only one black-and-white best-picture winner since 1993's Schindler's List — again, The Artist. The Cuaron film lacks stars to promote it and also comes from Netflix, a company that many Academy members resent for blurring the line between theatrical and home video releases. "Once you commit to a television format, you're a TV movie," Steven Spielberg said in March. "You certainly — if it's a good show — deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar."

So is there any way Roma can win? Yes, says Larry Gleason, a veteran exhibitor and distributor: "If Netflix can get people to see it. It's a beautifully shot movie, and ultimately this is about excellence in filmmaking."

First step is to have the most authoritative voices vouch for its quality — and Roma couldn't come better armed, with Cuaron's close friends Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Inarritu lending their support. Together, the "three amigos" have won four of the past five directing Oscars (Cuaron for Gravity; Inarritu for Birdman and The Revenant; del Toro for The Shape of Water).

Second, maximize the underdog appeal of the cast and leading lady Yalitza Aparicio. Netflix strategist Lisa Taback has already started, borrowing a page from the campaign she led for The Artist, when she had actor Jean Dujardin study English on his way to a best-actor Oscar. Aparicio, a former schoolteacher, embarked on her English lessons almost as soon as Roma hit the festival circuit.

Third, tap into the swelling ranks of indie-minded and international Academy members who have changed the nature of the organization, leading to upsets like Moonlight's victory over La La Land. With more than 2,300 members added in the past three years, voters now include helmers such as Italy's Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name) and actors such as Mexico's Damian Alcazar (El Crimen del Padre Amaro). These newbies may generally object less to subtitles, but they still need to be persuaded to see the many competing films. That'll mean beefing up foreign screenings with high-profile guests to help lure voters, as Roman Polanski and Leslie Caron did with La La Land.

Fourth, give them a backstory that draws the film closer to their hearts. Again, Netflix seems to be doing this, reminding audiences that Roma is rooted in a true story, and even bringing the real-life maid on whom the movie is based to a New York Film Festival screening.

Most important: Link the film to the current political debate. With its sympathetic portrait of a hardworking young Mexican woman, Roma throws down the gauntlet at the president's anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant comments. Without hammering us over the head, Netflix should remind Hollywood: A vote for Roma is a vote against Trump.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.