The Academy Is Suddenly Becoming More International — And Here's Why (Analysis)

Damian Szifron - H 2014
AP Images

Damian Szifron - H 2014

After the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Friday it has invited 322 people to join this year, many pundits remarked upon the considerable number of younger invitees, women and minorities among them. I noticed that too, but something else also caught my eye: the fact that at least three dozen of them were born somewhere other than America or the U.K. That number is, by all indications, unprecedented in the history of the 88-year-old organization.

Among this year's foreign-born invitees are directors Guy Davidi (Israel), Pirjo Honkasalo (Finland), Bong Joon-ho (South Korea), Francois Ozon (France), Pawel Pawlikowski (Poland), Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania), Damian Szifron (Argentina), Fernando Trueba (Spain), Morten Tyldum (Norway), Zaza Urushadze (Georgia) and Andrey Zvyagintsev (Russia); actors Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho (both South Korea); film editors Job ter Burg (Netherlands), Nico Leunen (Belgium) and Nadia Ben Rachid (Tunisia); composer Johann Johannsson (Iceland); animator Isao Takahata (Japan); short-film makers Michael Lennox (Ireland) and Hu Wei (China); and member-at-large Guido Quaroni (Italy).

Make no mistake about it: This is not something that happens every year. In fact, it only really began happening two years ago. It was then that a lot of foreign-born filmmakers started showing up on the list of invitees — including many whom I had assumed were already longtime members of the Academy, such as Emmanuelle Riva, Julie Delpy, Claude Lanzmann, Marcel Ophuls, Agnes Varda, Hayao Miyazaki, Chantal Akerman, Olivier Assayas, Jean-Claude Carriere and Claire Denis. But I soon got to the bottom of why they were not.

The Academy has a long and complicated history with international films and filmmakers. The organization was created in 1927, primarily by senior executives at Hollywood studios (many of whom were immigrants to America) and, in its first two decades, it was almost entirely financed by their operations. These men and women envisioned the Academy as, among other things, a vehicle for the promotion of not only their films, but also their own industry, which was then in wide disrepute (having emerged from dank nickelodeons and into a series of high-profile scandals). They hoped people would come to regard Hollywood movies as a respectable art form.

To that end, Louis B. Mayer, who was more responsible for the creation of the Academy than any other individual, strongly encouraged its voting members to celebrate the contributions of at least a few international filmmakers each year. The first best actor Oscar winner was German Emil Jannings, who left town after the onset of talkies, for which his thick accent rendered him unfit; the sixth was Brit Charles Laughton, who stuck around and became a huge star. Other early winners included Austrian Luise Rainer, who was recruited to America to challenge exotic Swede Greta Garbo and won back-to-back best actress Oscars (1937 and 1938), and Italian-born Frank Capra, who shrouded himself in Americana and won three best director Oscars by 1940. Selections like these were intended to convey that Hollywood welcomed — and the Academy rewarded — the best talent, regardless of its origins.

The truth is that no affirmative action was necessary, as the British, French and German industries had evolved to the point where more than a few of their films were on a par with the best of Hollywood's. These films may not have been widely seen in America (the Hollywood studios owned most of the movie theaters across the country at the time), but the Academy nonetheless sought them out and acknowledged several of them with best picture nominations: England's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1934), France's Grand Illusion (1938) and England's Pygmalion (1938) before the war, and England's 49th Parallel (1942) and In Which We Serve (1943) during it. (The Academy also presented Noel Coward with a special award for In Which We Serve.)

By the end of the war, though, attitudes toward foreigners had hardened for many Americans inside and outside of the Academy. For a short time, England, America's strongest ally during the war, was excepted — indeed, the highly acclaimed British film Henry V (1946) was recognized with four Oscar noms, including best picture, and its director-star Laurence Olivier was honored with a special award. But even that nation soon became a subject of Hollywood's ire, as it began imposing quotas and taxes on American films in order to try to boost its own industry and financially recover from the devastation that it suffered during the war. Hardly a day went by when the de facto leader of the British film industry, J. Arthur Rank, wasn't written about on the front pages and in the opinion columns of the Hollywood trades.

In advance of the Oscar ceremony held in 1948, the Academy announced that it would henceforth select and present a special award to the best foreign-language film every year — and did so in eight of the next nine years, honoring Shoeshine (Italy), Monsieur Vincent (France), The Bicycle Thief (Italy), The Walls of Malapaga (France), Rashomon (Japan), Forbidden Games (France), Gate of Hell (Japan) and Samurai, The Legend of Musashi (Japan). This apparent magnanimity was said to have emanated out of a desire to celebrate great international works, but many saw right through it: The move was at least as much about giving Academy members a specific way of honoring foreign-language films so that they wouldn't necessarily feel compelled to honor them in categories in which Hollywood films were also competing.

However, this new category didn't impact non-American, English-language films, and that led to a major headache for much of Hollywood at and after the following year's Oscars.

During the 1948-49 Oscar season, as transcontinental discussions failed to yield a more workable arrangement between the American and British film industries, there was considerable anti-"Britisher" sentiment in the air. For this reason, many in Hollywood were in disbelief at the number of noms their Academy had accorded to Brits — seven for Olivier's latest Shakespearean adaptation, Hamlet, and five for the musical The Red Shoes, both of which were among the five nominees for best picture. On Oscar night, prior to the presentation of that most coveted of awards, The Red Shoes had won two crafts categories and Hamlet had been awarded three prizes of its own, including best actor for Olivier, in absentia. Then came the moment of truth. There were audible gasps, according to eyewitness reports, and visible disgust, as one can see in archival footage, when Ethel Barrymore announced that the winner was Hamlet. It was the first time that a film not made by one of the Hollywood studios had won the top prize of the Academy that the Hollywood studios had created.

The following day, it was announced that the Hollywood studios would no longer finance the Academy Awards, which would spell their end. This was interpreted by many as a show of "sour grapes," but the studios insisted that the decision had been made before the Oscars and out of financial necessity — in addition to growing foreign competition, they were existentially threatened by the arrival of television and a legal challenge that would ultimately force them to divest themselves of their theaters. In the end, the studios backed down and reluctantly kicked in enough money to keep the Oscars going, in much smaller ceremonies, for the next three years, after which the Academy sold the ceremony's television rights to NBC and became financially independent. Simultaneously, the Hollywood studio system did indeed begin to collapse, and the studios' unified opposition to outside competition began to crumble, to the extent that foreign-language films were provided with their own proper category, with five nominees like most others, in 1956. Soon thereafter, they began to sporadically receive recognition in other categories — for their writing, their music, their direction and their performances, among other elements.

In the ensuing decades, as the global film community began to feel smaller — thanks to faster travel, a growing number of international co-productions and studios being bought up by multinational corporations, among other factors — this openness to excellence from outside of America only increased, even in the best picture category. In 1964 and 1969, British films — Tom Jones and Oliver!, respectively — once again won the best picture Oscar. In 1965, for the first time, all four thesps who took home Oscars were non-Americans. (This happened again in 2008.) And in 1970, 31 years after the Oscars at which Grand Illusion competed, another foreign-language film, the Algerian-French thriller Z, also landed a best picture Oscar nom. (Seven others have followed; none has won.)

Even so, it wasn't until fairly recently that the Academy began to embrace the idea that its membership should not only celebrate but also incorporate people from all around the world. Xenophobia may have played some part in the earlier resistance, but there are no shortage of other explanations. For one, in a world before screeners and the Internet, it wasn't practical to involve people who couldn't attend Academy screenings and meetings in Los Angeles or New York. Then, once that obstacle was removed, the size of the organization grew rapidly, and in 2004 its leadership imposed a quota system on its branches that was intended to keep membership around 6,000 by limiting the number of new members that they could invite to join the organization each year. And since there has always been a general feeling that the previous ceremony's nominees and winners deserve first-dibs at inclusion, there weren't many slots left over for others, even highly distinguished artists.

This finally changed in October 2012, not long after the arrival at the Academy of new CEO Dawn Hudson and during Hawk Koch's one term as president, when the quota system was abolished and the executive committees of each of the Academy's branches were encouraged to invite more — and more diverse — people to join their ranks. This was reflected in the invitations that were extended in June 2013 and — after that July's election of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who pushed this effort even harder — in June 2014 and June 2015. Following Friday's announcement, Isaacs told The Hollywood Reporter, "This organization is committed to increasing its diversity of voices, opinions and experiences. The branches, which set the criteria for membership, have really stepped up and looked out and about and around to recognize filmmakers and artists and crafts people who maybe might have been overlooked in the past."

There is no question about that. What there are questions about is how the internationalization of the membership will shape the sorts of nominees and winners that it chooses. For instance? The Academy offers theatrical screenings of Oscar hopefuls to its members who are based in Los Angeles and New York, as do most studios, and screenings also tend to be arranged for members in other hotbeds of membership, such as London and Paris. But for members in far-flung places, that's not going to happen anytime soon, which means that screeners will become more important than ever. If a studio cannot afford to send screeners all over the world and/or if a movie does not play well on a small screen, it might well fall out of the game. (The Academy will also face increased postage costs — it sends all documentary, foreign language and short nominees to all of its members — but it has deep pockets.)

Still, you'll be hard-pressed to find people in the business who don't think that it's a great thing that the Academy is becoming more inclusive and diverse, particularly in a week in which, thanks to the Supreme Court, the same sort of thing is happening across America.