How ‘Roma’ Led the Way to Oscar’s International Category Name Change

Only PriceWaterhouseCoopers knows the final tally, but from the sidelines, it sure looked like last year was the closest the Academy has ever come to awarding best picture to a foreign-language film. Instead, an old-school studio movie, Peter Farrelly’s feel-good “Green Book,” took the top award, while Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white Mexican art film “Roma” won three of its 10 nominations: director, cinematography and foreign-language film.

Collecting his “foreign-language” Oscar last year, Cuarón quipped from the podium, “I grew up watching foreign-language films and learning so much from them and being inspired — films like ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Jaws,’‘hoctienganh o dautot’‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breathless.’”

That joke underlined an important change to the category this year, which will henceforth be known as the Academy Award for international feature film.

“That’s a phrase that maybe came from the 1950s, but no one ever really did anything about it,” says executive committee co-chair Larry Karaszewski, who, along with Diane Weyermann, took over for longtime category overseer Mark Johnson last year. “We faced no opposition to changing it. There’s nothing foreign about these movies; they all deal with universal themes.”

The universality of cinema — along with billions of dollars spent in worldwide marketing — explains why American movies translate so well abroad. But foreign blockbusters seldom get a fair shake with U.S. audiences. Often, the best they can hope for is an English-language remake (this year, “The Intouchables” adaptation “The Upside” earned a whopping $108 million). Take Chinese animated sensation “Ne Zha” as an example. The record-setting CG film has grossed more in China than “Black Panther” did in the U.S. But in U.S. release, it did just $3.7 million — a huge success by foreign film standards, but still less than some of this year’s documentaries.

Market challenges aside, the Academy seems open to honoring international achievements now more than ever. “Last year was a great example,” says Karaszewski. “It wasn’t just the ‘Roma’ phenomenon. ‘Cold War’ was on the ballot for director and cinematography, and ‘Border,’ which wasn’t even nominated in the foreign-language category, got a makeup nomination. We might be going through what might be a golden age for international film.”

In fact, while the quality of Hollywood productions waxes and wanes over the decades, international film has always been strong — maybe not all over the world at once, but at any given time, somewhere on the globe, there are countries where helmers are innovating and experimenting in ways that transform the face of filmmaking as we know it. What might seem like a tiny drop in the world cinema ocean ripples outward, hitting Hollywood with disproportionately large force.

A few years ago, it was the Romanian New Wave and the so-called Greek Weird Wave, and before that, Iran and Hong Kong shook things up. In previous decades, France, Japan, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic have all had their turn, as did Lars von Trier and his dogmatic fellow Danes. These days, talents from South Korea and Mexico are pushing the boundaries of the medium. (It’s no coincidence that Oscar winners Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu have dominated the directing category in recent years, or that South Korea’s “Burning,” from Lee Chang-dong, was such a phenomenon with critics in 2018).

American producers crave fresh approaches and inspiration, and the easiest way to achieve that is to co-opt bright ideas from abroad.