“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” — Bong Joon-Ho, director of Parasite (2019).
First, “Parasite” won Best Original Screenplay — already revolutionary. Next, it won Best International Film — satisfying but expected. Then, its acclaimed creator, Bong Joon-Ho, won Best Director — a celebration and a new addition to the streak of non-American directors who have won this award in the past few years. Finally, towards the very end of the ceremony, as the clock neared 11:30 PM, “Parasite” took home the biggest award of the night: Best Picture. As soon as Jane Fonda uttered the letter “P”, the crowd roared; the cast & crew rose up in disbelief, smiles going from ear to ear; millions of people watching on TVs and Twitter livestreams jumped up and down in an unforeseeable celebration of victory for non-English-speakers and people of color all over the world. To many, last Sunday marked a moment in history that holds a lifetime’s worth of meaning.
From 1929, when the first Academy Awards were held, up until 1946, no international film won an Oscar. From 1947 until 1955, a special, non-competitive merit award was sometimes given to an international film. It wasn’t until 1956 that a separate, competitive category was created. Best Foreign Language Film is the category name we all had known until this year, when at the wake of the 2020 ceremony, the Academy — rightfully — decided to change the category’s name to Best International Film.
With the basic history of the international film category out of the way, let’s now discuss the dynamics of the word “foreign” as opposed to the word “international.” The former brings with it negative connotations through xenophobic undertones: implying the strange, unfamiliar, or exotic. The latter, on the other hand, generally communicates what would usually be considered neutral sentiments: worldwide, expansive, cosmopolitan. Additionally, to claim “foreign language” as an antonym of “domestic language” is problematic in itself coming from a country whose land was stolen from Native peoples. In other words, English should not even be the “official” language of the United States. On a slightly separate but related note, at the 2010 Academy Awards, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” – a great movie – was not considered to be a “foreign language” film, even though only roughly 20 percent of it is in English, with German, French, and Italian comprising the other 80 percent.
It can also be said that the concept of a separate “international” category is innately flawed and rooted in American exceptionalism. Americans tend to view the US as the center of most or all endeavors, including, as a surprise to no one at all, the film industry. And this isn’t about facts and statistics — we all know Hollywood is undeniably the biggest and most profitable film industry in the world – its profits dwarf those of the other 9 biggest film industries in the world combined. It is about thinking about all the reasons why this is the case in the first place, along with challenging the notion that more is better. In the case of films, one must call into question their capitalist roots and lasting imperialist influences behind every movie created in the West or anywhere outside of the so-called Global South.
US film companies have been buying less international and foreign-language films in recent years, as they are less likely to wield big financial gains than Western English-language films. There are two big exceptions to this: films that are marketed towards diasporic communities, like Asians and Latinos, are regularly released in theaters, and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon acquire many foreign films to appeal to an international audience. But even though these movies are making lots of money at the box office – the 2013 Mexican film “Instructions Not Included” and the 2017 Indian film “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion” made $44.5 million and $12.5 million respectively in the US – they are not being marketed towards a wider American audience. The message that is being sent by the film industry is that foreign films are not “universal” films.
Films like “Parasite” and “Roma” owe their successes in the US. to the marketing campaigns carried out by their distributors. “Parasite” was acquired by Neon Studios in October 2018, a company that specializes in independent films and makes a point of showcasing all their films in theaters. Its head, Tom Quinn, had worked with Bong Joon-Ho on his previous films, and in an unprecedented move he bought “Parasite” purely based on the script. Neon Studios immediately began showcasing the movie at film festivals, and it won numerous accolades including the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The hype surrounding the movie at festivals was so strong that it propelled the movie into a strong opening weekend in theaters. The key to this campaign, however, is that the team did not market “Parasite” as a purely international film. After many people told her that foreign films cannot win Best Picture at the Oscars, Mara Buxbaum, who publicized the movie, stated, “You can, if you love it that much, if you think it’s deserving. All you can do is get the movie seen, get people thinking beyond Best International Feature Film.”
Most of the foreign films currently being distributed in the US tend to be commercial films, so it is unlikely that we will see any of them at awards shows any time soon. But regardless of whether a film is Oscar-worthy or not, it is imperative for US film distributors to start marketing international films to a wider audience. Americans need to see that despite cultural and linguistic differences, movies from around the world can be powerful and resonate with a global audience. And once they do see that, the appetite for more foreign films will only grow. “Parasite”’s win at the Oscars gives us hope that US film distributors will acquire more films from overseas to campaign during awards season, and that the Oscars will truly start becoming an international awards show.