What’s a Foreign Language Oscar Really Worth?


thesquareMagnolia Pictures

This article might take some explaining, because maybe it isn’t so obvious from the title what it means. Before I get to that explanation, let’s look at the nine foreign films that were shortlisted for next year’s Oscar foreign language category just yesterday:

Chile, A Fantastic Woman, directed by Sebastián Lelio
Germany, In the Fade, directed by Fatih Akin
Hungary, On Body and Soul, directed by Ildikó Enyedi
Israel, Foxtrot, directed by Samuel Maoz
Lebanon, The Insult, directed by Ziad Doueiri
Russia, Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Senegal, Félicité, directed by Alain Gomis
South Africa, The Wound, directed by John Trengove
Sweden, The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund

That list above will be trimmed down to five by the time nominations are announced on Jan. 23.

Now, some of those names might sound familiar, such as Sebastián Lelio, who is Chile’s second greatest filmmaking export after Pablo Larrain, whose movie No is Chile’s only Oscar nomination to date. German/Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin has also received some acclaim on the festival circuit but has never received Germany’s backing before In the Fade. Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon was very highly-regarded but didn’t receive Israel’s backing either, while Ruben Östlund’s previous film Force Majeure made the shortlist in 2014 but wasn’t nominated. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s previous film Leviathan actually received an Oscar nomination a few years back.

I’ve seen six of the nine films and the ones I’ve seen were all very good, but I was especially happy to see John Trengrove’s The Wound on the shortlist. In fact, it was one of my earliest Under the Radar pieces for the Tracking Board.

So what does this have to do with the enigmatic title of this article?

The question is mainly regarding one thing, and that’s to see whether winning an Oscar for a foreign language helps lead to bigger budgets (probably), work in Hollywood (sometimes) and more importantly, success in Hollywood.  That last bit is where things get murky, because many foreign filmmakers don’t necessarily want or need to work in Hollywood to be considered successful in their home countries. Some filmmakers take the plunge, but others prefer to have the control over their films that only comes from working in their country.

At a brief glance and not going too far back in Oscar history, it would seem like Mexico has had the most overall success with exporting filmmakers. Alejandro González Iñárritu received two Oscar nominations for his Mexican films Amores Perros and Biutiful, although neither film won. Mexico has received eight foreign language nominations since 1957 and hasn’t won a single one. That said, Iñarritu has been nominated and won Oscars as a director for both Birdman (a Best Picture winner) and The Revenant, so he’s doing fine.

BiutifulForeignLanguageRoadside Attractions

Iñarritu’s friend and colleague Alfonso Cuaron somehow evaded being nominated for his early film Y Tu Mama Tambien, possibly because Mexico didn’t submit the movie. Cuaron had already been making bigger studio films with stars by then, and he went on to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and Gravity, for which he won the Oscar as director.

The other notable Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro — a friend and colleague of the other two filmmakers — was nominated for his film Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006. His debut feature Chronos was submitted for consideration by Mexico in 1993 but the then-unknown filmmaker wasn’t even shortlisted. This year, del Toro is likely to receive an Oscar nomination for directing The Shape of Water, and how that film fares on Oscar night (and financially in the months leading up to them) might determine what kind of budget he receives for his next film. Even if he doesn’t win, del Toro, like the other two filmmakers, has already been involved with bigger budget studio films like the two Hellboy movies and Pacific Rim. For him, an Oscar would just be icing on the cake.

In some ways, Mexico becomes the benchmark for how a foreign language Oscar nomination can help a foreign filmmaker, although let’s face it. Mexico is one of the closest foreign countries to Hollywood, so it’s not that hard for filmmakers there to crossover.

Another recent foreign filmmaker that’s been somewhat successful is Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, who has won two foreign language Oscars with his films A Separation and then The Salesman earlier this year.  In between, he made the French film The Past with Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim, which failed to make much of a mark.  Although Farhadi’s been able to work within the limitations on filmmakers set by his country, he’s already ventured overseas to Spain to make a new film called Everybody Knows with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.

It’s unclear whether he asked Pedro Almodovar to borrow his former collaborators, but that’s a good transition into Spain and some of its exports. It’s been 14 years since Spain received an Oscar nomination but it won that year for Alejandro Amenabar’s The Sea Inside. Almodova’s last movie to make the shortlist but not be nominated was Almodovar’s 2006 film Volver, for which Cruz received an Oscar nomination. Before that, Almodovar’s All About My Mother won the Oscar in 1999, and his earlier film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was also nominated, plus he won an Oscar for his screenplay for his film Talk to Her, which was snubbed by his home country.


Even with errors in judgment such as that one, Spain has won four Oscars, putting it in a tie for fourth place with Japan, behind Italy and France. Almodovar has remained in Spain to make all his films, while Amenabar’s most recent English language film, 2015’s Regression, was not received well.

Oddly, Spain’s most successful export might be Juan Bayona, even though his debut The Orphanage was submitted but not nominated. The fact he’s directing Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, likely to be one of next year’s biggest hits, does show that a foreign filmmaker doesn’t necessarily need an Oscar for success.

As far as Italy, the country has been submitting and winning Oscars since 1956, and its most recent winner, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty in 2013, led to a critically-acclaimed English language remake called Youth. Yet, Italy has exported a number of Oscar winners in other categories, too, particularly director Bernardo Bertolucci, as well as Federico Fellini, who won back-to-back foreign language Oscars for La Strada and Nights of Caberia. Other than possibly Roberto Benigni, very few Italian filmmakers have found commercial success stateside. 

In some ways, success for foreign filmmakers could even be the acclaim they receive from their foreign films because the likes of Bertolucci and Fellini have been so influential on American filmmakers and film students alike.

It’s hard to tell whether French filmmakers whose films have been nominated or won an Oscar have benefitted much from it. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s recently-nominated Mustang was fantastic, but her recent TIFF debut Kings, starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig was almost unwatchable. Jacques Audiard and Francois Ozon are well-respected filmmakers, though only Audiard has received a foreign language nomination for Un Prophete, and neither filmmaker has been able to crack the code to working in Hollywood (presuming they want to). That said, Audiard is finishing The Sisters Brothers with Jake Gyllenhaal and Joaquin Phoenix for Annapurna Pictures, so we’ll have to see how that fares.

TheArtistThe Weinstein Company

Then there’s the case of French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius who won an Oscar for directing his Best Picture winner The Artist.  Hazanavicius went on to direct two movies, The Search, which was never released in the States, and Redoubtable, a film that premiered at Cannes earlier this year with very little fanfare and will be released by Cohen Media Group in April. I have a feeling that many people, including myself, were hoping for more from Hazanavicius after The Artist, but maybe that film was just a fluke.

Canada’s Denis Villeneuve might also be considered a success story because after Incendies was nominated for an Oscar, he found himself a number of fans including Jake Gyllenhaal, who appeared in both Prisoners and Enemy. Villeneuve went on to an Oscar nomination for last year’s Arrival, and his recent Blade Runner 2049 was one of the more anticipated sequels of the year, and it should receive some tech Oscar nods. As Villeneuve attempts to make another movie based on Dune, it seems like the French-Canadian filmmaker will be around for a while.  Meanwhile, Denys Arcand who won a foreign language Oscar and has been nominated and shortlisted before that, has remained in Montreal making French-language films, mainly for the locals.

Now, I’m not going through every country’s nominations, wins and filmmaker, but I’d be  remiss if I ignored Germany, because that country has exported a number of prominent filmmakers who ultimately crapped the bed when making American studio movies. First there’s Wolfgang Petersen, whose 1981 film Das Boot was nominated for six Oscars, including one for his direction, but not in the foreign language or Best Picture categories. Petersen went on to direct a number of big movies with Warner Bros. including The Perfect Storm with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, Troy with Brad Pitt… and then there was Poseidon, an ill-informed remake of The Poseidon Adventure.  He returned to Germany to make films recently, ten years after that last movie bombed so badly. (Many might not realize or remember that for the longest time, Petersen was going to direct World’s Finest, a movie that’s essentially Batman V Superman made pre-Nolan’s Batman.)

Poor Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won an Oscar for The Lives of Others, but his English language debut The Tourist was garbage, despite (or due to) featuring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel did so poorly with the Joel Silver-produced WB movie The Invasion, that he was replaced for reshoots. He’s since made another small English language film called Five Minutes of Heaven starring Liam Neeson, then went back to Germany for the recent 13 Minutes, another excellent film about Nazy Germany.

Obviously, there’s also the case of China’s Zhang Yimou (Hero), who recently directed the studio film The Great Wall starring Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe, and he’s worked with big name stars like Christian Bale after multiple Oscar nominations. Other Asian filmmakers that have tried to work in Hollywood include Korea’s Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-Ho (Okja) and Kim Jee-won to varying degrees of success. Japanese filmmakers also have tested the waters on a Hollywood directing with similar mixed luck.

That leads me back to the original question, and it certainly seems like having any kind of success in your own country doesn’t always translate – pardon the pun – to making things work out in the States.  I already know from interviewing Ruben Östlund that if his film The Square is nominated or even wins the Oscar, he’ll continue to work in Sweden regardless. Other Scandinavian filmmakers like Lars von Trier, Morten Tyldum (who got a directing nod for The Imitation Game), Susanne Bier, Lone Scherfig, Nicholas Refn and others have been hired to helm American films and have proven (in some cases) that their skills as filmmakers can translate to American specialty audiences, at least.

Best of luck to the five filmmakers above whose films are selected to make up the five actual foreign language nominations. If nothing else, the winner and maybe a few others will get more attention to films that haven’t exactly destroyed in American theaters on release, though I’m not sure I’d place money on any of them suddenly directing the next Marvel Studios movie anytime. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.

  | East Coast Editor

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