Bong Joon-ho, the talented director behind Okja, Snowpiercer and more, recently described the Oscars as “very local” when asked if he thought it odd no South Korean film has ever been nominated for an Oscar before. The director’s meaning seems to be that the Oscars are very biased towards American films. As I’m sure everyone is aware Parasite won four Oscars last weekend, including Best Picture but even with this burst of internationality – are the Oscars “local” awards?
The Undisputed Champion of Film Awards
I think most people in America and the UK see the Oscars as the film awards. Winning Best Picture at the Oscars is probably the closest we have to declaring what was the best film of that year. After all, there are many film awards that are specific to the host country, indeed, in South Korea they have the Blue Dragon and Grand Bell awards, both specifically for South Korean films. But I don’t think that’s how the Oscars present themselves. For a start films from all over the world can, and do, win awards, they are not limited to American or English-language films. There is an unspoken rule that every film – or at least every film that had a release in LA – is in contention. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Green Book, not only beat every American film but every Dutch, South Korean Mexican and every other country’s film as well.
Awards Around The World
It does seem that a lot of countries have films awards that are specific to their country, and the Oscars (and the BAFTAs in the UK) are somewhat an exception in ostensibly being worldwide. But I’d argue that for many countries it’s not their national awards but their film festival that is the big deal. France’s, and perhaps the world’s, most famous film festival is the Cannes Film Festival, with it’s biggest award being the Palme d’Or. Just glancing over the winners of this award since 2000 – nine of the winners had some French involvement if we eliminate co-productions that goes down to two French films. Using the same criteria, The Golden Bear from the Berlin International Film Festival only has two films where Germany was involved in co-production. Without prior knowledge of the geography of Italy, I don’t think someone could work out any bias in the Venice Film Festival to its host country, since 2000 Iranian, South Korean and Venezuelan films have won the Golden Lion with only one Italian film winning that award in that time.
10 Billion Reasons Why
So why do films from outside America fare so poorly at the Oscars? Well, most Oscar voters are US based so perhaps there is a bias there. But also the American film industry is huge – making over $10 billion in 2017 and it would make sense that the biggest and most successful country would dominate awards. Again, like no other country American films are watched around the world. In Britain and America to even consider watching a film, not in English, is considered a signifier of high-brow intellectual tastes, whereas to like American films in other countries is the norm. However, it can’t simply be that America makes more films if nothing else India actually produces more. Parasite is only the twelfth film that isn’t in English to be nominated for Best Picture – and the first to actually win – and I think it is impossible to argue that such a list represents the best films ever made.
Another very interesting point in all of this is that for all of Parasite’s success at the Oscars it received no acting nominations. The same was true of Roma last year, a film not in English that did well at the Oscars, and Slumdog Millionaire which won eight – including Best Picture – but featured a cast of non-white actors who when compared to typical Oscar nominees weren’t at all famous. To me it seems bizarre that a film that was considered the best of the year would not contain a single-acting performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. Is this bias towards American actors (and admittedly British actors who seem to be at no disadvantage) or is it simply that Kang-ho song and Sun-kyun Lee do not have the name recognition as Brad Pitt and Renee Zellweger? As a case in point, I could rattle off the stars of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood or The Irishman but had to look on IMDb to find the names of Parasite’s stars.
I think it’s clear that the Oscars is not really a competition without bias but despite this a foreign film can still win big. And, of course, even being nominated for an Oscar will raise the profile of a film that lacks the marketing power of something like Joker. If pushed I feel that most people would admit the bias towards America and would see that as perfectly natural.