How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar?

You don't have to speak a second language to understand the nomination process!

Ang Lee Oscar
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: Director Ang Lee holds his trophy for Best Foreign Language Film for his work in 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' at the Shrine Auditorium during the 73rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles 25 March, 2001. AFP PHOTO HECTOR MATA (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images).

While the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film might be one of the least interesting categories to general audiences, to lovers of cinema the nominees represent some of the best in world cinema of that year. It also draws the interest of Hollywood studios, who have pursued directors whose films have won the award like Ang Lee (for 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Gavin Hood (for 2005's Tsotsi) to direct blockbuster American films.

The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar has been presented annually since 1956, but the rules for what makes a film eligible for the award can be unclear to those who haven’t read the Academy’s official criteria.

Language Requirement

Of course, the main requirement for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is that the at least half of the film's dialogue must be in a foreign language. Films that have too much English dialogue have been disqualified from consideration, as in the case of the 2007 Israeli film The Band's Visit.

Prior to 2006, a country’s submission had to be in one of the official languages of the country. That rule has been eliminated so filmmakers can make films in languages that are not native to the country the film is produced in. This has enabled primarily English-speaking countries like Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom to submit films in a variety of languages.

Foreign Requirement

As the award’s name implies, the film has to be foreign – in other words, not primarily produced by an American production company. This rule has caused confusion in the past. Some commentators were outraged that 2004's The Passion of the Christ was not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film despite its box office success.

After all, the film is entirely in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew and was shot in Italy. However, since it was created by Icon Productions, an American company, it was not eligible for consideration and could not even be submitted.

Another example: Even though the dialogue of Will Ferrell's 2012 film Casa de Mi Padre is almost entirely in Spanish, it was not eligible for submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar because it was produced by Ferrell's American production company in conjunction with a Mexican company (not that anyone expected it to seek a nomination!)

This differs from the rules for the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which is only a language requirement. 2006's Letters from Iwo Jima was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film because even though it was directed by an American (Clint Eastwood) for an American studio, it was primarily in Japanese. However, it was ineligible to be submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (that year the Oscar went to Germany's The Lives of Others).

Narrowing The Field

It's worth noting that not every film is eligible for Oscar consideration. In order to qualify for Oscar consideration in the main categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, etc.), a film – American or otherwise – must play for at least seven consecutive days in a Los Angeles theater in the previous calendar year.

In contrast, a potential Best Foreign Language Film nominee is required to play for at least seven consecutive days in any theater in its home country. Because of that, virtually any foreign film is eligible for a nomination.

If that sounds like an impossible amount of films for the Academy to consider, you're right. To narrow it down, each country may only submit one film for consideration per year. In recent years over 70 countries have submitted films, with a record 89 submissions in 2016. Of course, that is still a large number of films. Submissions are due on October 1, and about ten weeks after that an Academy committee announces a list of nine finalists. A second committee then narrows the finalists to five nominees.

From those five nominees, Academy voters select the winner. The long road to the Oscars finally pays off for one film, whose director adds his or her name to the list of famous international filmmakers whose films have won, including Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, and Pedro Almodóvar.

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McKittrick, Christopher. "How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/qualifying-best-foreign-language-film-oscar-2421430. McKittrick, Christopher. (2017, September 26). How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/qualifying-best-foreign-language-film-oscar-2421430 McKittrick, Christopher. "How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/qualifying-best-foreign-language-film-oscar-2421430 (accessed December 11, 2017).