Why do Indian films find it difficult to qualify for Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars?

Abhishek Srivastava

Dec 29, 2018 12:44:50 IST

This was the 16th year in succession when an Indian nominee failed to make the cut in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. The euphoria that the country witnessed in 2001, when Lagaan became only the third film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, is yet to be repeated.

While films with India as the backdrop, or Indian actors featuring in films, have now become commonplace at the Oscars, things have been far from satisfactory when it comes to an Indian film selection at the Oscars. This year, much hopes were pinned on Rima Das’ debut film Village Rockstars to make it to the top nine, but films like Cold War, Roma, Shoplifters, Burning, Capernaum, Birds of Passage, Ayka, The Guilty and Border prevailed over.

 Why do Indian films find it difficult to qualify for Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars?

A still from Village Rockstars. YouTube

The logical question to ask here would be why it is so difficult for an Indian film to make it to the final cut despite producing maximum number of films. In most cases, films from Europe or Latin America rule the roost, while those from the far-east and middle-east remain exceptions.

The answer probably lies in the scale and logistics. When 87 films (the total number of submissions for the upcoming 91st Academy Awards) compete with each other to vie for Academy members' attention – the process is bound to be tough and chaotic. A lot depends upon the demographic set up of the Academy members, a large chunk of which is white voters. Though things did change after the #OscarSoWhite campaign but even if one were to account for percentage of only Indian voters, it will account for less than 0.1 percent.

But more than the demographic framework, most of the things boil down to money. An average film campaign has the ability to burn a substantial hole in the producer’s pocket. An average campaign costs anywhere around $50000. Ads in trade magazines consume a major chunk of it. It is said that the Oscar campaign for a film remains incomplete if the ‘For Your Consideration’ ads fail to feature in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and The Wrap (a web portal which supports foreign language films in its campaign). A mere full page ad is sufficient enough to consume one third of the campaign budget of the film.

While the Academy does provide the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre for screening purposes for the Academy members but it is not always feasible, as other films too jostle for the same space. This invariably results in booking of other screening venues for Academy members. Once a screening room is locked, other peripheral costs too mushroom up which include car parking charges, cost of sending invitations and cost of hiring a publicist who organises the entire affair. It is no rocket science to guess that most of the Indian selections are helmed by independent producers who are always short of cash. Spending in dollars becomes a tall order for them. Big productions house like Sony Pictures Classics, Filmladen or MK2, on the sheer strength of their cash and clout, have the ability to turn around things when it comes to screening. The same logic fails when independent producers are involved. Sony Pictures Classic’s record of 12 wins and 32 nominations in the past 33 years tell the whole story.

Getting the right publicist for the campaign is another important task. This is also because the right publicists in most cases have their own database of Academy members, which helps them maintain focus. The search for the right publicist when Oscar murmurs begin post October could be a daunting task.

The stuff mentioned above relates only to the effort that goes out in reaching the members and ensuring they see the films. But more than the screening, a lot also depends upon the luck factor. Blame it on the process which the Academy follows in shortlisting films, the voice of dissent to change the process has only been growing over the years. The screening of foreign language films for Academy members begins by first week of October and continues till around first week of December. During this period, knowing well that the members will be in no position to see all the films, the Academy divides the members into four categories and then they are assigned a set of films – which is in the range of 13 to 15 films. After the members have given their ratings for the films, PWC then reveals the name of six highest ranked films gathered from the group. To make it a list of nine, three more films are added by members of the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee on the basis of voting. In the final stage, through another selection panel, 10 voters, each based out of London, New York and Los Angeles, filter five films out of the shortlisted nine. It would be interesting to note here that on some occasion the best foreign language films of the year fail to find mention in the top six. The process of addition of three films by the Academy’s Film Award Executive Committee is only to ensure that such films do not miss out. It might come as a surprise to many that the need to pick extra three films sprung up only after acclaimed films like Run Lola Run, Persepolis and 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days had failed to make it to the top six.

The failure of Village Rockstars should not come as a surprise given the insurmountable task it had ahead.

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Updated Date: Dec 29, 2018 12:44:50 IST