The Philippines’ Long Road To An Oscar

The Philippines has been submitting entries to the Oscars since 1956, when the category of "Best Foreign-Language Film" was first introduced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  "Anak Dalita," directed by Lamberto V. Avellana, was the Philippines' first entry. 

The country has yet to secure a nomination. 

For the 89th Academy Awards, the Philippines has chosen to submit "Ma'Rosa," the same film by Brillante Mendoza that gained critical acclaim and won the "Best Actress" award for Jaclyn Jose in this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Brillante Mendoza and Jaclyn Jose embrace after her winning the best actress award for her role in "Ma' Rosa" at this year's Cannes Film Festival (Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

Brillante Mendoza and Jaclyn Jose embrace after her winning the best actress award for her role in "Ma' Rosa" at this year's Cannes Film Festival (Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

What does it take for a Filipino film to win an Oscar? Here, we try to assess the chances of "Ma'Rosa" to be one of the five foreign-language films nominated for the award. 

Before the announcement of this year's Philippine submission to the Oscars, we were afraid that one of the shortlisted films, "Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis," would be chosen, and we'll tell you why.

While "Hele" was critically acclaimed both here and abroad (It won the Alfred Bauer Prize for work of particular innovation in the 66th Berlin International Film Festival), the film by director Lav Diaz has a running time of 485 minutes, longer than any film the Academy has seen. Would Oscar voters sit through an eight-hour film?

In the history of the Oscars, the 1938 film "Gone with the Wind" is by far the longest to win “Best Picture” -- clocking in at a mere 238 minutes (or half the time of Diaz’ film). Longer still was the U.S.S.R.-produced "War and Peace" with its seven-hour-plus running time. That film won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. However, both films, as you may have figured out by now, were based on world-renowned book classics. Diaz’s film did not have that advantage.

Consider the process the Academy has established in selecting the five nominees for Foreign-Language film to understand the chances of an eight-hour film, or "Ma'Rosa."

Phase 1:

Between October and December, The Academy shows all of the foreign language submissions at their theater in Los Angeles.  Roughly 400 Academy members volunteer to serve in Phase 1 of the foreign language committee. They are divided into three color-coded groups, and the eligible films are split among them. In order for a voter’s ballot to count at this stage, a voter must see 65 percent of the films in his or her group.

There are close to 90 countries that submit films, which means that each group is assigned about 30, and each member would have to see about 20. While the dividing up into groups is intended to make sure that everyone doesn’t just see the same 20 most popular films, this is the step where an eight-hour film is presumed to really hurt one's chances.  If an Oscar voter sees that a film in his or her group is eight hours long, it’s more likely that it will be one of the ten that will be skipped!

Voters on this round vote by ranking each film on a scale of 6 to 10. The six films with the highest average score are calculated and then the process moves on to Phase 2.

Phase 2: 

After the votes have been counted and six films have been chosen in Phase 1, there is a special “Executive Committee” made up of 20 high-profile Academy members who get to add three more films to that list.

This step was added several years ago because there was an impression that more challenging, critically acclaimed films were being overlooked by the regular committees in favor of softer, “less challenging” films. So they added this step to try to expand the horizons and save some of those films.

The six films from the Phase 1 Committees plus the three films saved by the Executive Committee make up an Official Short List of nine films, which are published in December. 

Jaclyn Jose in "Ma'Rosa"

Jaclyn Jose in "Ma'Rosa"

Phase 3:

On the weekend before Oscar nominations are announced, a committee of 30 high-profile Academy members screens all nine shortlisted films. The committee must see all nine films over a single weekend at special Academy screenings set up in Los Angeles, New York or London.

The five films that get the most votes become the five Nominated Foreign-Language films.

Now, let's focus on the chances of "Ma'Rosa" to be included in the five nominated films for the Oscar.

We think that having been screened at Cannes is a plus factor, especially because Jaclyn Jose won the Best Actress Award.  It's all about the "buzz."

Oscar voters are certainly aware of, and follow, international film festivals -- Cannes being one of the prestigious ones, if not the most prestigious.  The fact that Jaclyn Jose won that festival’s Best Actress award over well-known actresses like Kristen Stewart, Ruth Negga and Isabelle Huppert certainly peaks the interest of the Oscar voters.

Mendoza himself has made a name at Cannes and other international film festivals.  He won the Best Director award for his film, "Kinatay" at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival.  His other works have been screened at the Dubai International Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival and Venice International Film Festival.

That means that voters in the Phase 1 committee are more likely to pick “Ma’Rosa” as one of the films they want to see.  And even if those voters don’t end up choosing it as one of their top six, the prestige of a Cannes film and a director of Mendoza’s caliber might translate into precisely the type of “critical acclaim” that the Executive Committee is charged with looking for when they add their additional three films to the mix. is a premiere entertainment and awards site that tracks and predicts Oscar contenders. The site has identified the five films that it thinks will be the five nominees for Best Foreign-Language film this year:

  • “The Salesman” – IRAN
  • “Toni Erdmann” – GERMANY
  • “Neruda” – CHILE
  • “From Afar” – VENEZUELA
  • “Elle” – FRANCE

However, the site had put "Ma'Rosa" in the top ten film contenders, even before it was named the Philippines' official entry.

With a little publicity push among Oscar voters, "Ma'Rosa" can create even more buzz and increase its chances of being seriously considered for a nomination.

As to whether Jaclyn Jose is eligible for a Best Actress Oscar, Academy rules specifically state that in order for a film to be eligible for all award categories (Best Actress included), it has to be shown in theaters in Los Angeles for at least one week this year -- anytime before December 31. That is a decision the producers of "Ma'Rosa" will have to make, and soon.

It's a long path for the Philippines towards an Oscar nomination.  But with its credentials from Cannes, it's not necessarily a long shot for "Ma'Rosa" to become the country's first Oscar nominee. Perhaps a winner?

After all, if we consider the predictions of, "Ma'Rosa" is probably already among the nine films that will be screened by Oscar voters prior to narrowing the list down to the final five.

SYNOPSIS: Ma' Rosa is a mother who owns a small convenience store in a poor neighborhood of Manila where she is liked by everybody. To make ends meet, Rosa and her husband, Nestor, resell small amounts of narcotics on the side. One day, they get arrested. Rosa and her children are ready to do anything to buy her freedom back from the corrupt police.

Rene Astudillo

Rene Astudillo

Rene Astudillo is a writer, book author and blogger and has recently retired from more than two decades of nonprofit community work in the Bay Area. He spends his time between California and the Philippines.

David Dezern

David Dezern


David Dezern is the curator and lead researcher for The Academy Members Project, the largest public list of Oscar voters you'll find on the Internet.