The Oscars Highlight the Contributions of Immigrants

Oscar statues

Hollywood is one of the most iconic symbols of America and, like so much of America, it wouldn’t be what it is today without immigrants. Even in the midst of debates about diversity and representation, it is apparent that immigrants “get the job done” in filmmaking and other performing arts. In fact, one out of every eight workers in the movie industry is an immigrant, including some of Hollywood’s biggest names like Lupita Nyongo, Ryan Reynolds and the Hemsworth brothers.

The 2020 Oscars

It’s no secret that the 2020 Academy Awards (Oscars) have come under fire for failing to keep up with an increasingly diverse industry. Yet the fact that so many heavyweight contenders this awards season are either immigrants or international stars seems to have gone unnoticed. Three out of the five nominees for best leading actress are from overseas: Cynthia Erivo (United Kingdom), Saoirse Ronan (Ireland) and Charlize Theron (South Africa). Also hoping to take home a statue this year are best adapted screenplay nominee Taika Waititi (New Zealand), best original screenplay nominee Sam Mendes (United Kingdom), best director nominee Bong Joon-Ho (South Korea), best leading actor nominees Antonio Banderas (Spain) and Jonathan Pryce (United Kingdom), and best supporting actress nominee Margot Robbie (Australia).

These artists follow in the footsteps of some of last year’s biggest winners like Egyptian-American Rami Malek, who won best actor for his portrayal of singer Freddie Mercury, director Alfonso Cuarón of Mexico, who swept three categories with Roma, and British best actress winner Olivia Colman.

Immigrants were there from the start

Ingrid Bergman
Swedish-born Ingrid Bergman won three Academy Awards in the 1940s and 50s.

German immigrant Carl Laemmle founded Universal Pictures in 1912. Polish immigrant Samuel Goldwyn got his start at Universal and went on to create Goldwyn Pictures in 1916. In 1924 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was born when Goldwyn merged with Mayer Pictures, founded by Ukrainian immigrant Louis B. Mayer. Three years later, Mayer spearheaded the creation of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which presented its first Academy Awards in 1929.

German-born Emil Jannings was the first person to receive the award. Over the years, many other immigrants have made their mark. In the 30s, Frank Capra (Italy) won three Oscars for best director. In the 40s and 50s Ingrid Bergman (Sweden) won three Oscars for acting, and Miyoshi Umeki (Japan) became the only Asian woman to date to win an Academy Award for acting. Meanwhile, Sam Spiegel (Austria/Poland) took home three best director Oscars. Immigrants were essential to creating the American film industry, and have continued to contribute to its success ever since.

Hollywood now

The positive impact of immigrants in the trillion-dollar creative sector is unquestionable. In addition to the many famous immigrants in Hollywood, there is an ecosystem of writers, videographers, production assistants, costume designers, choreographers, editors, technicians, makeup artists and photographers, many of whom are foreign-born. In total, there are currently some 400,000 immigrants working in creative or artistic jobs, and 25,000 are actors, producers or directors.

The desire to draw talented entertainment professionals to the United States is so strong that the industry has its own visa category: the O1-B visa. One of the most flexible visa categories in the U.S., it’s reserved for “individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in the motion picture and film industry.” Unlike other visas that have annual limits that are far exceed by the demand for them, there is no cap on how many O1-Bs can be issued. In addition, the O-2 visa was created to allow for staff or assistants to accompany an O1 visa holder to the U.S. At a time when so many restrictions are being placed on other visa categories, these unrestricted visas are a sure sign the country remains determined to welcome artists with open arms.

Why is this important?

The entertainment industry is both beloved and wide-reaching. Film and television content are among the country’s most lucrative exports. By some estimates 70 percent of U.S. studios’ annual revenues come from international sales. The United States presents itself to the world through these works, which both inform and are informed by the rest of the world. International artists bring perspectives and stories that can help American companies capture more of the large, global market.

In addition to the economic impact, the cultural impact of this industry is hard to overestimate. Like it or not, Hollywood influences our cultural identity. Our movies and TV shows are part of our shared experience and help form Americans’ sense of who we are. For many audience members around the world, it is the only frame of reference for what it means to be American. It is a beacon that draws many of the world’s greatest artists to the United States. This country’s strength has always been our ability to welcome talented people and incorporate their diversity of perspectives, regardless of where they were born. The performing arts are simply the most visible way to demonstrate the value that immigrants bring to the U.S. economy and culture.

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