Foreign cinema lovers are facing a severe drought in U.S. movie theaters. During the crowded rush of award-season, when both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have recently published stories titled, respectively, “Not Just Some Movies: This is A Glut of Cinema” and “Arthouse Depression,” there’s one type of non-studio film that’s nearly absent from both theaters and the debate surrounding the packed release calendar: world cinema.
During the first November weekend at the box-office, only one subtitled movie (not counting Bollywood imports) made enough money to rank among the top 80-grossing films in release domestically: Ang Lee‘s “Lust, Caution” came in at #24, with a solid $333,532 in theaters. But the next foreign-language art-house release was ranked #82 (“Lady Chatterley,” which made a total of $5,113), followed by #83 (“Terror’s Advocate,” $5,108), #86 (“Memories of Tomorrow,” $4,234) and #91 (“Blame it on Fidel,” $3,205).
For several weeks, the art-house marketplace has been flooded with star-studded specialized studio releases, all competing for critical plaudits and award-season buzz, while foreign films have suddenly gone AWOL. During the entire month of October, only two new foreign films geared for the art-house market were released, and only for just a single week each, according to Box Office Mojo: Lifesize Entertaiment‘s Mongolian film “Khadak” and Strand‘s Spanish release “DarkBlueAlmostBlack.”
One reason may simply be that boutique distributors know it’s particularly brutal right now. “The films that are going to do well are awards films,” says IFC Film‘s Ryan Werner, “and that means smaller foreign films are going to get lost.”
Kino‘s Gary Palmucci says there’s really no ideal time to release a foreign film. “As a small distributor, at a certain point you’ve got to simply assume that virtually every week of the year is now ‘crowded,’ and if you get good theaters and playtimes, you’ve got to forge ahead and not be too obsessed about other distribs’ product.”
Regarding Kino’s Jan. 18 release of “Beaufort,” Israel’s official Oscar submission, Palmucci says, “The important thing for us was that Dan Talbot [longtime booker of popular Gotham theater Lincoln Plaza Cinemas], said, ‘Fellas, here’s the date I have,’ and we grabbed it.”
Richard Lorber, head of Koch Lorber, distributor of “Blame it On Fidel,” says he’s pleased with the roughly $150,000 that the film has made in theaters since August, “given our careful spending and patient roll out,” he says. Lorber doesn’t consider the Oscar rush a competitive issue, however. For him, the Academy pics and the films he releases are like apples and oranges. “There are art films and then international art films,” he says. “With careful, curatorial selectivity we’ve been able to mount effective campaigns with national coverage, but the difficulty of holding screens and sustaining audience interest without aggressive and foolish spending has been a fact of life for several years now.”
To establish and sustain visibility, many of the year’s most prestigious foreign films are waiting until the very last days of 2007 to garner attention on all-important year-end critics lists and build momentum through Oscar campaign season. At the end of December, the Oscar race for best foreign-language film will bring out such high-profile contenders as the French animated picture “Persepolis” and Spain’s “The Orphanage.”
But it’s in January and February where world cinema in the U.S. will finally heat up, as several other foreign Oscar submissions look to take advantage of Oscar buzz (including Romania’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” Lebanon’s “Caramel,” Israel’s “Beaufort,” Austria’s “The Counterfeiters,” and Brazil’s “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation“). Adding to what will be a traffic jam of foreign pictures in early ’08 is Miramax‘s release of “City of God” sequel “City of Men” on Jan. 18; the company will also be expanding French heavy-hitter “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” throughout the winter, and Sony Pictures Classics plans to put out its own Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” in February.
But why the delay to early next year, if 2007 “best-of” lists are the goal?
IFC Films’ Cannes winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” doesn’t open until January 25, for example, but according to Werner, the film will be eligible for honors from most critics’ groups across the country, because many of them don’t rely on release dates for qualification, but press screenings (with the exception of the New York Film Critics Circle). The date is also primed to capitalize on a hoped-for mention on Oscar’s Foreign-Language shortlist, which is announced in mid-January. Werner admits, “There’s going to be a huge glut early next year, but,” he adds, “you have a better shot at press coverage then than right now.”
Samuel Goldywn Films president Meyer Gottlieb is steering clear of the Oscar season altogether. He plans to release two French films sometime in the spring, Claude Lelouch‘s “Roman de Gare” and Pierre Salvadori‘s “Priceless.” “This is a very, very crowded marketplace,” he says. “We try to position the films as counterprogramming to studio action films or find the right theater at the right point in time where the audience is available without a lot of distraction,” he adds, “after the Academy Awards.”