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The Lonely Subtitle: Here’s Why U.S. Audiences Are Abandoning Foreign-Language Films

The Lonely Subtitle: Here's Why U.S. Audiences Are Abandoning Foreign-Language Films

Last month, Variety chief film critic Scott Foundas wrote an article that should be heartwarming for anyone heading to the Cannes Film Festival: “U.S. Audiences Are More Comfortable With Subtitles Than Ever.” 

Unfortunately, it’s not true: U.S. box office for the top five foreign-language films has declined by 61% in the last seven years.

To be fair, Foundas’s argument ultimately is about subtitles. This allows the inclusion of wide-release, U.S.-originated productions dominated by foreign tongues such as “Inglourious Basterds,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Avatar” and “District 9.” (It may be worth noting that the last two subtitled alien dialogue.)

However, these films aren’t germane to international cinema. Works by Quentin Tarantino, Mel Gibson and James Cameron don’t open the doors for subtitled Cannes selections such as the Dardenne brothers’ French language “Two Days, One Night” or Andrey Zyagintsev’s Russian-language “Leviathan.” 

According to data culled from, foreign-language box office has shown a steady decline. In 2013 the top five foreign-language releases earned collectively just $15 million at the U.S. box office; in 2007, the take was $38 million. (This doesn’t count films catering specifically to immigrant or diaspora populations, whether Spanish-language films for Hispanic Americans or Bollywood films for Indian-Americans.)

Even acclaimed foreign directors have seen a precipitous fall; in 2006, Pedro Almodovar had his most successful release with “Volver,” which saw $13 million in U.S. ticket sales; in 2013, “I’m So Excited” earned just over $1 million. 

Foundas’ piece does highlight some key challenges to international cinema. As he notes, a number of the “French” films in the official selection for Cannes 2014 — such as Olivier Dahan’s “Grace of Monaco,” Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Search,” and Pascale Ferran’s “Bird People” — are partly or completely in the English language. 

And the demands of the U.S. marketplace have pushed many top-notch foreign-born directors (Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, Luc Besson) toward Hollywood and English-language filmmaking.

However, these don’t account for the biggest challenges to foreign-language films finding a U.S. audience.  

Companies that serve(d) as their champions have downsized, retrenched or disappeared. 

“Consider [it] the Miramax effect,” said Music Box Films’ Ed Arentz, who currently has Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish-language “Ida” in release. “The old Miramax was routinely driving foreign-language box office with unprecedented levels of marketing effort. We saw a reprise with these tactics recently with the French-produced ‘The Artist,’ but from 1987 to 2005, they had 26 or so $1 million-plus subtitled releases.”

While The Weinstein Company continues to invest in foreign-language hits (“The Grandmaster,” “The Intouchables”), it is one of the very few companies that does so. Sony Pictures Classics also remains dedicated to foreign cinema, releasing recent successes such as “Amour,” “A Separation,” and “The Raid: Redemption.”

However, even Sony Classics will take fewer risks on foreign-language cinema in the future, said co-president Tom Bernard. 

He pointed to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ recent rule change in which the foreign-language Oscar is now decided upon by the entire Academy. This makes “the most popular film the most likely winner every year,” he said, thereby cutting many smaller, worthy films from contention. 

According to Bernard, the Foreign Language Oscar category remains a crucial spotlight for international cinema, and without it shining a light on smaller films, those movies may never see the light of day in the U.S. 

This year, Sony Classics has the top-grossing foreign language film, “The Lunchbox,” which has earned $2.7 million. “But if that movie had been nominated,” said Bernard, “it would have done three times as much.”

Universal Studios’ recent decision to redirect Focus Features toward the mainstream through its merger with FilmDistrict, which included laying its global-savvy CEO James Schamus, was viewed as another blow to world cinema. However, the number of foreign-language films on Focus’ theatrical slate had been dropping for years; its last subtitled film was “Sin Nombre” in 2009. In 2011 Focus launched digital platform Focus World, which became a home to some foreign films; today, it’s in limbo. (Its head of acquisitions, Kent Sanderson, left to become the executive VP of distribution at Amplify in January.)

Digital distribution is killing foreign-language film on large screens — and small ones.

We’ve all heard that VOD platforms give non-Hollywood films a chance to find their audiences. But foreign-language cinema has never performed in ancillary outlets in the same way as they have in theaters. 

“We always make more money theatrically,” said Samuel Goldwyn Films’ Peter Goldwyn, who said that one of the company’s recent releases (which he declined to name), though successful theatrically, only earned a small amount of revenue on digital platforms. 

“That’s always been the case,” he said. “And I think it is just about the subtitles.”

And an unintended consequence of the digitally driven marketplace has been a glut of theatrical releases, which makes it more difficult for foreign films to thrive. Because so many American independent films use short theatrical runs to promote their ancillary releases, “companies are releasing 30 movies a year because of VOD,” Goldwyn said. “And because the marketplace is so crowded, the theaters that would be playing foreign-language films don’t have enough room.”

Netflix is the industry’s leading VOD powerhouse — and the popular streaming service has been steadily abandoning foreign-language films.

“Though we’re still very much in business with them, many other arthouse ‘specialty’ international film distributors are not,” said Kino Lorber’s Richard Lorber. “There has been a thinning of the deep catalog and even newer subtitled films on their service overall.

“The definitive loss,” Lorber added, “is for the deep catalog of foreign arthouse titles which don’t fare well transactionally and are largely disappearing from Netflix.”

While these films are finding their way to sites such as Fandor, MUBI, SnagFilms and a number of rapidly proliferating, smaller services, “there’s still only a minimal customer base with these [platforms],” Lorber said. “And the increasing number of these players is not producing more than a fraction of the revenues from even a modest license from Netflix.”

And while other transactional services like iTunes, Amazon and Hulu are out there, the audience watching foreign-language movies on these platforms is small. 

About 10% of Indiewire parent company SnagFilms’ library is comprised of foreign-language titles, accounting for about 6% of the overall views from a library of over 10,000 titles. Genre titles seem to play best, such as Norwegian horror movie “Thale” and French psychological thriller “Ecoute le temps.” 

Curiously, a recent check of iTunes’ Movies > Foreign page, which lists the 240 most popular foreign films on its service, is dominated by older catalogue titles like “The Girl with Dragon Tattoo,” “Seven Samurai” or “Amelie.” This suggests recent releases are not penetrating the digital marketplace as much as high-profile older titles.

Lorber said the digital distribution data doesn’t hold promise. “It’s not improving generally, but there is some reshuffling of visibility and availability that may bode well since it diminishes the concentration of one dominant service,” he said, referring to Netflix. 

As far as cable goes, the situation is worse. “Cable VOD is out for the count regarding foreign — and no surprise given the cable operators’ very limited worldview,” Lorber said. “World film lovers are learning that they have to seek out these films and pony up to see them rather than having them passively available.”

Lorber holds out hope for a new VOD venture from AT&T and The Chernin Group, and AOL’s announcement that it would begin showing films from Miramax’s library. 

Likewise, Bernard said ancillary platforms “are in constant transition for the better. Every month, we see the iTunes numbers getting bigger.”

Television shows are one promising new opportunity, but that doesn’t make the situation for foreign-language films any better.

As Foundas also notes, the best hope for the dissemination of foreign cultures on U.S. screens may be in television. “The Returned,” a French supernatural drama about the dead coming back to life, received solid ratings on the Sundance Channel. Netflix streaming also features hit foreign shows such as “Spiral,” a grisly French police procedural, and “Borgen,” a Danish political drama about the country’s first female prime minister. 

Such genre-driven episodic television shows may not be the same as the cinematic art-film imports that once opened the eyes of U.S. viewers to the ways of the world, but they do seem in line with the latest changes in Americans’ viewing habits.

But ultimately, the state of foreign cinema may be like the canary in the coal mine for a shifting entertainment business. 

“Every change that happens in the industry affects indies more,” said Peter Goldwyn. “If the Hollywood studios have the infrastructure to last longer in the old systems, foreign language films are going to feel the impact of these changes even more, because it has always had the smallest box office percentage.”

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Steven-Charles, Where did you get your statistics? The US literacy rate is at 99%, not quite the "1 of of f grow up without learning to read" (75% literacy) as you claim.

Michael Do

Well, Korean dramas and films seem to be somewhat of an exception. For the last few years, Korean TV dramas has gained popularity amongst non-Koreans and non-Asians.


The bigger question probably is, does the foreign market for English speaking films make up for it? The foreign market seems to be outpacing the domestic market. This would indicate the world embraces English speaking films, and foreign filmmakers may well be making more English speaking films. This would give us the best of both worlds.


Guess what?. The rest of the world don’t give a damn if people from united states don’t read. They’re losing it.


I do not wish to stare at a screen non-stop to read dialogue. I would rather hear it so I can do other things while a movie is on. I simply do not have that much downtime.


Checked Borgen on Netflix.
As of now, no streaming. One season on 4 DVDs.


Surely some of this box office decline can be attributed to the ever-increasing unpleasantness of going to see a movie in the theater rather than watching it at home? Most of my favorite films are subtitled, but I seldom go to the movies anymore because even for foreign films, the trailers are often cringe-inducing, ridiculously loud, and the audience will be full of self-involved jerks who'd rather text or talk than watch the movie. Meanwhile, streaming offers more options than ever, and home theaters are better than ever.


How about Americans are just getting less curious, ergo, "dumber".


All the writers for Indiewire should go kill themselves.


"Universal Studios’ recent decision to shut down Focus Features and lay off its global-savvy CEO James Schamus has been viewed as another blow to world cinema,"

I thought it was only shutting down its NY office and Focus Features International, not the whole division?


"This does not count films catering to immigrants". Enough said.


Article is just another shameless marketing tool for Netflix et al. Why dont you close down Cannes and Venice Film markets as well?

Shelly I

I conduct between 10 and 12 presentations of foreign language films per week in South Florida, with attendance upwards of 200 for a film. Time and again they ask why there aren't more foreign language films in theaters, and my reply is always "Hollywood for the most part produces films for a demographic between 9 and 18, with a reading level of 9, and you want them to read subtitles." I believe anyone reading this article and from the comments I have seen, we are the choir. However, if some gutsy distributor really believed in the audience of baby boomers – yes, that is my audience – out there, many of whom either will sit still for subtitles, and many more who will be converted because of the many wonderful stories and cultures revealed through these films, then they would spend some marketing bucks on the biggest and smartest audience out there. We all talk about a globalized society, but it seems to be a one way street – from Hollywood to the rest of the world. It is a sad comment that so many good, and some great, films don't get a chance to be seen on a big screen the way they should be seen. And it's not about the technology, stupid. It's just about US becoming stupid. But then again, I'm preaching to the choir here.


Thank god for KAT.


Thank you for this article. I made a few of these points in the comments section to Foundas' article. A bit of apple and oranges as Foundas is only talking about subtitles on the margins.

As this article points out, for "real" Foreign Language films, the market is very limited and shrinking. Two of the best movies to come out this year, the Italian film MIELE and THE MISSING PICTURE (a Foreign Language Oscar nominee no less) played for exactly one week on one (very small) screen in the supposed center of cinema – Los Angeles. I went to weekend screenings of both pictures and there were maybe 20 people total for the two screenings.

And, I was either the youngest or one of the youngest persons in the house – and I ain't young!

Where are the college students? As recently as the 90s, there used to be a healthy percentage of younger folks attending Foreign Language pictures. Now? I guess to concerned with seeing SPIDERMAN MEETS THE TRANSFORMERS PART IV in 3D Imax. Sad.


"This doesn’t count films catering specifically to immigrant or diaspora populations, whether Spanish-language films for Hispanic Americans or Bollywood films for Indian-Americans". Huh? Are you kidding?


As an English major, I fell in love with foreign films in the 60s when I was in college. Oh, my goodness…Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, Bunuel. Pure joy! Deneuve in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." I even liked "Mondo Cane." A group of us always went to the showings on campus at the library lecture hall, and we dressed imaginatively in the culture of the language of the film. We had a marvelous time. That said, we all were well read (and could read well). Additionally, we had no technological opportunities via texts and tweets to distract us from concentrating. Americans might be isolationists, and for some, foreign films fall into the same category as do literary classics, opera, symphony, and live theatre……the realm of intellectual snobs, but it probably has more to do with the current "intellectualism" on the average university campus–the myopic, distorted, and, dare I say, narrow view of the world students have imbibed through their own college experiences. It's difficult to follow a foreign language film when you read slowly with a limited vocabulary, and have little knowledge of history and a short attention span.


Foreign-language films would be more appealing if the subtitles contained fewer vulgar, profane expressions not found in the originals. I am shocked by the "interpretations" given, for instance, in German and Polish films.

Wendy Lidell

Le plus ca change….
When I started International Film Circuit in 1986, it was in response to a material decline in foreign language films being released on US screens, which at the time I held was a result of the proliferating cable universe, and as Kaufmann points out, the inhospitable climate for subtitles on the small screen. I did a statistical analysis which convinced the National Endowment for the Arts and several private foundations to underwrite the importation of foreign art films. Of course, now that looks like the Golden Age. VHS and DVD came to our rescue in the 90s, but now with the downward pressure by VOD on price points, there's no way unit sales will increase sufficiently for small titles make up the loss. As an old colleague used to say, perhaps the solution is "fewer, better".

Ellen G.

I show foreign films all year long, and they are extremely well-attended because we show them for one night only and there is often someone to facilitate a discussion afterward to help decipher the culture depicted in the film. Perhaps the model for showing foreign films is not workable anymore. Instead of showing a foreign film for a week with 10 people per screening, there should just be one or two screenings of a film. It's a lot easier to do with DCP than it would be with 35 mm!

James M.

There will always be an outlet for world cinema. Unfortunately, those films are more readily available to us in Los Angeles or other large metropolitan cities than they are to more rural areas.


I think there is still some room for foreign films in the US distribution marketplace. Just in the past few years we've had The Secret in their Eyes make over $6 million domestic, I Am Love hit over $5million, and most recently The Great Beauty with close to $3million.

The problem is getting films out in front of audiences without expensive marketing. Winning the Oscar for best foreign language film doesn't necessarily translate to box office success (see In a Better World) however in each of the cases listed above, word of mouth and great visuals were the selling point.


It all comes down to audience. I go to foreign-language films and the theaters are mostly empty. Heck, I go to American films and but for the blockbusters or a Friday/Saturday night screening at a buzz-y smaller film, I feel a little crowded these days if there are more than 10 people in there with me. But with the VOD scam at least those guys are kicking back to the theaters and treating it as a marketing expense so they can place it in the "in theaters" section. If distributors of foreign language films want to change the game, they need material that will get people buzzing and get people to throw back in with theatrical films (i.e., films that make people want to go to the office and buzz about how they saw such and such film). For all the structural issues with feature films these days, a lot of it ultimately comes back to product. If the product isn't motivating people to go to the theater, and isn't motivating them to go back to their office on Monday to buzz about it to other people to get them interested, then the theaters will just have to take a check from VOD, Inc. and try to limp along.


Please reassure me that American audiences are seeing The Raid 2, if ever a foreign language film required little effort it's this sonic blitzkrieg of a movie.

Adam Tawfik

I think this sadly correlates to a larger sense of isolationism. America (and probably the rest of the world) is stuck in this mentality that their culture is the only worthwhile culture. It's such a shame that in spite of all the resources available to us (a wide array of reputable news sources, Netflix), we still show a disappointingly lack of curiosity and unwillingness to try new things.

Steven-Charles Jaffe

As a member of the AMPAAS foreign language voting group, one of the great pleasures I have each year is watching upward of 60+ foreign language films. As a linguistic student and someone who believes that film is one of the greatest cultural bridges to peaceful existence, this is a sad state and it certainly doesn't help that there's a growing illiteracy in the U.S. – one out of four children grow up without learning how to read. Other reasons I truly appreciate the opportunity to watch foreign language films, I get to see new talent in front of and behind the camera, and in some cases get to visit far away places that I probably will never have a chance to visit in person. For 90 minutes or two hours I can experience people and cultures I have little knowledge of – it was also how I became interested in movies. My 2 cents…


The old business model for foreign language films included dubbed versions. Not my cup of tea, but the box office revenue from audience members who would never see a subtitled film helped make the US distribution of these films profitable.

Cineastes in the US cheered when distributors stopped releasing dubbed versions. The market for foreign language films has been in decline ever since.

Sam Ippolito

Another point about subtitles and Netflix streaming is that the couple of latest releases I've tried to watch (for example Claire Denis' "Bastards") don't even have them! Luckily, I can understand a little French but, a lot was lost without translation and to make matters worse Netflix will pull it from their streaming line-up before adding the subs.

Dan Humphrey

"The foreign-language Oscar is now decided upon by the entire Academy. This makes 'the most popular film the most likely winner every year,' he said, thereby cutting many smaller, worthy films from contention." I really think this is a good, rather than a bad, thing. It means films like KAGAMUSHA or THE LAST METRO will have a better chance against films like MOSCOW DOES NOT BELIEVE IN TEARS. (The latter won over the first two under the old rules.) This means the non-English films that get the big awards (and the publicity) will actually be the ones audiences like most. That, in the long run, is best for the marketplace.


I think more foreign films should be dubbed in English. Not everyone can read fast enough because of vision problems or other issues. Plus if you have to read the whole time you can’t pay the same level of attention to the actual picture and its subtleties.
I’m pretty sure the interest in foreign movies would increase if watching them didn’t feel like a chore and allowed people to get their eyes off the screen for a couple of minutes every once in a while without having to pause or go back. Good voice actors would probably appear once there is actually work for them.

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