Foreign Film Upheaval: Why Esoteric Cultures Outpace European Mainstays at the Box Office

In 2017, we’ve seen five specialized subtitled films gross over $1 million. But the languages aren’t French, or German, or from anywhere in western Europe: The winners are Turkish, Farsi, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

These films came from Turkey, Iran, Israel, and even the United States, and played at conventional “art house” theaters (as opposed to releases from India, China, Mexico, and elsewhere, which aim at ethnically similar audiences).

Once upon a time, $100 million and more (in adjusted grosses) was possible for films like “La Dolce Vita,” “Life Is Beautiful,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”: more recently, “Amelie,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” easily surpassed $20 million. However, over the last few decades we’ve seen the subtitled market shift from decline to near collapse.

What happened this year shows some revival in the market, but with some twists. Here are the films that performed best, and the special circumstances that aided each.

Kedi (Oscilloscope) – $2.8 million

Secret Sauce: Pictures over words
One way to interest English-speaking audiences in foreign films may be films that use little language at all. This documentary about the street cats of Istanbul told the story of its feline subjects largely through visuals, though Turkish was the language spoken and subtitled here. It remains the biggest limited-release documentary of the year, but its success points to the necessity of finding a hook. Cat lovers flocked to the film, which was relatively off the radar of top festivals that feature nonfiction films.

“The Salesman”

The Salesman (Cohen) – $2.4 million

Secret Sauce: Oscar

Asghar Farhadi’s second Foreign Language Oscar winner, in Farsi (the language of Iran), benefited greatly from its nomination and win; half of its gross came after the awards. Cohen timed the release well: It came during the period of the proposed ban on Iranian citizens entering the country. Still, it only grossed about a bit more than a third of his earlier “A Separation.”

Iranian films came into art-house fashion during the 1990s, with their later decline related more to crackdowns on artistic freedom at home. Major Iranian films get a boost in some metropolitan areas (particularly Los Angeles) from American citizens of Persian roots.

Of note: Cohen specializes in French films, but this is their best release not in English. And this was an Amazon film, also a rarity from them not in English.

Menashe

Menashe (A24) – $1.6 million

Secret Sauce: Jewish patrons

Still in release and possibly headed to $2 million, “Menashe” is set in Brooklyn with Yiddish dialogue — not totally foreign, just increasingly antiquated and in decline. Centering on a recent widower and Orthodox Jew who’s forbidden under his sect to raise his son until he remarries, the film is contemporary and American but has a feel of a foreign society.

Of the 51 films A24 released since 2103, this is their first fully non-English subtitled film. They maximized its appeal by focusing on theaters that cater to Jewish patrons: Half of its gross came from under 25 theaters, a quarter from just five (three in Manhattan, one each in Los Angeles and Bethesda, Maryland). the New York metro area provided roughly 40 percent of its ticket sales.

“The Women’s Balcony”

The Wedding Plan (Roadside Attractions) – $1.4 million
The Women’s Balcony (Menemsha) – $1.2 million

Secret Sauce: Women

These two Israeli films, both set in Orthodox communities, show the strength of that nation’s cinema. “The Wedding Plan” came from a rare female Israeli director (Rama Burshtein) and told of a jilted bride who sets out to find a groom and go through with her arrangements. “The Women’s Balcony” is set around a group of women who find their concerns minimized by the men at their temple after an accident at their synagogue.

While only one Israeli film passed the $3 million mark in domestic gross (“The Band’s Visit,” 2008), Israel likely has the highest percentage of theatrical films that make it to American cinemas; at least 10 (including documentaries) opened this year.

The interest among many older Jewish moviegoers is narrow and intense. This is seen by how they manage to get to their grosses despite limited play. “The Women’s Balcony,” released by Santa Monica-based Menemsha, never played at more than 34 theaters at one time. “The Wedding Plan,” at its widest, was at 123 theaters; it’s backed by the deeper-pocketed Roadside Attractions (another company for which a non-English language film is rare).

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