Listening to the World: Foreign Films Bounce Back in 2004
by Anthony Kaufman
While the Bush administration prefers to ignore the voices of foreigners, U.S. movie audiences this year are showing greater acceptance.
After a promising spring and a beleaguered early summer (thanks to the domination of "Fahrenheit 9/11"), foreign language films have bounced back in the latter half of 2004, showing staying power, impressive box office figures and an indelible presence rivaling their English-language art-house counterparts. While the year isn't quite over yet (and the best may be yet to come with the expansion of "House of Flying Daggers"), the numbers show a marked leap from a poor 2003, when only seven foreign titles broke the $1 million mark and "Nowhere in Africa" topped the charts at over $6 million.
This year, Miramax's long-overdue release of Zhang Yimou's martial arts spectacle "Hero" made up for the delay with a major 2000-plus-screen distribution campaign, a Quentin Tarantino seal of approval, and $54 million in ticket receipts (making it the third highest-grossing foreign film ever in the U.S. behind "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Life is Beautiful"). That Zhang's epic is more a series of sensationally colored set-pieces structured a la "Rashomon" rather than a standard Jet Li actioner makes its box office victory all the more surprising.
2004 is turning out to be the year of Zhang, with Sony Classics' follow-up "House" embarking on a distribution pattern similar to "Crouching Tiger," starting out small with 15 screens and then ramping up to 200 screens -- it will be on over a thousand by mid-January.
In all, at least 12 new movies have already broken the $1 million mark, including (in roughly descending order) "The Motorcycle Diaries" (Focus), "Maria Full of Grace" (HBO/Fine Line) "Good Bye, Lenin!" (Sony Classics), "Monsieur Ibrahim" (Sony Classics) "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring" (Sony Classics), "Bon Voyage" (Sony Classics), "Intimate Strangers" (Paramount Classics), "The Story of the Weeping Camel" (ThinkFilm), and "I'm Not Scared" (Miramax).
And this list doesn't even include a trio of late-year Oscar contenders, Jean-Pierre Jeneut's "A Very Long Engagment" (Warner Independent), Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" (Sony Classics), and Alejandro Amenbar's "The Sea Inside" (Fine Line).
Proud of their accomplishments this year, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker touts, "When's the last time that an independent company had six box office successes that were foreign language films? This is a record for us. This is unheard of in a single year."
2004 also saw big gains for a pair of 2003 Miramax openers: "The Barbarian Invasions" made approximately three-fourths of its $3.4 million cume this year and "City of God" added nearly $3 million in 2004 (with its astounding 18 months in theatrical release).
But ThinkFilm VP Daniel Katz is skeptical about this year's big numbers. "I don't think the theatrical grosses are necessarily the best indicator of their overall 'biz performance' as assessed by the distributor," he says, "due to the high cost of distributing these titles and their relatively poor performance in the ancillary marketplace."
So while "Hero" -- defined in the marketplace as an Asian action film -- should have no trouble making its expensive wide release worthwhile down the road with DVD sales, other smaller, nongenre pictures like "Good Bye, Lenin!" or "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter" will have a tougher go of it.
But while DVD sales for foreign-lingo pictures still pale in comparison to English-language films, the growth of the home entertainment market has helped cultivate an audience for titles from abroad, according to Michael Barker. "The audience for foreign pictures is getting bigger and I think it has to do with the sophistication that the booming DVD market and the insatiable appetite for this type of film that it's caused," he says. "I also think that younger audience have a less of problem with subtitles than the older generation has."
2004 also saw the resurgence of the "event foreign film," as one distribution exec called it. With enough marketing money, the specialized distributors turned their Chinese or French or Spanish language films into must-see movies for specialized audiences.
Timed to the release of his "Bad Education," Almodovar got a major 8,864-word portfolio in the New York Times Magazine and a special section on the Times' website, complete with audio and visual aids. Earlier this month, The Times' Manohla Dargis published an ode to the glamour girls of China, hooked to the imminent opening of "House of Flying Daggers." And "For Your Consideration" trade ads for "A Very Long Engagement" are as ubiquitous as those for bigger English language films.
Imagine if the latest from Tsai Ming-liang or Jean-Luc Godard got similar wads of marketing cash. (While Tsai's "Goodbye Dragon Inn" topped out at under $30,000, Godard's "Notre Musique" is currently struggling to crack $100,000.)
"We didn't expect these films to make huge amounts of money," says Ryan Werner, head of distribution for Wellspring, which released both "Goodbye Dragon Inn" and "Notre Musique." "But I think we're going to have to be more careful about doing smaller films, like 'Goodbye Dragon Inn' in the future. It's not like we can't make them work, but I had to do all the publicity myself and do everything in-house. Was it worth it at the end of the day? I guess it is."
But with heated competition from more accessible, highly marketed foreign films, it's perhaps harder to get out the works of challenging auteur-filmmakers than ever before. "It's tough getting bookings for Godard," says Werner. "I would say for serious major auteurs, it's not easy." Critics' favorites like Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold," Ousmeme Sembene's "Moolaade," Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Distant," and Michael Haneke's "Time of the Wolf," for example, all struggled to find playdates and a U.S. audience.
Note that all of these films were released by non-studio affiliated companies: the only foreign film in the top ten that came from outside the studio system was ThinkFilm's "The Story of the Weeping Camel."
But ThinkFilm's Mark Urman is careful to point out that this is not always the case. "A lot of foreign language films released by studio divisions gross poorly and a lot of crossover imports go through true indies, often quite small ones," he says. "That just doesn't seem to have been the case this year."
In 2002, for example, a number of the top grossing foreign pictures such as "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "The Crime of Father Amaro," "Russian Ark," and "Sex and Lucia" came from outside the studio system.
But this year, the studio divisions -- as well as more audiences and quite possibly Academy voters -- found that the world outside of the United States is actually worth listening to.