The Downfall: Foreign Language Hits Are Few and Far Between in 2005
by Anthony Kaufman
While the big studios lament the slowdown of summer business, there's another casualty at the box office this season: foreign language films.
At the year's mid-point, 2005's biggest box office foreign grosser is Steven Chow's Chinese martial arts comedy "Kung Fu Hustle," at over $16.7 million. While that number may sound like cause for celebration, several distribution executives are quick to point out that high print-and-advertising costs on the wide-release picture (on over 2,500 screens) should temper any calls for rejoicing. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"'s slow-building $128 million, it's not.
"Kung Fu Hustle," along with "House of Flying Daggers," which made over $6 million of its less-than-stunning $11 million gross in 2005, represent the latest entries in the new field of potentially big-ticket foreign lingo films. But even so, these action movies are the exception, not the rule.
Rather, many U.S. audiences have come to expect intimate character studies from their foreign auteurs. And it is these films that face an especially dire market, with disinterested younger audiences, rising competition from documentaries, and diminishing returns in the increasingly essential arena of TV and DVD sales.
While a number of Oscar-contending hold-overs from 2004 have done fairly well in theaters this year ("Les Choristes," "The Sea Inside," "A Very Long Engagement" and "Bad Education"), only a trio of new releases have taken off: the last days of Hitler bio-pic "Downfall" ($5.5 million), the Israeli gay thriller "Walk on Water" (nearly $2.3 million), and the French comedy of bad manners "Look at Me" ($1.6 million).
The films suggest an unsteady and unpredictable marketplace, dominated less by sleeper hits than by misses (among them, "The Green Butchers," "Up and Down," "Brothers," "Kontroll" and "3-Iron"). Bob Berney, the former head of Newmarket Films, which released "Downfall," credits the success of the Hitler film to strong reviews, the controversial subject matter and the built-in audience for World War II movies. That, and he says, "It's been a bad time in the marketplace and this became the one to see."
"But the good news," says Meyer Gottlieb of Samuel Goldwyn Films, distributor, along with Roadside Attractions, of "Walk on Water," "is that the audience for foreign language film is growing as a result of the graying of America. The 30 years and older crowd are a much greater population. And for 'Downfall' and 'Walk on Water,' it goes up to 65."
Though the challenge, says Gottlieb, becomes keeping films on screens long enough; because unlike younger viewers, "the older audience isn't going on opening weekend," he says. "Walk on Water" has been playing in some markets for 14 weeks.
Berney agrees the older audience helped turn "Downfall" into a success. But this also worries him. "I hope there's some way to break that trend," he says. "When it comes to foreign language, other than martial arts movies, it is tough to get a young audience. Even in the college market, it's tough."
As example, ThinkFilm's release of "Kontroll," a Hungarian comic- thriller about a young man's subterranean adventures as a subway controller, is struggling to break $200,000 at the box office. "It was everything for those fed up with garden variety foreign films," says ThinkFilm's Mark Urman. "We had reinforcements from the film programming community, the Hollywood establishment loved it, positive reviews, but the business was not good. Maybe that audience isn't looking for a stylish, kinetic film, but is looking for the mainstream, established literary French film." (See "Look at Me" or Paramount Classic's recent "Apres Vous," an underwhelming French confection doing moderate business after a month in release.)
As a distributor of several documentaries this year, Urman also notes that American nonfiction is, he admits, "serving the function that the foreign language film used to. The profusion and proliferation of viable, publicizable, innovative documentaries is obviously taking business away from somewhere, and I think we're seeing fewer American independent and foreign language films doing the business and having the traction of what they've done before."
Even more important for the companies releasing these films is the lack of upside for foreign pictures on TV and DVD. "A solid documentary that is acclaimed and has some sort of special interest component, be it wine, chess, or quadriplegic ruby, is going to have more ancillary value than most foreign language films," Urman explains. "No matter how they do theatrically, you're going to have difficulty placing a foreign film on television. Fewer and fewer are doing the sort of biz that allows those films to pay for themselves."
One of the keys to making foreign lingo films work in the U.S. is keeping marketing costs down rather than up -- a practice that has kept the usually frugal Sony Pictures Classics (unless when it comes to one of their martial arts adventures) flourishing all these years.
The same goes for IFC Films. President Jonathan Sehring says it's the "only way" to make them work. "You have to resist the temptation to spend more and get more wide audiences. We've tried it, and it doesn't always work." Sehring's big disappointment this year is the lackluster ticket sales for Susanne Bier's tough, rewarding Danish drama "Brothers," which was jointly acquired and distributed with Focus Features to allay the risk of a release.
But the company also had surprisingly good showings for poetic gems such as the Japanese abandoned kids drama "Nobody Knows" and the Kurdish-Iraqi refugee fable "Turtles Can Fly," which Sehring says may actually turn a profit, with only $250,000 in sales. The multi-tiered IFC Entertainment is also uniquely positioned to funnel their foreign releases onto one of the only TV stations that plays foreign language movies: IFC.
Even with such safeguards, however, distributors are not sure how to make the foreign lingo business survive. As Sehring says, "Outside of Pedro Almodovar, I don't know if there are any international directors today who have a big following."
And who is to blame? Distributors say it's not their fault. Toronto 2004 and Cannes 2005 yielded few discoveries. And foreign sales agents, U.S. execs say, continue to peddle pictures way beyond their worth. "Why has the new Hou Hsiao-hsien not sold," says Urman, echoing complaints he has read in the press. "There are several distributors who want it, but they want it at a price that won't kill them. The distributors know what it costs; the sellers have no idea; and the critics live in such a vacuum: You just want to say fuck you plenty to journalists who complain about the sorry state of art-house distribution. How dare they?"
One solution, Urman suggests, is that foreign film organizations pony up some financial support to make it easier on U.S. distribs. Unifrance, the French film organization, for instance, helps pay for directors' travel. But Urman is calling for more radical subsidies to help pay P&A costs. "Even a contribution of $50 - $70,000 on a film would make an enormous difference," he says. "This needs to be taken seriously by the national film organizations."
If something doesn't change soon, the number and diversity of foreign pictures on U.S. shores could start to dwindle. Sure, big budget items like Fox Searchlight's up-and-coming Russian supernatural thriller "Night Watch" or the proven artistry of Wong Kar-wai's latest "2046" will always cross the oceans, but smaller pictures from less established names or countries that don't conform to the "classic foreign art film" (think French, sexy and/or feel-good with kids) may be dead in the water.