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“Volver” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” Prepare to Break Out of the Foreign Language Niche

"Volver" and "Pan's Labyrinth" Prepare to Break Out of the Foreign Language Niche

The rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer. That’s what the Democratic Congress will inherit when they officially take control of the country’s legislature in January. The same state of affairs applies to foreign-language films in the United States. While there are a handful of films that break through to higher levels of popularity and ticket sales, the vast majority of features produced overseas continue to face overwhelming challenges at the U.S. box office.

So far, in 2006, less than 10 films have crossed the $1 million mark, but here’s an even more startling statistic: Of the more than 100 foreign-language films released so far this year, less than a quarter have broken $100,000 in ticket sales. (In 2005, by comparison, about half of the 128 foreign-language titles released made well over $100,000.) [Statistics do not include Bollywood titles released in the U.S.]

But we’re about to enter a period that should give hope to foreign-film aficionados, when a handful of high-profile foreign language Oscar contenders hit screens in November and December for Academy consideration, and a number of others get set for late winter releases to capitalize on foreign-language nominations.

While Pedro Almodovar‘s “Volver” (now playing) and Guillermo del Toro‘s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (opening in late December) can’t completely turn the outgoing tide for the majority of foreign-language films, these two Spanish language juggernauts offer up the most promising examples of the film-import industry, and could help prime the pump for other far-flung releases in the future.

Both “Volver” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” have something that most foreign language releases lack in today’s market: the backing of mini-major studios. Over the last couple years, independent distribution companies like Strand Releasing and Palm Pictures have taken up the lion’s share of foreign product, whereas major companies like Fox Searchlight, Focus, Warner Independent, the Weinstein Company and Lionsgate have distributed just one or two each.

Even Sony Pictures Classics, which is releasing “Volver,” has cut down on its foreign-language releases (this year, roughly have the number as last year). But SPC co-president Michael Barker says that’s mostly coincidence and that the company has consistently focused about one-third of its slate on foreign-language movies. Coming up, the company has a trio of big world cinema releases, Zhang Yimou‘s “The Curse of the Golden Flower,” Paul Verhoeven‘s “Blackbook,” and German fest favorite “The Lives of Others.”

“Volver,” of course, is one of the brightest feathers in SPC’s cap. Released last weekend in just five theaters, the critically-acclaimed melodrama made $197,703, and after just ten days in release, it’s already climbed to nearly half a million dollars. “I think Almodovar has made his most accessible film and his deepest film,” brags Barker. The company helped set the stage for Almodovar fever with its touring “Viva Pedro” retrospective of past Almodovar titles, including “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Live Flesh” and recent favorites “All About My Mother” and “Talk to Her.”

The company is also planning a big Oscar push for “Volver” in several categories and hopes to follow a similar distribution pattern as “Capote,” and by January, depending on the buzz, ending up on 300 screens. “It could go much farther,” says Barker. “The table is set.”

Indeed, with its emphasis on crossover Spanish star Penelope Cruz and Almodovar as a beloved world auteur, SPC may be able to deliver the director his most successful U.S. release ever. The record currently belongs to “Talk to Her” (just edging out “All About My Mother”), with ticket sales amounting to $9.3 million. But “Volver” could break well out of the foreign language ghetto and enter the ranks of foreign language films that are “not in the business that [foreign language films] are doing and they’re not in the audience that they’re attracting,” says Barker. Whether that’s younger people coming out in droves to watch Jet Li‘s “Fearless” or Spanish-language audiences catching “The Motorcycle Diaries” or “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” Barker believes there are plenty of foreign titles that don’t perform like traditional, old-fashioned foreign language films anymore. Subtitles, be damned.

That’s certainly what Picturehouse is hoping for with its release of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” A dark, adult fairytale set during the Spanish Civil War, Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy has enough genre elements to make it more like “Hellboy” than “The Devil’s Backbone” at the U.S. box office.

“Because of the type of film that it is, it has less of the ‘foreign-language’ pigeonhole,” says Picturehouse’s Bob Berney, who helped make “Y Tu Mama Tambien” a moderate smash. Berney says the film could reach 500 theaters by January. “For foreign language, that’s pretty aggressive,” he admits.

Picturehouse is betting on the film’s strong genre elements to pull in regular horror fans. “We’ve had really good tests with very mainstream audiences,” says Berney. “They say we don’t care about the subtitles. The word of mouth is really good.”

Berney also believes that Spanish isn’t really a foreign-language, considering the large Latino population in the U.S. “There’s an underserved market for Spanish language films here,” he says, noting that the film’s popularity in Mexico–it’s already made nearly $2 million since opening last month–could translate to ticket sales among U.S. Latinos. “As with ‘Y Tu Mama’ and “Amores Perros,’ the awareness from Mexico is really important,” he explains.

The mainstream press has also jumped on the Mexican auteur bandwagon, publishing stories about Del Toro, along with his filmmaking compadres Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron, who all have films in U.S. theaters this winter.

Berney welcomes the presence of “Volver” in the marketplace, too. “It absolutely helps,” he says. “I don’t know how much that it can crossover, but it sets up the marketplace. Anytime, there is a lot of good films, it helps the whole business and it gets people out to the movies.”

But it may not help smaller foreign films with tighter marketing budgets, which continue to be relegated to an entirely different stratum of moviegoing. Palm Pictures’ Ed Arentz blames a litany of “ongoing problems” that have kept such potentially commercial Palm releases such as “13 Tzameti” and “Lower City” from reaching an audience. “There is a lot of product out there competing for people’s decreasing attention spans and disposable time, and with an eroding press, especially in New York, it doesn’t make for a happy scenario,” he says, alluding to capsule reviews in The New York Times for many foreign-language films and the New Times/Village Voice‘s decreased emphasis on alternative cinema.

Even SPC’s Barker complains that there is “a major problem with getting the word out on these smaller films,” he says. “It would be foolhardy to spend big bucks to get the word out. What has always saved the day has been the newspapers, the magazines and the critics. But I think it’s harder and harder.”

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