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On Cannes Eve, What’s the State of Foreign Films in the U.S.?

On Cannes Eve, What's the State of Foreign Films in the U.S.?

With the Cannes Film Festival opening this evening, I’m putting a tight focus on what’s happening with foreign language cinema at the moment in the U.S. Notwithstanding last year’s stellar box office performance of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” franchise (which I wrote about last year, The Girl with the Foreign Language Franchise), there’s very few movies that have had much success recently.

2011 is looking bleak at the box office so far, for example, with just two modest foreign breakouts (“Biutiful,” “Of Gods and Men”) and three films barely eking past the $1 million mark (“Certified Copy,” “Potiche,” “No Eres Tu, Soy Yo”). To be fair, most subtitled films reap the bulk of their U.S. ticket sales in the heady days of autumn and winter, but international cinema is, as is often the case, struggling to find a foothold.

As part of my Cannes coverage for the Wall Street Journal Online, I spoke with Tom Bernard from Sony Pictures Classics, which has a whopping four films in the festival — including the new Almodovar. While he acknowledged there may not be as many foreign films breaking out in the U.S. market, he claimed sales are strong on the films that do. “The numbers are leaps and bounds above what they were in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said, specifically citing Almodovar. “Pedro’s movies are incredibly popular. He’s as important today, or even has more awareness than back in the days when you had Fellini and Truffaut and Godard.”

But now more than ever, more foreign language cinema is barely getting theatrically released, heading straight to digital and DVD platforms. And while this may help the expose of certain examples of world cinema — see Tuesday’s article “Will Digital Distribution Save Foreign Language Cinema? Depends Who You Ask” — it may also be limiting their reach on the beautiful big silver screen and it may also be hurting indie distribs.

(As I’ve argued before, “the intimate environs of your living room are not sufficient for films that excavate human intimacy; on the contrary, intimacy is more profoundly felt in a large theater, where viewers can absorb the actors’ every glance and grimace. “We can wait for that on DVD,” say filmgoers. No, not really. Waiting to see a film in your living room is hurting that film, insulting it; it’s like saying to a good friend, “You’re not good enough to meet me for dinner; how about we just catch up on the phone, or via computer screen, instead?” Of course, there are plenty of films that should be relegated to such a space. Just not the good ones.”)

There were also a few points about ancillary outlets that didn’t make it into my indieWIRE article or got a little buried, which I wanted to highlight here.

One is the worry that foreign sales agents will prefer a neat direct-to-digital distribution offer, likely for a higher price tag, than go with a small theatrical distributor. “My fear is that the aggregators you see popping up all over will be easier for sellers,” Strand’s Jon Gerrans told me. “And they’ll just go directly to digital.”

And as Orly Ravid said, just because “a foreign language title is listed doesn’t necessarily mean it will get circulated.”

The other interesting point that got cut for space was the impact of Netflix’s Watch Now function. According to Gerrans, Netflix’s Watch Now function may have increased eyeballs on particular foreign titles, but the number of DVDs shipped to Netflix has been greatly reduced. Therefore, it’s an ultimate loss: “I would say in the end it means we’re making less money than we’re used to in total, because the Watch Now number doesn’t exceed what we would have received in shipped DVDs,” he said. “We’re not seeing the reorders like we used to.”

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