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The Lonely Subtitle: Here’s Why U.S. Audiences Are Abandoning Foreign-Language Films

The Lonely Subtitle: Here's Why U.S. Audiences Are Abandoning Foreign-Language Films

Last month, Variety chief film critic Scott Foundas wrote an article that should be heartwarming for anyone heading to the Cannes Film Festival: “U.S. Audiences Are More Comfortable With Subtitles Than Ever.” 

Unfortunately, it’s not true: U.S. box office for the top five foreign-language films has declined by 61% in the last seven years.

To be fair, Foundas’s argument ultimately is about subtitles. This allows the inclusion of wide-release, U.S.-originated productions dominated by foreign tongues such as “Inglourious Basterds,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Avatar” and “District 9.” (It may be worth noting that the last two subtitled alien dialogue.)

However, these films aren’t germane to international cinema. Works by Quentin Tarantino, Mel Gibson and James Cameron don’t open the doors for subtitled Cannes selections such as the Dardenne brothers’ French language “Two Days, One Night” or Andrey Zyagintsev’s Russian-language “Leviathan.” 

According to data culled from boxofficemojo.com, foreign-language box office has shown a steady decline. In 2013 the top five foreign-language releases earned collectively just $15 million at the U.S. box office; in 2007, the take was $38 million. (This doesn’t count films catering specifically to immigrant or diaspora populations, whether Spanish-language films for Hispanic Americans or Bollywood films for Indian-Americans.)

Even acclaimed foreign directors have seen a precipitous fall; in 2006, Pedro Almodovar had his most successful release with “Volver,” which saw $13 million in U.S. ticket sales; in 2013, “I’m So Excited” earned just over $1 million. 

Foundas’ piece does highlight some key challenges to international cinema. As he notes, a number of the “French” films in the official selection for Cannes 2014 — such as Olivier Dahan’s “Grace of Monaco,” Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Search,” and Pascale Ferran’s “Bird People” — are partly or completely in the English language. 

And the demands of the U.S. marketplace have pushed many top-notch foreign-born directors (Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, Luc Besson) toward Hollywood and English-language filmmaking.

However, these don’t account for the biggest challenges to foreign-language films finding a U.S. audience.  

Companies that serve(d) as their champions have downsized, retrenched or disappeared. 

“Consider [it] the Miramax effect,” said Music Box Films’ Ed Arentz, who currently has Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish-language “Ida” in release. “The old Miramax was routinely driving foreign-language box office with unprecedented levels of marketing effort. We saw a reprise with these tactics recently with the French-produced ‘The Artist,’ but from 1987 to 2005, they had 26 or so $1 million-plus subtitled releases.”

While The Weinstein Company continues to invest in foreign-language hits (“The Grandmaster,” “The Intouchables”), it is one of the very few companies that does so. Sony Pictures Classics also remains dedicated to foreign cinema, releasing recent successes such as “Amour,” “A Separation,” and “The Raid: Redemption.”

However, even Sony Classics will take fewer risks on foreign-language cinema in the future, said co-president Tom Bernard. 

He pointed to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ recent rule change in which the foreign-language Oscar is now decided upon by the entire Academy. This makes “the most popular film the most likely winner every year,” he said, thereby cutting many smaller, worthy films from contention. 

According to Bernard, the Foreign Language Oscar category remains a crucial spotlight for international cinema, and without it shining a light on smaller films, those movies may never see the light of day in the U.S. 

This year, Sony Classics has the top-grossing foreign language film, “The Lunchbox,” which has earned $2.7 million. “But if that movie had been nominated,” said Bernard, “it would have done three times as much.”

Universal Studios’ recent decision to redirect Focus Features toward the mainstream through its merger with FilmDistrict, which included laying its global-savvy CEO James Schamus, was viewed as another blow to world cinema. However, the number of foreign-language films on Focus’ theatrical slate had been dropping for years; its last subtitled film was “Sin Nombre” in 2009. In 2011 Focus launched digital platform Focus World, which became a home to some foreign films; today, it’s in limbo. (Its head of acquisitions, Kent Sanderson, left to become the executive VP of distribution at Amplify in January.)

Digital distribution is killing foreign-language film on large screens — and small ones.

We’ve all heard that VOD platforms give non-Hollywood films a chance to find their audiences. But foreign-language cinema has never performed in ancillary outlets in the same way as they have in theaters. 

“We always make more money theatrically,” said Samuel Goldwyn Films’ Peter Goldwyn, who said that one of the company’s recent releases (which he declined to name), though successful theatrically, only earned a small amount of revenue on digital platforms. 

“That’s always been the case,” he said. “And I think it is just about the subtitles.”

And an unintended consequence of the digitally driven marketplace has been a glut of theatrical releases, which makes it more difficult for foreign films to thrive. Because so many American independent films use short theatrical runs to promote their ancillary releases, “companies are releasing 30 movies a year because of VOD,” Goldwyn said. “And because the marketplace is so crowded, the theaters that would be playing foreign-language films don’t have enough room.”

Netflix is the industry’s leading VOD powerhouse — and the popular streaming service has been steadily abandoning foreign-language films.

“Though we’re still very much in business with them, many other arthouse ‘specialty’ international film distributors are not,” said Kino Lorber’s Richard Lorber. “There has been a thinning of the deep catalog and even newer subtitled films on their service overall.

“The definitive loss,” Lorber added, “is for the deep catalog of foreign arthouse titles which don’t fare well transactionally and are largely disappearing from Netflix.”

While these films are finding their way to sites such as Fandor, MUBI, SnagFilms and a number of rapidly proliferating, smaller services, “there’s still only a minimal customer base with these [platforms],” Lorber said. “And the increasing number of these players is not producing more than a fraction of the revenues from even a modest license from Netflix.”

And while other transactional services like iTunes, Amazon and Hulu are out there, the audience watching foreign-language movies on these platforms is small. 

About 10% of Indiewire parent company SnagFilms’ library is comprised of foreign-language titles, accounting for about 6% of the overall views from a library of over 10,000 titles. Genre titles seem to play best, such as Norwegian horror movie “Thale” and French psychological thriller “Ecoute le temps.” 

Curiously, a recent check of iTunes’ Movies > Foreign page, which lists the 240 most popular foreign films on its service, is dominated by older catalogue titles like “The Girl with Dragon Tattoo,” “Seven Samurai” or “Amelie.” This suggests recent releases are not penetrating the digital marketplace as much as high-profile older titles.

Lorber said the digital distribution data doesn’t hold promise. “It’s not improving generally, but there is some reshuffling of visibility and availability that may bode well since it diminishes the concentration of one dominant service,” he said, referring to Netflix. 

As far as cable goes, the situation is worse. “Cable VOD is out for the count regarding foreign — and no surprise given the cable operators’ very limited worldview,” Lorber said. “World film lovers are learning that they have to seek out these films and pony up to see them rather than having them passively available.”

Lorber holds out hope for a new VOD venture from AT&T and The Chernin Group, and AOL’s announcement that it would begin showing films from Miramax’s library. 

Likewise, Bernard said ancillary platforms “are in constant transition for the better. Every month, we see the iTunes numbers getting bigger.”

Television shows are one promising new opportunity, but that doesn’t make the situation for foreign-language films any better.

As Foundas also notes, the best hope for the dissemination of foreign cultures on U.S. screens may be in television. “The Returned,” a French supernatural drama about the dead coming back to life, received solid ratings on the Sundance Channel. Netflix streaming also features hit foreign shows such as “Spiral,” a grisly French police procedural, and “Borgen,” a Danish political drama about the country’s first female prime minister. 

Such genre-driven episodic television shows may not be the same as the cinematic art-film imports that once opened the eyes of U.S. viewers to the ways of the world, but they do seem in line with the latest changes in Americans’ viewing habits.

But ultimately, the state of foreign cinema may be like the canary in the coal mine for a shifting entertainment business. 

“Every change that happens in the industry affects indies more,” said Peter Goldwyn. “If the Hollywood studios have the infrastructure to last longer in the old systems, foreign language films are going to feel the impact of these changes even more, because it has always had the smallest box office percentage.”

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