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5 Reasons ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ Broke the Foreign Box Office Curse

5 Reasons 'Embrace of the Serpent' Broke the Foreign Box Office Curse

These are tough times for specialized distributors trying to achieve box office success from subtitled films aimed at art-house ticket buyers.

Long gone are successes like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life Is Beautiful” (adjusted, $197 and $98 million domestic grosses), or even anything approaching the recent year totals of “The Intouchables” ($10.2 million) or Oscar-winning “Amour” ($6.8 million). But since the post-war Berlin drama “Phoenix” managed $3.2 million last summer, no European non-English film has managed to get to $2 million. That’s close to unprecedented. Usually at least one foreign Awards contenders gets to the $3 million mark.  

This year, one expected foreign breakout was Oscar-winning December release “Son of Saul” (Sony Pictures Classics), which took in just under $1.8 million. Also showing success in this challenging period has been the Colombian Amazon-set “Embrace of the Serpent,” (Oscilloscope) which is up to $1.2 million in its ninth week—with enough business left to likely top $1.3 million, about 75% as much as the Oscar winner. “Embrace” was a fellow nominee; French/Turkish entry “Mustang” failed to reach $1 million.

The performance of “Embrace” is truly impressive. Among specialized subtitled releases so far this year, its to-date gross is as much as the next seven have totaled so far. And those include a fellow nominee (Denmark’s “A War,” from IFC) and four other festival-acclaimed national submissions. Anything above $1 million is a major achievement these days.

Going in, “Embrace of the Serpent” hardly seemed an obvious art house success. A black-and-white film from Colombia from relatively unknown director Ciro Guerra (Anne Thompson’s interview here) and a no-name cast seemed a dubious draw. So why did audiences react far more positively than to so many other recent releases?

It was the combination of several related factors.

1. Strong reviews
For an offbeat film like this, while they guarantee nothing, nabbing key early reviews from the Los Angeles and New York Times is critical. This got both, plus the latter gave elevated placement for a Wednesday opening and quote availability for Friday ads. (“The War” got a brush-off, buried review in New York, even though it was positive.) And all reviews stressed “Embrace”‘s distinctive visual qualities that helped to draw interest.

2. Excellent Oscar timing 
Oscilloscope set the February date long before there was any certainty it would even make the semi-final, let alone the Oscar nominee list. But Oscilloscope wanted to have some presence. They opened during a period where nearly all of the big city theaters were playing mostly titles that were either stale, familiar older awards titles or small impact new films.

The date, while not the optimal for maximum Oscar race impact (two weeks earlier might have helped) was necessitated by the advance availability of dates of their key initial runs, including Manhattan’s Film Forum (where it ultimately outgrossed earlier opener “Son of Saul”) and the Lincoln Plaza, and Los Angeles’ Nuart (which had also earlier played “Saul”). “Embrace” also got trailer attention from similar ticket buyers there (and elsewhere) for the trailer, which then tied into the strong reviews as something already somewhat more familiar. They also managed the rare trifecta of Cannes, Toronto and then a late Sundance run to complete before opening.

Then, though most cities opened after the awards (the second Friday later) in other top markets, “Embrace” had a clear field so the new reviews also stood out more than they might have in a more crowded period. And with a few weeks’ break before the current crop of top-end entries came along, it had a clearer playing field with less competition. (“The War” had opened just before, but had no traction and as they often do, Magnolia added Video on Demand quickly.)

3. It was exotic, unlike other films.
The bulk of the European-centered specialized subtitled releases tend to be contemporary social issue dramas, period pieces (sometimes related to Jewish and/or Holocaust themes such as “Ida,” “Phoenix” and “Son of Saul”), with older characters (“Amour,” “The Great Beauty”). It can help to have a cute kid and/or a built-in ethnic group (India’s “The Lunchbox” took in over $4 million two years ago). But that “Embrace” conformed to none of these may have helped.

It was distinctive but had intriguing elements. It boasted a clear strong visual design, filmed in black and white (not a barrier for an upscale crowd: see “Ida,” “Nebraska” and “The White Ribbon”). But this offered an exotic Amazonian location, distinctive aboriginal characters in a wide-screen format through which even without color displayed a magical, different universe. It offered the chance to see an unfamiliar, different world. (So did “The Revenant,” on a grander scale.)

For older, dedicated film buffs, this was not uncharted territory. Werner Herzog had success decades ago with three South American jungle films which, though set centuries earlier than “Embrace,” also featured the clash between European and native civilizations (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Cobra Verde”). This also offered a German character, although this time the point of view came much more from the local inhabitants than the more vulnerable and less overwhelming Europeans.

4. The marketing emphasized elements to broaden the appeal beyond just typical older viewers
The trailer emphasized not only the exotic setting but also a sense of spiritualism, a religious other-worldly alternative with New Age elements, and a dose of hallucinogenics to appeal to once or current stoners or those curious about mind-altering experiences. That’s a hard thing to pull off, but the Amazon setting and the sense of a serious, vital narrative makes the addition of those elements important to finding an audience. A strong visual experience plus this and other plot lines indicated by the trailer, reviews and other marketing made it appeal to a younger than usual specialized crowd.

The most successful theaters included the core older Upper West Side Manhattan Lincoln Plaza, the somewhat younger-skewing Film Forum and Nuart and a mixture of others with younger appeal (Landmark’s Berkeley and Cambridge locations, Brooklyn’s Nighthawk) and older ones (Laemmle’s in Pasadena, Landmark’s D.C. E-Street). 
Getting a younger crowd for a subtitled film isn’t impossible. Radius Weinstein managed to get over $1 million for their Austrian horror film “Goodnight Mommy,” also cinematically inventive.
In an era of popular media, National Geographic’s cable channels offer similar programs about different cultures and populations. But this was an acclaimed film set in the Amazon. It had a sense discovering a different world, with anthropological elements made more compelling by an intriguing narrative that included adventure and danger. That’s a way of being different in a way that is an asset rather than off-putting and beyond interest.

5. It didn’t hurt to come from South America
Colombia is not familiar ground, and South American films are not guaranteed success any more than those from other continents (as the failures of “The Clan” and “The Club” this year and Oscilloscope’s own crowd-pleasing “The Second Mother” in 2015 showed). But recent successes like “No” and “Gloria” from Chile and “The Secret in Their Eyes” from Argentina show that certain appealing films can work. 
With its multiple languages and multi-ethnic, non-urban or contemporary characters, “Embrace” didn’t gain from crossover appeal to Spanish-speaking American audiences, perhaps contributing its under $2 million gross. But at a time when many Western European films, no matter how acclaimed, have an air of familiarity, with fewer brand-name auteurs than any time going back to the mid-1950s, there is an opening for different regions gaining more of a foothold.

with lower acquisition and marketing costs than either SPC or Cohen on “Son of Saul” and “Mustang,” respectively, and an Oscar nomination) to help get “Embrace” wider attention than most art house subtitled films these days, Oscilloscope should reap a decent profit. And going to Cannes next month, where many tricky but well-received films will be begging for sales, they have earned credibility to compete with the ever-smaller group of core distributors willing to take such chances.

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