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Foreign Language Films Are Dead; Long Live Foreign Language Films

by Anthony Kaufman
August 25, 2011 1:39 AM
2 Comments
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Foreign-language films have always been the bastard step-children of the art-house market.

Despite what everyone likes to say about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "Pan's Labyrinth" or "Amelie," American audiences--even sophisticated ones--appear to be insular, provincial and possibly xenophobic. "The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo" may have been a sizable box office hit last year, but it still ranks as the 24th most successful subtitled movie of all time, and it had a bestselling book and lots of violence behind it.

Considered in total, it seems movies from foreign countries are welcomed with less and less vigor. This year, we haven't had a foreign breakout since first quarter releases, "Biutiful" and "Of Gods and Men," and we'll have to wait until Almodovar in the fall to bring any significant number of U.S. audiences again beyond their own navels.

Rejected by television buyers and viewers (those pesky subtitles), the films are more often than not box-office losers, or the most modest of winners for film distributors, who must either spend next to nothing to release them (Strand) or distribute so many in bulk (Sony Classics, IFC Films) to make them worthwhile.

But the news in recent days that Focus Features had launched its own VOD label, Focus World, and Fox International Prods would be releasing a few of its titles in North America, namely, a favorite of mine from Cannes, Gerardo Naranjo's "Miss Bala" (pictured), made me think that all is not lost for foreign-language films in the U.S.A. Or maybe not.

According to indieWIRE, Focus World plans to release somewhere between eight to 15 VOD premiere titles a year, with the goal being one per month. It's throwing these films into the wilds of the home entertainment market, without much backing, but I guess it's better than nothing. Or is it? As Dana Harris noted in the indieWIRE story, the unit is a way for the company to pick up foreign films that they love, but for which they can't justify a theatrical release. But in doing so, are they taking films away from a smaller distributor that might have actually put the film in theaters and given them a higher profile among critics and thereby audiences?

A Focus exec told indieWIRE that "it was thrilling for me to make an offer on ‘Resurrect Dead,'” but what kind of offer, and what kind of commitment?

Likewise, according to Gregg Goldstein in Variety, Fox Intl. Prods will give some of its slate a specialty theatrical push in the U.S., with "Miss Bala" getting a limited domestic run through 20th Century Fox on Oct. 14.

I interviewed Naranjo in Cannes for the WSJ.com (Miss Bala Subverts Criminal Genre), and I'm happy to know that North American audiences will get a chance to see the film, but I'm not sure what marketing execs at big Fox will know what to do with the film--why not give it to Fox Searchlight? Indie veteran David Dinerstein (Paramount Classics) is reportedly consulting with Fox to strategize on the release, so perhaps it's got a shot. But I'm not holding my breath.

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2 Comments

  • anthony | August 25, 2011 11:35 AMReply

    But "Sarah's Key" stars an English-speaking actress Kristin Scott Thomas, and has plenty of English in it. I don't know the exact breakdown of English to French (and German and Italian), but I suspect it has plenty of English in it.

  • mary | August 25, 2011 2:30 AMReply

    There are some signs of hope for foreign-language films.

    TWC's French film "Sarah's Key" is performing well at box office; the film may even has chance to outgross “Of Gods and Men”.
    http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=weekend&id=sarahskey.htm

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