The Academy has championed films from far-away lands for 60 years, helping to raise the profile of a select few. Along with those that score an Oscar win, a nomination or make the shortlist, there are dozens more that often fade into oblivion. So how does foreign language film translate to the general moviegoing public in the United States? As a matter of data, North American box office on foreign language films (excluding Bollywood titles) as of November 29 was $57.4 million for the year, in contrast to the same period last year, which saw $71.5 million. So what challenges are currently facing distributors of movies with subtitles and how do they get their titles to jump above the cacophony that surrounds the bigger pictures?
Sony Pictures Classics has won 14 Foreign Language Oscars, most recently with Amour and Son of Saul. This year, it has Toni Erdmann (Germany) and Land Of Mine (Denmark) now vying for a nomination (the shortlist was revealed yesterday and shockingly omitted such pics as France’s Elle (France) and Spain’s Julieta). SPC Co-President Michael Barker says, when it comes to releasing foreign language movies today, “Basically, it’s good news and bad news.
“The good news is those few films that cross over through social media—that achieve a certain level of success—probably are more successful than they ever would have been before, not just theatrically but also on VOD.”
On the flipside, “The smaller films are doing worse than ever before. So basically, you have those few films in the year that do well, that cross over into the zeitgeist. And then all the other foreign films, they seem to get totally lost.”
One of the problems is that we are in an environment where “there are so many films being made, there are so many options for entertainment hours. Whether it’s great television, sporting events or current events,” continues Barker.
Jeff Lipsky, EVP Marketing & Distribution of Adopt Films, which roundly scours fests for breakout foreign films and this year had The Idol (Palestine) in the Oscar hunt, agrees. “There really are too many films and mediocre films being released—and I’m not talking about major studios, although they certainly are releasing mediocre films—I’m talking about independents. A lot of the bad ones are foreign films too. It used to be when a foreign film opened, odds were it’s going to be a terrific movie. Now, not so much.”
Barker says, “The fact of the matter is that the distributor’s job is to do whatever we can to create a presence where the films are distinctive enough in the marketplace to get people to go out and see them. And it’s harder and harder to make them distinctive.”
Lipsky believes the media has a great responsibility. “The peak interest level in foreign films—at least since the days of Bergman and Truffaut—was when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were on PBS every week. The only close thing you’ve got now is when NPR does a review.”
He calls out “the story of the incredible shrinking New York Times” where indie reviews are “relegated to the ghetto pages. What gets a high-profile review still? Bad Santa 2.”
Those reviews, Lipsky contends, are “not for New York Times readers and aren’t going to influence business. They’re half a page of a color picture of somebody that’s in the movie. People who go to see foreign films don’t need the pictures.”
Worse for Lipsky, “There’s the dumbing down of film criticism. Why would anybody ever go on a website called Rotten Tomatoes? What do you mean? We’re going to tell you what movie sucks? We’re going to tell you what’s sh*t? That’s what the American public is interested in?”
Another exec agrees that what characterizes a good foreign language film that can break out is the reviews. But if a film isn’t going to work theatrically, then what? Netflix has certainly stepped up to fill a void as it recently did with Divines, the film that won the Caméra d’Or in Cannes this year.
If a movie does succeed in the theatrical marketplace, Barker says, “then all the other media fall into place.” But there’s a codicil. “Television, no matter how well you do with foreign language films, you’re not going to do the same kind of numbers you would do with an English language picture and your DVDs as well. But we always factor that into the equation and so if your film crosses over theatrically, you can count on a certain amount of revenue which makes the transaction worthwhile.”
Agrees another exec, “there’s less options in terms of your ancillary sales. DVD is pretty much gone, so that leaves SVOD- or iTunes-type deals.”
Lipsky thinks some of the North American festivals should change strategy. “What happens with foreign language films in this country? The New York Film Festival. But people in New York don’t even appreciate it. You know why? Because in every iteration, from the days of Richard Roud to Richard Peña and now the Kent Jones days, it’s basically just the best of Cannes or the best of Berlin. The main slate is only about 30 movies and the media doesn’t cover it because the media has already covered them [elsewhere].”
What’s the solution? “This is supposedly the media capital of the planet Earth, why don’t you simply institute a policy that the main slate has to be world premieres?” Major filmmakers from all around the world, Lipsky opines, would “salivate at the idea of having their world premiere at Lincoln Center. The New York Film Festival would take on a resonance and a gravitas that it’s lost.”
Yet another stumbling block is promoting films with people who don’t count English as a first language. “It becomes a nearly impossible chore in terms of getting publicity,” says Lipsky.
So, what makes a foreign language film work? Barker says, “You have rock stars like Pedro Almodóvar and Isabelle Huppert that help make a film work at the peak of their form. You have movies like Toni Erdmann, Land of Mine and you go, ‘This is fresh, we’ve never seen this before. This is a game-changer.
“What these films have in common, regardless of Oscar consideration or not, is something that makes them feel like the experience in the movie theater is going to be a great experience.”
Lipsky recalls working on Lasse Hallström’s 1985 film My Life as a Dog. “Once that film became beloved in NY and LA, around the country we would walk into any cinema and see that 20 percent to 30 percent were either children or teenagers who were being brought by their parents and they were loving the movie.” Now, he believes “the audience is there” but it’s “an older audience and I always rue that there’s no new generation.”
With regard to Oscar, a win can certainly help at the box office, but the category is different to the main races because very few people determine what gets nominated.
Cautions Barker, “What we’ve learned over the years is if you campaign vigorously then you can have a really serious backlash. These are people whose votes cannot be influenced in any way shape or form. They spend a lot of hours watching these foreign language films over a long period of time and are very [dedicated].”
So how can the Academy help? Lipsky: “It says ‘Best Foreign Language Film,’ not ‘Best Foreign Language Film, as selected by a political body of one per country.’ The distributors here will find the best foreign films at festivals to be released here, so it should be whatever is released qualifies.”