MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

It’s All Greek to Me


This past week in Los Angeles marked the 10th anniversary of the film series City of Lights, City of Angels. For the uninitiated, it’s a six-day program of recent French movies – an eclectic mix of popular and arcane cinema from the land of Truffaut and Renoir. It’s an initiative of a lot of industry and cultural agencies from France and the U.S. with the intent to sell theatrical, television and DVD rights of productions yet to find distribution in this country.

France is hardly the only filmmaking nation to present an annual event in Los Angeles or New York that’s meant to shine a spotlight or its contemporary films and catch the eye of U.S. film acquisition types. The calendar is rife with Italian, Spanish, Israeli, Indian, Hungarian, Asian and other film weeks.

It should be mentioned that these mini-festivals aren’t solely a bald-faced commercial endeavor in pursuit of lucre. They also have a cultural component and likely began years ago with the scales tipped toward the intellectually loftier side of the equation.

However, the grim realities of the domestic marketplace have made the people promoting these events increasingly sensitive to the issue of sales. About $124 million was spent on tickets for approximately 160 films with soundtracks in other than the English language in 2005 in the United States and Canada. The upbeat note is that the 1.4% share of the marketplace that number represents is almost double foreign-language market share from 10 years ago.

Now let’s interject a series of buts. The highest grossing foreign production last year was March of the Penguins from France with a box office of $78.5 million all but a little more than $1 million was generated from a version dubbed into English (the rest was earned in Quebec). Similarly, most of the box office for Japanese anime movies Howl’s Moving Castle and Steamboy were derived from dubbed rather than sub-titled prints.

Roughly $17 million of the $124 million came from the Bollywood circuit (figures for a considerably smaller Iranian circuit weren’t available) that caters almost exclusively to immigrants from India. Another $30.5 million accrued to Quebec productions and an additional $6 million could be traced back to roughly two-dozen films that played solely in that French-speaking niche.

There were also several American productions shot in Spanish that accounted for about $2 million at the box office. It should also be noted that apart from a sprinkled of sub-titled versions of Howl, there was not a single foreign-language movie released by a Hollywood major. The only specialized studio division with a significant slate of foreign releases was Sony Classics that had last year’s top grossing individual title with a $17 million tally for Kung Fu Hustle.

There’s much to be said about access to screens in America that relates to this modest showing for international productions but for the moment let’s stick to other factors. I will invoke a comment made by Finnish filmmaker Jorn Donner who noted about a decade ago that while American movies account for about 80% of ticket sales in Scandanavia, no one would press the point that the United States was responsible for 80% of the best films in any given year. He concluded that there was an “anomaly” playing out in the film marketplace.

I’ll also make a passing historical note. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s foreign films accounted for as much as 5% of domestic ticket sales. It was a very different time when auteurism was at its height and one could look forward to new films from Godard, Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Alain Resnais, Satyajit Ray, the Czech New Wave and many more year after year. Tastes were different and as that generation passed on their ranks were not replaced. Rather, there was an explosion of independent American filmmakers that filled the void and whose cycle now appears to be nearing an end without anyone to carry their particular baton.

But let’s talk of today. City of Lights, City of Angels‘ slate embraces a lot of genres Americans have little difficulty embracing. Les Chevaliers du ciel is a non-literal Gallic Top Gun and Orchestra Seats recalls many American ensemble romantic comedies. Grey Souls is a period whodunit and La Doublaire (The Parking Attendent) is in the mold of comedy of unusual circumstance that’s made Francis Veber an internationally popular filmmaker.

No one expects every selection to be a home run. I felt some of the films were mundane but have yet to stumble upon anything embarrassing or culturally inaccessible. Theoretically there a lot of films that ought to play relatively well in the U.S. I can say the same for dozens of films from Europe, Asia and South America I’ve seen in the past 12 months that are nonetheless unlikely to break out of the festival circuit.

On opening night of the series I ran into Howie Cohen who’s worked a lot of different sides of the business including acquisitions and packaging on the agency front. He’s a pretty straight shooter and someone that can look at these films both subjectively and objectively.

Howie had already seen most of the movies playing in the series. I assume he’d viewed them on DVD either at his office or home. He likely saw them by himself.

I’m not going to make a strong case about seeing movies with an audience. There are pluses and minuses; pros and cons about viewing films at festivals because it’s an atypical crowd. We all have stories about festival screenings that have involved both a ridiculous receptive or a rabidly indifferent audience.

The real asset of seeing a movie in a theater with an audience boils down to the simple fact that one is less likely to be distracted or interrupted in the process. Certainly from his comments about individual selections there was no doubt he was attentive and considerate about each film’s attributes. He felt several had definite niche appeal but there was no evidence of discovering a gem or tapping into a rich emotional vein.

Most foreign-language films that receive a significant release in North America are pre-sold; sometimes at a script stage with the key talent already attached. It’s a growing rarity that a film is acquired at a festival or a film week. One rarely hears of bidding wars and the instances involving a film that winds up with a small distribution company and goes on to a sizeable commercial success are the exception. They do occur occasionally as happened several years back with Nowhere in Africa.

But as Cohen pointed out the system makes it almost impossible to make a foreign-language film work financially for an American distributor. We wondered, for instance, whether the outwardly successful Y tu Mama Tambien actually generated a significant profit. While the Mexican production broke many of the conventional obstacles confronting movies made in a language other than English, the norm is that these movies have limited ancillary prospects with few receptive pay-cable outlets and very modest sales on DVD. They have to work theatrically.

Y tu Mama grossed a very healthy $14 million from North America movie theaters and Howie generously assumed the distributor collected half the revenues. However, smaller distributors don’t have the muscle or lineup to exact better than 30% to 35% of the gross and that would mean this particular film had rentals closer to $5 million than $7 million. Howie noted that small independent companies have a history of spending too much on advertising and suggested as much as $9 million was spent for prints and promotion. That would leave the picture far enough away from a profit that ancillary revenue streams would likely not bridge the gap.

But even if the print and advertising budget was $5 million and the distributor shelled out an initial guarantee of $500,00 or $750,000, the film could expect less than $1 million to the good at the end of its commercial rainbow. In industry terms, that isn’t much of a payday when you factor in opportunity costs. And Y tu Mama Tambien was one of the biggest grossing foreign movies of the past decade.

We’ve been told repeatedly that American movies are not only one of the nation’s best exports financially but also a potent, if unofficial, good will ambassador. Following along that logic, the same must be true for films from other parts of the world.

French movies unquestionably shaped my perspective of that country and when I finally arrived on its shores was intrigued that all those nice people from Claude Sautet films weren’t there to greet me at the airport. Nonetheless there were other charms to discover. However, we’ve been told that Americans aren’t particularly interested in movies with sub-titles or literally or figuratively visiting other lands. It’s a somewhat moot argument as the option to see movies from other cultures is extremely limited. They are hard to find on television, most video stores and news from abroad is given token representation by our media outlets. Is it any wonder that current foreign relations and policies are wanting?

I’m of the opinion that there ought to be an initiative to foster a wider availability of movies from abroad. I’d even raise the hackles of film purists and dub them into English just as Europeans do with American productions.

Despite the specialized sector’s insistence that audiences are not receptive to dubbing, when I requested the research company MarketCast poll film goers about their opinion on dubbed films, the results belied that claim. Not only were the majority of Americans more favorable to dubbing but the positive response increased among frequent movie goers and those respondents that identified themselves as ethnic minorities.

Besides the prospect of somewhat leveling the playing field raises the possibility for greater competition in the movie arena. And who would argue that competition is a bad thing. It might even drive the creators of American films to be more ambitious.
April 7, 2006

– by Leonard Klady 

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