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David Poland

By David Poland

Are Subtitled Films A Problem For Americans? Wrong Question.


This question has been addressed twice in recent weeks. Most recently it came from Anthony Kaufman in indiewire with The Lonely Subtitle: Here’s Why U.S. Audiences Are Abandoning Foreign-Language Films. At least that silly overreaching title is better than the one suggested in the URL: “Why U.S. Audiences Are Abandoning Subtitled Films Now More Than Ever. ”

As anyone who has read me over the years knows, there are few things for which I have more disdain than a piece claiming to be an explainer when it explains, in a completely myopic, single-focused way, something that isn’t actually happening.

That original title, to be fair, was clearly meant as a direct attack on Scott Foundas’ piece, Why U.S. Audiences Are More Comfortable With Subtitles Than Ever. Scott, in my opinion, oversold his thesis. But while overreaching, I felt a degree of sincerity… not so much a statement of fact as a prayer that things are getting better.

All I really have to add is math. Not biased, trying-to-prove-something math. But simple facts. You can judge for yourself.

All I really did for this was to pull all the grossers over $100k in the US last year and all of the domestic grossers over $100k in 2004 and pared the lists down to the foreign language films. It is possible that I have 1 or 2 included that should not be, or eliminated that shouldn’t have been. Honestly, I am not going to spend hours checking each of the 129 films that are included between the two years. Here are the numbers I have…

In 2013, 62 foreign language films (significantly subtitled, even if there is English spoken) over $100k domestic, grossing $114 million total.

In 2004, 67 foreign language films (significantly subtitled, even if there is English spoken) over $100k domestic, grossing $140 million total.

That’s a 23% drop. That’s not nothing. But it’s not terribly shocking either. And it doesn’t account for the increased revenues coming in from VOD.

Also, a lot of the revenue last year came from India, as distributors like Yash Raj and Eros have really stepped up that business in North America.

Both years had foreign language outliers. In 2013 it was Instructions Not Included, with $45m domestic. In 2004, it was Hero, with $54m domestic.

This discrepancy points out the most obvious change. In the Top 15 US-released Foreign Films of 2004, you had Miramax, Fine Line, Warner Independent, Sony Classics (3x), Fox Searchlight, and Paramount Classics. More than half the films were coming from subsidiaries of the 6 major distributors. In 2013, your Top 15 still have 3 from Sony Classics and 1 from The Weinstein Company… and 1 from Lionsgate.

Is 15 too odd a number for you? Let’s make it 30. Add another 2 Sony Classics movies, 1 more Weinstein, and a VOD-driven Radius-TWC from last year. In 2004, you would be adding a Miramax, a United Artists, and a second Fine Line title.

Add this in… ThinkFilm and Magnolia were responsible for another 3 theatrical titles in that Top 30 in 2004. The comparable companies now – Magnolia and IFC, not driven by VOD – had a total of 1 film in the Top 30 of domestic box office foreign-language grossing indies last year.

If you’re wondering, the gross of #30 last year was $489k. In 2004, $1.1 million.

So yes, something has obviously changed. But the question of just what the change is and why is not as simple the American tolerance for subtitles.

Why didn’t Miramax, Fine Line, Warner Independent, Paramount Classics, or ThinkFilm release any foreign language films last year? Because they are all out of business.

Why didn’t Fox Searchlight release a foreign-language film last year? The only two foreign language films they have attempted in the 5 years since Slumdog Millionaire were both Hindi action movies with modest returns.

How about The Weinsteins, now in their 9th year post-Disney? Their biggest foreign-language grossers were just in the last couple of years. The Intouchables did $10,2 million domestically. And The Grandmaster did $6.6 million domestic… almost dead in the middle of their 97-film history. (Three more to 100… will anyone celebrate?) #3 is Kon-Tiki, which drops down to $1.5 million. Haute Cuisine is #4 with $218k. There are a couple more with less than $250k combined.

So the answer is… they got out of this part of the business. They built Miramax heavily on the selection and promotion of foreign language. And in the last decade, they simply didn’t think it worth the effort, as businessmen. (I am sure they love many foreign language films and filmmakers.)

The Weinstein Company releases SIX foreign language films in 9 years in business. One was the biggest grosser in French history. The next was from Wong Kar-Wai and had mighty Megan Ellison fronting the film. The other 4 grossed just over $2 million combined.

Anthony Kaufman did address the issue that “Companies that serve(d) as their champions have downsized, retrenched or disappeared.” But I think he – like so many – suffer from an inability or unwillingness to say it straight… the deep pockets got out of the business, making it hard on audiences, not the other way around.

It’s all good and well – and thank God they are there – for relatively tiny distribution companies to push out more foreign language films than ever. But the nature of driving all content to a significant number of consumers remains the same. Unless you have a great niche, like Yash Raj does, it takes money to make money. You have to be in it to win it. Pick your cliché.

There was just a Twitter conversation a couple days ago with someone from Cinema Guild saying that VOD was not, their opinion, creating a glass ceiling for indies. I disagree. I think that VOD has been good for the smaller distributors, who need revenue from wherever they can get it. But slowly but surely, we are seeing a flooded market with audiences that have no motivation to go to the movies, except to specifically go to the movies… the habit, not the movie. Of course, there are exceptions annually. But screens are harder to come by, more companies are less likely to spend on marketing, and it feels like even the hits are smaller hits. But this is not just a foreign language problem. It’s the entire indie market.

Tom Bernard may be 100% right that Oscar is the #1 driver – one of the only drivers – of foreign language titles in the U.S. But that was not always the way. I can’t point the finger at Sony Classics because they have made the investment in Almodovar, Haneke, Zhang Yimou, and others… serious commitments. Some of the films they distribute are just pieces of business. But they really get out there and fight the fight for most of their films and build those relationships with filmmakers.

And I can’t blame IFC and Magnolia for building out as they see fit. A24 is willing to swing for the fences. There are so many good and passionate film distributors. But money is money is money.

What is missing, to my eye, are exhibitors who are willing to take a big risk and to do a deep dive into foreign language. 300+ titles a year on 6 screens in NY, Chicago, LA, Austin, Seattle, etc. What is missing is a good streaming company going 100% foreign or 100% documentary. For there to be a future, the future must be invested in so that people can develop the habit… then a little luck with a few titles that blow up.

The question of whether Americans like or dislike subtitles… whether U.S. audiences are abandoning foreign films… pure bubble stuff. Because we in the bubble have a unique perspective. Real Americans who pay for their movie tickets are not being included in this conversation because they are not being sold foreign language films on a wide, consistent basis. They don’t have the opportunity to be trend-makers… they can barely see the hit indies that are released before they are yanked out of theaters (if they ever got there).

Why wasn’t The Intouchables a bigger hit in the US, as it was across the globe? In great part because Harvey Weinstein was more interested in the English-language remake than he was in making a lot of money on the domestic release of the French-language film. It never played on as many as 200 screens here. Maybe it would have gone wider had it been nominated. Same thing happened with Shall We Dance?

All things are not equal. Someone will eventually start mining the massive resource that foreign language films are. But it’s going to take deep pockets and patience… and not from the audience.

After that, we can discuss what the audience wants or doesn’t want.

(Okay… so not all facts… facts and then a rant. But you should still take the facts and decide for yourself, no matter what I say.)

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9 Responses to “Are Subtitled Films A Problem For Americans? Wrong Question.”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    very good column. Here, in 2004, I could see 50+ foreign language films a year in the theater…. less than half that now, mostly Indian (which I have enjoyed)…. few French films. So… we stream them or get the disks from Netflix.

  2. EtGuild2 says:

    100k? What an arbitrary and ludicrous number to approach this topic from. Change it to 1M and you’re looking at a 46% 10 year drop.

    Of the Top 20 highest Grossing Foreign Films of all-time, two have been released since 2006. 13 of the Top 50 and 31 of the Top 100 have. If that doesn’t sound bad, match it up against the top domestic and worldwide grossers and it’s catastrophic.

  3. KrazyEyes says:

    It’s nice to see analysis pieces such as this back on the Hot Blog. You even refrained from too much finger wagging at Kaufman even though you disagreed with a lot of his piece. Nice.

    I’m curious, why did you pick $100k as your benchmark to compare? What happens to this comparison if we scale that benchmark up to $500k or even $1 million?

  4. EtGuild2 says:

    As I said above, if you use $500k or $1m it’s a disaster, though I will say it with this caveat: David is including Bollywood films. Bollywood films are generally dismissed by reviewers and are so ethnocentric that they make Tyler Perry look like Eddie Murphy after “Beverly Hills Cop.”

    Bollywood films are carrying DP’s stats over the finish line and make it appear as if the industry is fine. It isn’t. Run a Bayesian line through the Academy’s foreign film nominees since 2000 and it looks like a complete collapse. Run the same line through every other category and the state of cinema looks great financially.

  5. The whole world watches Hollywood movies with subtitles (with the exception of countries like Spain, where there’s law that encourages the translation of films). And they dominate the worldwide box office.

  6. MAGGA says:

    Imagine how weird it would be if us foreigners remade American movies in our own language instead of reading (or dubbing, as some countries do). I’d love to do a Norwegian version of Speed, where it’s the same setup but the bus has no trouble keeping the speed up and the authorities easily figure out ways to refuel and provide medical services, there is more than enough roads so they drive around for decades as people get old and die, babies are born, relationships are formed and the passengers become a mini-society that has to make decisions together and is a metaphor for the cold war. And then it becomes more of an inner journey but then the outer society decide to sacrifice the lives of the passengers in order to close down the roads and build American fast food franchises. Money!

  7. christian says:

    And the irony is that every fucking US reality show has….SUBTITLES.

  8. leahnz says:

    MAGGA i’d totally watch your weird vaguely snowpiercer-ish ‘speed’ reboot

  9. cadavra says:

    MAGGA, actually Warner Japan did a remake of UNFORGIVEN last year. I’d love to see it. (Anybody at WB listening?)

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