SUCCESS SPEAKS in many tongues. However, there’s a decided bias in the movies toward English. That bodes well in the U.S. for “Bean,” which opens Friday after having grossed more than $130 million internationally.
But for most foreign movies, there’s no getting around the fact that the major stumbling block to cracking the U.S. market is language.
Most foreign-lingo films gross less than $1 million. The top end has been about $20 million, for Italy’s “Il Postino” and Mexico’s “Like Water for Chocolate.” Miramax’s current “Shall We Dance” — approaching $10 million — ranks as a category blockbuster.
So, if the subject matter of films from abroad is universal and a foreign tongue is commercially limiting, why not simply dub movies into English?
“You cannot replicate the filmmaker’s original intention and the actor’s emotion in a dub,” said vet specialized booker Jeff Jacobs. “There will always be exceptions, but moviegoers who are interested in foreign films expect to read subtitles. And the audience that doesn’t want to read, isn’t interested in pictures that are foreign in nature and content. You lose both ways.”
The antipathy toward English dubs is rather new. In the 1960s, such films as “La Dolce Vita,” “A Man and a Woman” and “Z” grossed more than $10 million by bowing with subtitles and moving into dubbed versions in smaller centers.
Released in 1960, “Vita” still ranks as the fourth-biggest foreign grosser — at today’s admission prices, its box office would translate into about $70 million. The last time the dubbed strategy worked was in 1977, when “La Cage aux Folles” attained a box office of more than $17 million (a still impressive $30 million by 1997 standards).
Kate Morris, who supervised the English dub of 1983’s “Das Boot,” recalls the pains taken to do a first-class job on what ranks as the top-grossing German-language export.
“We employed a process that’s not commonly used,” says Morris. “The English dialogue was projected across the screen with something akin to music bars to indicate when actors were to speak the words. It was largely heralded as the best ever English dub, but there was a prejudice against the practice and it did not do well. I believe that if more films were dubbed, eventually it would be accepted in this country.”
SOME FOREIGN FILMS have successfully been dubbed in the past four decades, including such non-arthouse fare as the 1959 Italian “Hercules” and its sword-and-sandal spawn, Japanese monster films, spaghetti westerns, kung-fuers and animated movies. Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, long a staple of the Chinese theater circuit in America and a cult favorite, is the most recent example.
France’s 1993 “Les Visiteurs” — a $100 million grosser internationally and the country’s all-time B.O. champ — was acquired by Miramax with plans to open the pic in a dubbed version. Producer Gaumont hired Mel Brooks to create and supervise the English “Visitors,” a wacky yarn of a medieval knight and his servant magically transported to contempo France.
“Every ounce of dialogue was changed,” says Brooks. “I put months into coming up with a take on the material and it turned out very funny. But they got nervous after testing it somewhere in the hinterlands and started to make profound conclusions about the audience and dubbed pictures. It simply wasn’t given a chance and was scrapped. I felt very badly about that.”
But take heart: Early next year two international hits — “Nirvana” from Italy and “Princess Mononoke” from Japan — will be released in dubbed versions domestically.
“Nirvana,” from “Mediterraneo” helmer Gabriele Salvatores, is a futuristic odyssey starring Christopher Lambert that was a top hit in Italy this year. “Ultimately it was decided it had more than specialized appeal and a good dub would give it broader commercial appeal,” said a Miramax exec.
“Mononoke” was acquired by Disney in 1996 as part of an eight-pic package with Japanese animator Hayo Miyazaki. Currently in release in Japan, “Princess Mononoke” is an adult, ecologically-themed adventure fable. Pic recently passed “E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial” as the top box-office champ in the country with a current gross of $135 million.
Miyazaki has script approval and veto power over all artistic and commercial decisions. “Mononoke” isn’t designed for youngsters and could well be tagged with an R. Insiders speculate it will go out via another Disney label or possibly as a Miramax title.