How auds learned to love subtitles

'Crouching Tiger' phenom set the tone for 2001's peak performers

Hollywood — There are various theories about why foreign-language films performed exceptionally well in the U.S. in 2001, ranging from the Lousy Hollywood Movie Theory to the Multiplex Theory (to be explained later). But there are only facts, and no theories at all, about the uptempo nature of the year itself.

While 2000 had 10 pics gross $1 million and above (the generally held threshold for foreign hit status), a total of 14 releases made the grade in 2001, led by Miramax’s megahit “Amelie,” with $13.7 million and counting.

The 2001 numbers grow to stratospheric realms when including releases opening late in 2000 but which enjoyed most of their cume in the subsequent year. These are led, unsurprisingly, by Sony Pictures Classics’ “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which made $113 million of its $128 million total in 2001, and Miramax’s “Malena,” which added nearly $3 million after new year’s for a $3.4 million booty. “Yi Yi” (A One and a Two), from Wellspring (formerly Winstar), topped out at just under $1 million. Eighty percent of that figure, an impressive total for an artful three-hour family drama, was made in 2001.

The other nontheoretical fact about the foreign players was their diversity of origin and language. Five, led by USA Films’ “In the Mood for Love” ($2.7 million), hailed from Asia, including the year’s sleeper hit, Kino Intl.’s “Himalaya” (a quietly mounted $2.3 million). There were two Indian epics that made $1 million apiece — Tips Exports’ “Yaadein” and Sony Entertainment Television Pictures’ “Lagaan.” Lions Gate’s “Amores Perros” proved, with a fiery $5.4 million, that the Latino aud for Spanish-lingo pics is there. And Sony Classics’ Czech Nazi-era drama “Divided We Fall” ($1.3 million) and IFC Films’ Swedish comedy “Together” ($1 million) indicated that auds are also ready for Euro work from beyond the familiar zones of France and Italy.

Nevertheless, “the general foreign film follower doesn’t want to be so much challenged as stimulated and entertained, and the crowd that goes for really edgy work doesn’t necessarily go see foreign films,” says Mark Urman, distribution head for the new ThinkFilm and a vet of foreign pic marketing. “They tend to want things that are sophisticated and totally undemanding.”

Or, as Wellspring’s theatrical v.p. Wendy Lidell terms it, “Some of the higher grossing films are basically popular films that happen to have subtitles.”

That’s why the top hits in 2001 were dominated by lighter fare like “Amelie,” Miramax’s Daniel Autueil and Gerard Depardieu-starring “The Closet” ($6.67 million) and First Look Pictures’ Italian dish, “Bread and Tulips” ($4.7 million). The third of Miramax’s hits in the top five — Dominic Moll’s French psychological thriller “With a Friend Like Harry” ($3.8 million) — craftily mixed artful complexity with plenty of audience-pleasing twists and turns.

“We had more films move above the $5 million mark this year,” says Miramax’s L.A. head Mark Gill, “and we haven’t had that for several years. That’s one positive indicator moving forward, but the other is the healthier middle ground for films that made between $100,000 and $1 million. It’s much less feast-or-famine, as in past years.”

There are a few naysayers to Gill’s optimism — Paramount Classics’ David Dinerstein argues that “over the span of the past few years, the core foreign film audience, beyond those curious about ‘Crouching Tiger,’ has actually shrunk” — but trendwatchers point to several theories explaining the just-finished year.

“Foreign films made more money (last) year because so many American films were disappointing,” says Urman. Menemsha Pictures chief and vet sales and producers rep Neil Friedman agrees: “When you hear that 2001 was the worst year for Hollywood movies maybe ever, then something has to take its place. It’s just common sense that this opens up room for quality films.”

Even before the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, posits Palm Springs International Film Festival artistic director Jennifer Stark (screening 46 of this year’s 51 official foreign film Oscar selections), domestic auds were looking o’seas. “American audiences were actively becoming more exposed to the world, and getting more film savvy,” she says. Much like the expansion across the country of ethnic restaurants in the past decade, “as people get a taste, they stretch their palate, and want to see more, different kinds of films.”

Lidell looks to her experience handling the 2000 re-release of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” as a sign. “We played it at the UA 14 in Union Square in New York,” Lidell says, “which had never before booked a subtitled movie. It did quite well for them, so they’re now regularly booking foreign titles. The exhibitors are loosening up as the gatekeeepers, allowing more flexibility at their multiplexes to give up at least one screen to a foreign film.”

Some factors seem not to change. New York still accounts for more than 60% of an average foreign title’s U.S. take. Gotham and San Francisco continue to surpass L.A. as the best subtitle markets. Films such as Roy Andersson’s “Songs From The Second Floor” and Bela Tarr’s and Agnes Hranitzky’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” have S.F. playdates but none in L.A., while more than a dozen foreign pics annually open in Manhattan but not in So Cal.

And while the number of 2001 films north of $1 million is encouraging for distribs in the niche market, it is the $2 million ceiling that is key to open the door for a solid ancillary deal. “Sellable films go from $2 (million) to $5 million and above,” says Urman. “A video sale is nearly impossible for a subtitled film without that kind of performance.”

Even that is no guarantee: Lions Gate Films’ Tom Ortenberg despairs that even though it reached a $3 million U.S. take, getting an ancillary deal for “The Widow of St. Pierre” “was like pulling teeth. These stores are running out of shelf space, and the chains are only interested in hits.”

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