Foreign-lingo pic take was less robust at the domestic B.O. this year

You know it’s an off year for foreign-language films when the biggest box office success chirps more than speaks.

Actually, Jacques Perrin’s “Winged Migration,” a French documentary on birds that soared near $11 million at the B.O., doesn’t even qualify as a foreign-lingo title because of some brief English narration.

When it comes to this year’s top draws, two French-lingo Canuck entries (“La grande seduction” and “The Barbarian Invasions”) topped the list with just their Quebec B.O. take, followed by Oscar winner “Nowhere in Africa” and “City of God.” (After missing out on a foreign-lingo Oscar nom last go-round, Miramax plans remind Oscar voters “City” is eligible for other categories this year.)

While “Nowhere in Africa” provided a huge boost to distrib Zeitgeist Films, 2003 has yet to produce any breakout foreign-lingo titles on the order of past successes such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Amelie” or last year’s B.O. topper “Y tu mama tambien.” In fact, out of the roughly 100 non-English lingo films released by domestic distribs in 2003, a dozen pics broke $1 million.

Though Wellspring Media made a miraculous $3 million bounty off Alexander Sokurov’s experimental tour through the Hermitage Museum, “Russian Ark,” the film technically opened in 2002, when 20 features broke the million-dollar mark.

“It does seem like this was a softer year,” concedes Bob Berney, who released two Scandi pics, Lukas Moodysson’s pic “Lilya 4-Ever” and Susanne Bier’s “Open Hearts,” under the Newmarket banner. “But what will really be disappointing is if people assume the market is dead, which might cause fewer films to be picked up. I just think it’s more about not having a leading film to drag the market along.”

Distribbers dismiss the familiar complaint that audiences are turned off by subtitles. “With ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,'” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard, “that’s $130 million of people reading subtitles; foreign language is not an obstacle anymore.”

Bernard — along with other U.S. execs — are also quick to point out that a $500,000 gross for a small foreign pic is nothing to sneeze at. “It just depends on what you spend on the picture to get that,” he says. “If you play to the art market, where you don’t have to pay for television and make a thousand prints, you can play the picture off 300-400 dates in the course of a six-month period and accumulate a sizable gross.”

Some industryites claim the weak year is simply a result of a less-than-stellar slate to choose from. “We didn’t have any foreign-language films this year, because we just didn’t think there was anything that strong,” says Jonathan Sehring, prexy of IFC Entertainment, which will release Norway’s “Kitchen Stories” and the French-language “Novo” next year.

Palm Pictures’ Ryan Werner blames, in part, the press. “It’s harder to get people’s attention,” he says. “One of the biggest problems is that foreign-language films are relegated to the worst placement by editors.” Even pics with rave reviews end up in the back pages.

On the brighter side, many distributors claim the opportunities for exhibiting foreign-lingo fare are better than ever. Sony Classics’ Bernard praises mega-arthouse Landmark, and major chains such as Regal, Loews and Century, which have all branched out with new niche screens.

Palm’s Werner notes that secondary markets such as Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Dallas are becoming sturdy locales for overseas fare.

Many specialty film watchers are pinning their hopes on “The Barbarian Invasions,” a recent Stateside release via Miramax that’s also the Canuck Oscar entry, to stem the downward tide. “We’re hopeful,” says Miramax’s Rick Sands, who notes that the company plans to push the film to 200 screens by Christmas. “The critical response has been good and we’re going to build it from there.”

Still, Sands says that there are more titles opening every weekend, competing for an already small box office pie. “There’s so much in the marketplace, it’s hard to keep the specialized theaters for a long run,” he says. “English speaking arthouse films compete for the same audience, so if you’re going to break through, you need something very special.”

While maybe it wasn’t the best year for foreign language titles to break through, Zeitgeist Films’ Nancy Gerstman says the business is cyclical. “Sometimes it’s the time for foreign language films, sometimes it’s for documentaries, and sometimes it’s for American independents,” she says. “Maybe it wasn’t a strong year for foreign language films, but that doesn’t mean that next year won’t be.”

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