Despite today’s fast-shrinking world, foreign-language films have been leaving far less of a mark in the United States this year.Of 2006 films, only Fox Searchlight’s “Water” has managed to top $3 million at the domestic box office, followed by Lionsgate’s “La mujer de mi hermano” at $2.8 million. Sony Classics’ “Cache” made most of its $3.65 million this year, but was released Dec. 23. The quiet performance by foreign-language films in the U.S. this year contrasts sharply even with last year. Not including “Cache,” half a dozen subtitled pics topped $3 million domestically in 2005 — “Kung Fu Hustle” (leading with $17 million), “Downfall,” “Howl’s Moving Castle, “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior,” “High Tension” and “Les Choristes.” And last year pales compared with 2004, when Miramax scored more than $53 million in the U.S. with martial-arts drama “Hero,” Focus grossed nearly $17 million from “The Motorcycle Diaries” and Sony Classics saw $11 million from “House of Flying Daggers.” Four other films — “Bad Education,” “A Day Without a Mexican,” “A Very Long Engagement” and “Good Bye Lenin!” — topped the $4 million benchmark. Heading into the Toronto Film Festival — historically a popular place for purchasing rights to foreign-language films — the current drought seems particularly puzzling. After all, it was only five years ago that “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” pulled in $128 million for Sony Classics in the United States during its run in 2000 and 2001. “If there are great movies, they will be bought,” says Sony Classics president Tom Bernard. “That’s because there is an audience in the United States. Subtitles really aren’t a factor anymore with them — such as with ‘Crouching Tiger.’” But a trio of factors appear to be limiting foreign-language films staging breakout performances in the United States:
- There aren’t as many buyers and several of those remaining, such as Miramax, aren’t as active.
- As the exhibition infrastructure in Europe has improved and expanded, European filmmakers are tending to produce films aimed more at their local territories, giving those films less traction in other markets.
- It’s a labor of love. “The past practice of paying between $50,000 and $150,000 for U.S. rights, then eking out a $1 million domestic gross via the hardcore arthouse circuit, just isn’t as attractive as it once was,” one production vet notes.