In 2006, few pix manage to top $3 mil domestically

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.

“There are a few films now like ‘House of Sand,’ but we aren’t seeing nearly as many as we used to,” says Ruth Vitale, the former Paramount Classics prexy who’s now heading First Look.

Vitale notes that Par Classics — recently renamed Paramount Vantage — posted a decent track record in this line of business such as buying German drama “Mostly Martha” at Toronto five years ago and seeing it gross $4 million in the U.S. She’s also pleased about the solid perfs of three Patrice Leconte films — “Man on a Train,” “Girl on the Bridge” and “Intimate Strangers.”

“There really is an audience for this kind of film, and I think it gives a depth and breadth to what’s offered audiences,” Vitale adds. “Part of me feels a responsibility to support these films. If they’re not there, then people get out of the habit of supporting them, and their absence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

It’s worth noting Leconte also directed this year’s massive French comedy hit “Les Bronzes 3,” aka “Friends Forever.” According to Bernard, that pic’s symptomatic of the tendency among foreign filmmakers to produce idiosyncratic movies that don’t travel.

“Right now, there’s not a big talent pool of European directors like there was in the 1960s and 1970s with Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Louis Malle,” he notes. “Pedro Almadovar is about the only one.”

Indeed, Sony Classics is taking Almodovar’s Spanish smash “Volver” to Toronto for a Gala screening after its enthusistically received Cannes unspooling. Pic looks to draw solid niche B.O. and likely awards noms.

Bernard’s enthused about Mexican directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, though those three are now often making major English-language films for American studios. And he’s heading to Toronto optimistically, noting that he’s bought such pics in the past like “Good Bye Lenin!,” “Run Lola Run,” “Bad Education” and “The Lives of Others” at the Canuck fest.

“We always find a couple of good movies at Toronto,” he adds. “Toronto is very well organized, unlike Sundance. It caters to people who buy movies and makes them feel comfortable doing it.”

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