Subtitled films seek to break mold

'Mongol' hoping to draw big box office

When Picturehouse opens summer counterprogrammer “Mongol,” Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated action bio-epic, on June 6, it will put to the test the conventional wisdom that foreign-language movies don’t play for American audiences.

Au contraire.

Give American moviegoers, young or old, a rousing commercial entertainment like Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” or “The Passion of the Christ,” which were both considered huge risks due to their Mayan and Aramaic dialogue, respectively, and they will come, subtitles be damned.

Shot for $18 million on the Mongolian steppes with thousands of horse-riding extras, “Mongol” has the epic sweep of an action adventure and an iconic historic hero. Like more and more directors these days, Bodrov insisted on the authentic use of language, even if that meant that his Japanese star Asano Tadanobu had to learn Mongolian.

Studio distributors tend to shy away from foreign-language fare because they can’t rely on their usual DVD formulas. Foreign-language titles typically deliver 50% or less of box office, rather than the usual 70% or more on DVD returns, points out Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen. Roadside’s Lebanese drama “Caramel” grossed more than $1 million, considered a decent return for a foreign language title.

“Most foreign language film releases are done by small companies hoping to squeak by on wafer-thin profit margins or awards-oriented releases that probably lose money,” Cohen says.

Miramax Films prexy Daniel Battsek will go to bat for just one foreign language movie a year that might mix both art and commerce, such as the Oscar-winners “Tsotsi” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and this year’s modest arthouse performer “Reprise” (which had producer Scott Rudin as its champion).

“There is a definite barrier in the audience against seeing films with subtitles,” says Battsek, who walked away from Cannes empty-handed, one of many distribs at this year’s fest who would not consider stepping up to Steven Soderbergh’s Spanish-language “Che” at its current four-hour, 18-minute running time.

“But there are exceptions to the rule that were able to cross over,” Battsek says. “Foreign-language movies are not a genre per se: There are varieties of films that have another selling point that allow them to throw off the shackles of a foreign language and do box office way in excess of the norm.”

 Sony Pictures Classics also continues to bet on foreign fare, acquiring Bent Hamer’s Norwegian “O’Horten” and Ari Folman’s animated Israeli doc “Waltz with Bashir” at Cannes this year. “You have to feel confident that a picture will work theatrically,” SPC co-prexy Tom Bernard says.

SPC doesn’t advance much for these titles, of course, and has earned the autonomy to pursue flexible deals from its parent company by consistently delivering profits on many limited arthouse releases a year — with the occasional lucky anomaly like Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which grossed $214 million worldwide.

Asian martial arts films like Jet Li actioner “Hero” (which grossed $177 million globally) have the advantage of action visuals that trump moviegoer resistance to subtitles.

Cannes’ Oriental Western entry “The Good the Bad the Weird” could prove to be a commercial crossover title. 

But most studio specialty execs are averse to abandoning their number-crunching formulas with subtitled pics, especially at a time when the domestic marketplace is already glutted with too much product, which makes profit margins on a foreign pic even slimmer.

When normally cautious Fox Searchlight took the rare foreign-language flyer with its $5 million Sundance world-rights pick-up of a pic like “La Misma Luna,” (Under the Same Moon), which grossed $22 million around the world, it was in partnership with the Weinstein Co. The pic played to both arthouse and mainstream Latino auds in the U.S.

“Different audiences are drawn to different foreign-language films,” says Searchlight’s Tony Safford, “which means that the pie (which may actually be growing) is cut into smaller pieces.”

Indie vet Bob Berney learned the foreign language ropes over the years at various distribution companies, making surprise hits out of “Y tu mama tambien,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and most recently, the musical biopic “La Vie en Rose,” which landed French thesp Marion Cotillard an Oscar for her performance as cultural icon Edith Piaf.

These movies also defied the usual DVD formulas, especially Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy genre film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which topped DVD sales charts last year.

“People’s internal resistance to subtitles is partly that they think it means a ‘good-for-you festival art film,'” Berney says. “We didn’t sell ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ as a Spanish-language subtitled film. Pure storytelling and visuals trumped any other issues. There’s been a lot of progress made.”

But clearly Warner Bros. isn’t invested in tapping that expertise. The studio closed down Picturehouse, which was founded as a partnership between Warner divisions New Line Cinema and HBO Films (which eventually withdrew), along with specialty subsid Warner Independent Pictures.

The rousing revisionist Genghis Khan biopic “Mongol” is one of the last bets placed by Picturehouse. Four years ago over breakfast at Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel, Russian Bodrov gave his script to the Picturehouse prexy (who had acquired his 1997 Oscar-nominated “Prisoner of the Mountains” while at Orion Classics). “What language are you going to shoot in?” Berney asked. 

“Mongolian,” the filmmaker replied. The two men shook hands on a deal.

Bodrov was not only countering a powerful Western image of Genghis Khan and his barbaric ravaging Mongol hordes, but his demonized Soviet persona as well. “In Russia he’s like Hitler,” Bodrov says.

To avoid revisiting the Hollywood version of Genghis Khan mythology, from John Wayne to Omar Sharif, Bodrov dug into many sources on the voracious conqueror, even uncovering the historical writings of a man who knew the Mongol warrior.

“I was filling in a lot of gaps until I felt I knew him,” Bodrov says. “For the first time, we can see a human being.” In fact, Bodrov says, Genghis Khan abolished torture more than 800 years ago, used discipline and loyalty to mold a powerful fighting army, and loved his wife for his lifetime.

Bodrov raised the film’s $18 million budget from Russia, Kazakhstan and Germany. “It’s impossible to shoot cheap in China,” he says. “I learned that the hard way.” The filmmaker shot for nine weeks in the Mongolian Republic with $10 million, then left and assembled footage in order to raise another $8 million to finish the film, pre-selling other territories.

“Mongol’s” pan-Asian cast came from China, Japan, and Kazakhstan, which supplied 50 ace riders to play Mongol warriors. Bodrov hired a Mongolian crew, but needed 40 translators on the set to communicate. “It was not a great mix,” he says. “Bad translations. I had to do a lot of diplomatic work. It was tough.”

As Berney preps his “Mongol” assault on the summer box office (with his original P&A budget), U.S. distribs are emerging from the Cannes fest with new pics they hope to convince American moviegoers to adopt, no matter the language.

The future of foreign cinema may not be in theaters. Cannes’ biggest stateside buyer was IFC Films, which picked up five foreign pics: Arnaud Desplechin’s heartwarming “A Christmas Tale,” starring Catherine Deneuve; Matteo Garrone’s gangster film “Gomorrah”; Olivier Assayas’ French hit “Summer Hours”; Na Hong-jin’s Korean thriller “The Chaser”; and Russian helmer Anna Melikyan’s “Mermaid.” IFC no longer relies on theater box office alone: Moviegoers all over the country can access these films via video-on-demand.

Read more of Anne Thompson’s blog here

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