As much as Americans love to watch movies, the vast majority can’t abide subtitles. If they really wanted to read, they’d stay home with a book — or so goes the conventional wisdom to explain why foreign-language cinema has been stuck with less than a 1% share of the U.S. box office.
But just because it’s been that way for as long as anyone can remember doesn’t mean the dynamic won’t change. In fact, recent market conditions suggest audiences could be on the verge of a new acceptance for foreign-language cinema. Call it the “blender effect” — a phenomenon by which a dip in what Hollywood has to offer coincides with a rise in films of mixed language and mixed nationality.
• Downturn in grown-up fare. It’s no secret that American studios have turned their attention toward tentpoles, hoping for big paydays from big-budget spectacle productions over the incremental returns of thriftier mid-range dramas. That strategic shift has taken many so-called indie divisions with it (claiming Paramount Vantage, Miramax and others in the process), forcing the real independent productions to make do with less. So where are adult auds to go for thought-provoking pictures but overseas, where such projects remain the norm?
• Boost in international B.O. As budgets balloon, Hollywood can no longer rely on domestic B.O. to turn a profit, making a film’s global performance an important factor in how films are conceived. One need look no further than such globe-trotting studio offerings as “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “The Adventures of Tintin” to recognize ways in which plots have been bent to accommodate set pieces set in Russia, the Middle East and other emerging markets. Doing so not only appeases foreign auds, but also makes Americans more comfortable watching internationally based stories. (It’s worth noting that vampire remake “Let Me In” performed poorly after relocating the plot to New Mexico, while Sony’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” redo did fine by preserving the novel’s Swedish setting.)
• Accent on authenticity. Since it’s clearly not a case of xenophobia, one can fairly assume that language is the major barrier to foreign pics gaining a broader following in the U.S. After all, American auds are happy to embrace foreign films made in the U.K. (“The King’s Speech”) and elsewhere (“Slumdog Millionaire”), so long as they don’t have to read subtitles. But major Hollywood directors from Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”) to Ridley Scott (“Body of Lies”) are increasingly doing away with the silly convention of asking actors to play foreign roles in badly accented English and instead casting multilingual stars (such as Christoph Waltz) and allowing them to speak in their native tongue. Perhaps the most popular recent example of this approach was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” where the decision to make the film in Aramaic didn’t stop it from earning more than $370 million domestically.
• New multilingual offerings. If audiences can adjust to reading subtitles for some of the dialogue in such bilingual immigration-themed dramas as “A Better Life” or “Under the Same Moon,” what’s to stop them from embracing foreign films in which big chunks of the dialogue are delivered in English? (Apart from the fact that they can’t necessarily tell what language is being spoken from trailers, which have long tried to mislead by masking the films’ native tongues.) These days, in order to approximate mid-range American fare, many European productions must raise financing from entities across multiple countries, a dynamic that lends itself to stories that blend nationalities (in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” an intriguing relationship percolates between French star Juliette Binoche and British baritone William Shimell, resulting in a modest arthouse hit) and settings (in Olivier Assayas’ 2010 globe-trotting “Carlos,” languages elide as the action moves from country to country).
• Crossover of foreign stars. Binoche is hardly the only foreign star working in English these days. Every time someone like Marion Cotillard or Antonio Banderas appears in an American studio film, they increase the chances that auds will want to see them in a film made back home (such as “Little White Lies” in Cotillard’s case or “The Skin I Live In” for Banderas). Likewise, it doesn’t hurt when an actor of Christian Bale’s stature appears in a film like Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War,” which was selected as China’s foreign-language Oscar submission, despite the fact that all of Bale’s dialogue is English.
These elements combine to create an interesting opportunity for foreign-language cinema. With familiar actors to draw audiences in to see compelling dramatic stories performed partly in English, the results are not so much foreign as modern — reflections of a world in which languages and cultures blend on a daily basis.
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