'Kon-Tiki' Sails on English-lingo Raft

Foreign-language Oscar nominee shoots two versions to grab bigger auds

The historical seafaring epic “Kon-Tiki” may be the first Oscar-nommed film to shoot identical scenes in two languages, in this case Norwegian and English — with its makers hoping a duplicate all-English version can avoid the arthouse ghetto that traps most foreign-lingo fare.

The story of the legendary 1947 Pacific Ocean raft voyage of explorer Thor Heyerdahl (played in the pic by Pal Sverre Hagen) presents an interesting marketing challenge for the Weinstein Co., which is set to release the English-lingo version after millions of Oscarcast viewers saw it as a foreign language contender.

Following 16 years of failed attempts to finance a narrative version of the tale for the Hollywood screen, HanWay Films chairman Jeremy Thomas partnered with Norway-based Nordisk Film’s Aage Aaberge to produce “Kon-Tiki” in Heyerdahl’s native Norway with helmers Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg. It was Thomas’ idea to film extra takes with Norwegian actors in English for more than 60% of the film. (The rest of the scenes, set mainly in the U.S., feature the actors speaking in English in both versions, just as their real-life counterparts did.)

Thomas raised an extra $1.3 million of the film’s $15 million-plus budget from Germany-based DCM Prods. for the extra takes, which had added costs in several scenes beyond the additional shooting time involved — some duplicate special effects were needed.

The extra work made all the difference to the Weinstein Co., which had passed on the pic after seeing the Norwegian version in Toronto last September, but snapped up rights for the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Italy after watching the English version at AFI Fest two months later.

“It’s a much more immersive experience, because you’re not reading, and (therefore can take) in more details about the characters,” says HanWay managing director Thorsten Schumacher. “We were finally able to agree on a number, because they could see you can sell it as an English language movie for their ancillary deals. You get two versions for one (price).”

Though TWC bought “Kon-Tiki” after it was named Norway’s official Oscar entry, and was well on its way to becoming the top-grossing Norwegian film of the year, TWC will be releasing only the all-English version theatrically, and, according to a TWC rep, the subtitled Norwegian version likely will not be released in the domestic ancillary market, either.

Yet the distrib screened the (mainly) Norwegian version for the film’s awards push, snagging it best foreign film noms at the Golden Globes and Oscars. Adding to the unusual bifurcation, the first trailer for the U.S. theatrical bow (set for a limited rollout on April 19) hypes the film as a “2012 Academy Award Nominee,” but features extensive English dialogue.

How does the Weinstein Co. plan to avoid audience confusion? “Our marketing materials, including the trailer we just released, show that the film is in English and not dubbed, and the press will be aware that the filmmakers shot and produced two versions of the films instead of dubbing,” says a studio rep, adding that TWC has opted to solely release the English version “because the same actors and same set, script, etc., were used in both versions.”

While many savvy awards-season watchers may be a bit disoriented watching “Kon-Tiki” characters speak only English after seeing the film hyped as a foreign-lingo pic at the Oscars and Globes, TWC is aiming for a wider audience with the English-language version.

“It’s a classic father/son weekend movie where you can go with a young audience,” Schumacher says. “There are very few non-animated films you can bring your children to.”

Schumacher says the dual-language options have helped up “Kon-Tiki” sale prices in English markets but made little difference elsewhere. “Except for the U.S., U.K. and Australia, most territories dub anyway,” he explains, adding that Aussie distribs intended to release the slightly longer, subtitled Norwegian version theatrically after seeing it in Toronto, but switched to the English version after seeing it later. (The Norwegian cut will be offered as DVD/Blu-ray extra in some areas)

Dual-language filming may be rare now, but film historian Leonard Maltin says it was common when panicked studios transitioned from silent films to talkies in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Stars like Laurel and Hardy read dialogue phonetically off blackboards with foreign co-stars in alternate takes — often in French, Spanish and German — while films like “Dracula” were reshot with a Spanish-speaking cast (as “Soy Dracula”) after-hours on the same sets.

More recent attempts with bilingual actors include some French-Canadian TV productions and the 2004 French horror thriller “Saint Ange,” funded by Focus Features and Studiocanal subsidiary Eskwad. “You can probably only use this model in Scandinavia or Benelux, where they never dub movies, and people speak very natural English,” Schumacher observes.

If “Kon-Tiki” is a hit, it may encourage a new kind of Stockholm syndrome for producers looking to film English-language epics on a budget. The technique won over HanWay’s Thomas, who’s no fan of subtitles.

“In Latin,” he jokes. “ ‘translator’ and ‘traitor’ is the same word.” ?

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