×

Blended lingos boost appeal

Palm Springs International Film Festival 2012

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.

Palm Springs International Film Festival 2012
Time for fest to face acad shift? | Fest personalizes experience by hosting retreat | Honorees ready themselves for a busy ’12 | Blended lingos boost appeal

Variety’s Indie Impact Awards: Charlize Theron
Thesp’s roles of attraction | Changing faces

More Film

  • Joker movie

    With 'Ad Astra,' 'Joker' Likely, Venice Set for Strong Showing by U.S., Bolstered by Streamers

    Brad Pitt space odyssey “Ad Astra,” Noah Baumbach’s untitled new project, “Joker” with Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts,” Fernando Meirelles’ “The Pope,” the new “Rambo” installment, and heist thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” starring Mick Jagger as a reclusive art dealer, all look bound for the Venice Film Festival, sources tell Variety. The fest [...]

  • CGV's Massive Imax Screen Order Shows

    CGV's Massive Imax Screen Order Shows Optimism for Chinese Exhibition

    Korean cinema giant CGV has signed a deal with Imax to install a further 40 giant screens in movie theaters in China. The deal suggests that China’s multiplex building boom still has some way to run, and that at least one Korean company is still willing to invest in China, despite China’s currently boycott of [...]

  • BAFTA headquarters at 195 Piccadilly, London

    BAFTA Undertakes Major Renovation of Its London Headquarters

    BAFTA has undertaken a major renovation of its London headquarters that will double the building’s capacity and increase space devoted to the British academy’s programs to promote skills training and new talent. Work has already begun on the $31 million overhaul, which is expected to take two years. In the interim, BAFTA will relocate its [...]

  • Andhadhun

    Booming Digital Lifts Eros Indian Film Distribution Giant

    Eros International, India’s largest and most controversial film distributor, says that its digital revenues now outstrip conventional theatrical and syndication revenues. Its Eros Now streaming platform claims 18.8 million paying subscribers. The New York-listed company reported annual results that were distorted by multiple adjustments to presentation. Reported revenues in the year to end of March [...]

  • The Eight Hundred (The 800)

    Second Huayi Brothers Film Is Canceled as Company's Losses Mount

    Still reeling from the cancellation of the theatrical release of its blockbuster “The Eight Hundred,” production studio Huayi Brothers has been hit with another setback: Its comedy “The Last Wish” has also been quietly pulled from China’s summer lineup. Both films have fallen afoul of China’s increasingly heavy-handed censors. The unwelcome development comes as Huayi [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content