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Peering at a Subtitled World

With close to 500 films released every year, there are many options for ticket buyers. And while a small fraction of those films arrive in different languages with subtitles, the passion among foreign-language film enthusiasts and distributors is fervent. There is an interest in work outside the traditional Hollywood studio system with international filmmakers who are ready to show the world what they have to offer. Finding new voices and showing their works to audiences drives these distributors.

Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, have long led the foreign-language charge in terms of importing the most dynamic storytellers from overseas, with 13 foreign-language film Oscars since founding SPC with Marcie Bloom in 1992. They have consistently demonstrated a healthy track record for producing and distributing internationally flavored independent cinema.

“There are always big surprises,” Barker says. One title, however, immediately sprang to Barker’s mind. “When we decided to release Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ in 1985,” he says of the film he and Bernard championed at Orion Classics. “Remember that Kurosawa made it when he was 77 years old, and Japan didn’t submit it for official Academy consideration … that was a big moment for us, because we knew the film was so special, and that it deserved wide exposure.”

With a crowded marketplace, it can be tough to stand out. “That period from 1997-2001 was a great time for the expansion of foreign-language cinema in the American public,” says Barker. “In the last 20 years, the films that have crossed over, they do better than they ever would have. [The 1998 drama] ‘Run Lola Run,’ for instance, brought out a younger audience to see a subtitled film. The trick is getting the smaller titles the attention they deserve in this sea of content.”

As Barker and Bernard have always taken a proactive approach to their projects, the relationships they’ve built with such directors as Pedro Almodóvar, Michael Haneke, and Susanne Bier have become instrumental to their success.

“When a foreign filmmaker comes to America, they sometimes see the country as a cipher, and are typically skeptical that anyone will see their work. Our job is to get it seen,” he adds.

Kino Lorber, one of the premier distributors of independent cinema as well as a highly regarded curator of older titles, has also taken numerous steps to offer foreign-language films to global movie fans. Chairman and CEO Richard Lorber got his start over 30 years ago when he created Fox Lorber Associates inside his apartment, rapidly becoming a hugely successful home-video label and distributor.

“It’s always a challenge to connect to your core audience, especially when words and pictures are intertwined, despite the fact that we deal with that combination all day with computer screens and phones,” Lorber says about the difficulties facing the subtitled film market. “We’re all about curating, and finding films with a significant social context. It’s not just about fleeting entertainment with us, as we’re always looking for distinctive works from filmmakers with a strong voice.”

This year, there’s a lot to be excited about, as Lorber told Variety exclusively that the company has picked up the Hungarian Oscar entry “Kills on Wheels,” along with “Fire at Sea” (Italy) and “Clash” (Egypt). And yet, even with as many successes as they’ve had, there’s always a film that Lorber wishes he had snagged.
“One of my favorite films of recent years was ‘Holy Motors’ by Leos Carax. That’s one I’d love to have been involved with.”

As Lorber sees it, using the word “foreign” when discussing films from outside of America is a bit of a misnomer. “I prefer to look at it as universal cinema. It’s not ‘foreign’ per se, but global and encompassing.”

Magnolia Pictures, spearheaded by Eamonn Bowles, has also made an aggressive push into international cinema. Formed in 2001 by Bowles and Bill Banowsky, Magnolia Pictures has the backing of 2929 Entertainment’s Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, and has become a go-to source for independent and foreign titles, sometimes utilizing their Magnet Releasing arm for more genre-specific titles.

To hear it from Bowles, the landscape is very competitive. “It can be very hard to draw attention to a foreign-language film if it doesn’t have recognizable elements,” Bowles says.

Magnolia’s buzzy festival favorite, “The Handmaiden,” is the sort of film that hits Magnolia’s sweet spot.

“It’s a twisty thriller, and it’s erotic and it’s very lush and visual, and being that it’s from Park Chan-wook and that it’s been so well-received, that’s the sort of film that can become a success.”

The film festival circuit is another way to launch all sorts of challenging fare, and San Francisco’s Mill Valley Film Festival, which started in 1977 and was founded by Mark Fishkin, aggressively programs foreign-language offerings.

“Next year is our 40th anniversary, and we’ve been showcasing and supporting foreign cinema for many years,” Fishkin says.

What began as a three-day event has blossomed into a nearly two-week program, with any given year showcasing up to 200 filmmakers from over 50 countries for 60,000 attendees.

For Fishkin and his dedicated team, the goal is to let the diverse and eclectic work speak for itself.

“It’s more important than ever to have a world perspective in cinema, as it creates a window into other cultures.”

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