×

U.S. Companies Haven’t Given Up on Foreign Films

Tom Quinn, the founder of the indie studio Neon, thought that Netflix was making a big mistake. After seeing “Okja,” Bong Joon-ho’s eccentric creature feature, he believed passionately that the the offbeat visuals and ambitious story of girl’s bond with a super pig needed to be seen on the big screen. So began a six-month attempt by Quinn to convince the streaming service to partner with Neon on a theatrical release, an effort that ultimately failed.

“I felt it was a huge mistake,” said Quinn.

When Bong announced that he had a script for his next movie, “Parasite,” Quinn didn’t hesitate. He bought the project at the script stage, a highly unusual move for a U.S. studio.

“My disappointment at losing out on ‘Okja’ combined with my love for director Bong’s work caused me to be relentless in my pursuit of his next film,” said Quinn. “We have high hopes for the film.”

Neon isn’t just bringing the film to Cannes. It also plans to mount an awards campaign with the hope of scoring a foreign-language Oscar for the never-nominated Bong, whose films such as “The Host” and “Memories of a Murder” have made him one of the world’s most admired auteurs. Throughout his career, as he’s moved from companies such as Magnolia and Radius, Quinn has worked frequently with Bong. But over that same period of time, American studios have become less and less likely to bet on foreign filmmakers. The movies may be great, but the financial returns just aren’t there. If a foreign movie makes more than $2 million in the States, as Magnolia’s “Shopkeepers” and Amazon Studios’ “Cold War” ($4.6 million) did last year, that’s considered a big success.

“Foreign-language films are important and they deserve to be seen in the U.S.,” said Arianna Bocco, executive vice president of acquisitions and production for IFC Films. “It’s a way to highlight great new filmmakers and important voices. We’re trying to continue in that business, but we’re not buying as many as we used to.”

To that end, IFC Films released “Non-Fiction,” a new drama from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, on May 3 in the U.S. In the past it has distributed movies from Alfonso Cuaron, Susanne Bier and Mia Hansen-Love. But the number of American distributors who release foreign movies is shrinking. Magnolia is still in the game, as is 1091 Media (formerly The Orchard), but other indie distributors such as A24 and Annapurna primarily make or purchase U.S.-led productions. Sony Pictures Classics has had some of the greatest success in the genre, earning Oscars for the likes of Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” and László Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” and recording the biggest hit in the company’s history with Ang Lee’s martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“Foreign-language movies are never a big business, but we still believe in quality film whatever the language is,” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “There’s a discerning public that wants to see them. You just have to be careful about how many you buy and what you spend.”

Indie companies such as Sony Pictures Classics need to make sure they don’t lose their shirts releasing foreign films in theaters, a pricey proposition when marketing and distribution costs are taken into account. That’s not the case with Netflix and Amazon, streaming services that are more interested in building a subscriber base than they are in reaping big box office returns. They are also companies that are trying to establish themselves across the globe, attracting customers everywhere from Europe to South America to Asia. To that end, both companies were willing to spend big for the rights to “Les Miserables,” a buzzy French film about police brutality, after it debuted in Cannes this week. Amazon ultimately triumphed, plunking down $1.5 million, an eye-popping sum for a foreign-language movie without any well-known actors. But Amazon thinks it may have an awards contender on its hands and plans to push for Oscars attention.

Studios that stay in the foreign-language game do so partly because they love the movies they’re releasing. Neon’s Quinn says he got the bug as a college student, stocking up on movies from foreign auteurs such as “Man Bites Dog” and “My Life as a Dog” at his local video store in Carrboro, North Carolina.

“I was blown away by these films,” he remembers. “As purveyors of cinema we have an obligation to share this work with the world.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Inside the Spider-Man Split: Finger-Pointing and Executive Endgames

    Spider-Man’s neighborhood has been decidedly unfriendly this week. A private and contentious battle over the onscreen future of the beloved Marvel superhero has spilled out into the public square over the past few days. After making nice for two wildly successful films, Sony Pictures, which holds the licensing rights to the Marvel character, will go [...]

  • Variety Announces 10 Actors to Watch

    Variety Announces 10 Actors to Watch for 2019

    Variety has announced its 10 Actors to Watch for 2019, an honor the publication has bestowed since 1998. Past honorees include many future Oscar winners and nominees, such as Mahershala Ali, Timothée Chalamet, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Brie Larson, Lupita Nyong’o and Melissa Leo. This year’s honorees will be feted in the Oct. 27 issue of [...]

  • August Maturo

    Film News Roundup: August Maturo to Star in Horror Movie 'Slapface'

    In today’s film news roundup, August Maturo gets a starring role and “Death of Me” and “Fatale” find homes. CASTING “Girl Meets World” star August Maturo has been cast as the lead character in the upcoming indie horror feature, “Slapface.” Maturo will play a boy who deals with the loss of his mother by creating [...]

  • Taron Egerton, Lucy Boynton to Star

    Taron Egerton, Lucy Boynton to Star in Virtual Reality Project 'Glimpse'

    Taron Egerton and Lucy Boynton will star in “Glimpse,” a new virtual reality experience that will be unveiled at the Venice Film Festival. Written and directed by Benjamin Cleary and VR creator Michael O’Connor, “Glimpse” will be entered in the Venice Virtual Reality Interactive showcase. It’s set in the imaginative mind of a heartbroken panda, [...]

  • Dan Trachtenberg

    Tom Holland's 'Uncharted' Movie Loses Director

    Dan Trachtenberg has exited the director’s chair for Sony’s “Uncharted” movie starring Tom Holland, with the studio taking meetings with top filmmakers and production starting early next year. The studio confirmed Trachtenberg’s departure Thursday. It also said Sony-based PlayStation Productions — headed by Asad Qizilbash and Carter Swan — had come on to produce alongside [...]

  • Participant Taps Anikah McLaren, Robert Kessel

    Participant Taps Anikah McLaren, Robert Kessel to Head Film Department

    Participant Media has named industry veterans Anikah McLaren and Robert Kessel as co-heads of the company’s film department with the titles of executive vice president. Both executives will report together to Participant CEO David Linde, who made the announcement Thursday. McLaren joins Participant having most recently served as a production executive for Fox Searchlight Pictures. [...]

  • 'The Son' Review: Bosnian Family Drama

    Sarajevo Film Review: 'The Son'

    It is a mixed blessing to be born in the aftermath of a war. On the one hand, you never have to experience the terror and suffering your parents did; on the other, you grow up with your own personal crises forever made to feel smaller by comparison. That, at least, is the frustration driving [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content