Streamers and Awards Buzz Help Foreign-Language Films Flourish in Digital Era

Titane Movie
Courtesy of Carole Bethuel/Neon

While Hollywood blockbusters such as “Dune” and “No Time to Die” are dominating the U.S. box office, foreign-language specialty titles are proving their theatrical mettle in the early post-pandemic era.

Driven by Bong Joon Ho’s historic best picture win for “Parasite” in 2019, U.S. awards season has never been more open to non-English-language fare, with Julia Ducournau’s shocking “Titane,” Valdimar Jóhannsson’s chilling “Lamb” and Asghar Farhadi’s sobering “A Hero” getting Oscar buzz in categories beyond international feature film.

Where larger U.S. distributors now buy fewer of these titles, independent outfits like A24, Neon, IFC Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films have stepped forward during the pandemic, scooping up the hottest foreign-language movies on the festival circuit.

“One of the things that is most amazing now is that there are so many [U.S.] companies that do foreign films; it’s not one or two companies that dominate,” says Tom Bernard at Sony Pictures Classics, which will be pushing Pedro Almodóvar’s Venice opener “Parallel Mothers” in the awards race.

Bernard points out that these days, there are more ways to monetize foreign films, thanks to streamers and their newfound awards potential.

On the downside, Bernard says increased competition for international specialty pics has prompted sales agents to spark bidding wars, which favor distributors who can splash more money up front and bank on streaming plays over theatrical releases. Bernard says SPC, which has thrived with its theatrical model, missed out on a number of hot festival titles because it wasn’t willing to overpay.

Citing the recent domestic box office results for A24’s “Lamb,” which has scored more than $2.5 million to date, and Neon’s “Titane,” with more than $1.4 million, Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian says, “An indie movie benefits just as much from a big-screen release as a blockbuster.” He also notes that in the current theatrical market “any art-house film that makes over a million dollars, to me, is a hit.”

As Émilie Georges, boss of French sales company Memento Films International, points out, the type of foreign-language fare that sells to the U.S. is also changing.

“Back in the day, you’d have [sales for] big-name auteurs like Jacques Audiard and, once in a while, a surprise film that had gone under the radar,” Georges says.

But now, she notes, there is a variety of buyers for a wide range of movies.

“What works now are films with powerful topics that spark a debate or a controversy,” she says.

Georges, who sold Farhadi’s Farsi-language “A Hero” to Amazon Studios, also notes that “SVOD has created a huge dynamic for residual revenue and that’s surpassed the revenues from DVD and traditional home entertainment.” 

Robert Aaronson, senior VP of Cohen Media Group, says the company’s own SVOD channel — launched in 2018 — saw a “nice bump in subscriptions during the pandemic,” but has continued buying the more theatrically-driven foreign pics, including Francois Ozon’s Cannes competition film “Everything Will Be Fine” with Sophie Marceau. Aaronson says mainstream “American audiences have gotten used to subtitles thanks to streaming services, but the core audience for foreign-language films are the cinephiles who continue to respond to international movies.”

However another top European indie sales agent, The Match Factory chief Michael Weber, speaking at a recent Rome MIA Market panel, lamented “an imbalance between what is produced and what the market can absorb, even with all these platforms.” 

“For us it’s about identifying films that can still find an audience,” Weber said, citing the overseas success of Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour “Drive My Car,” which has pulled more than $1.4 million in French theaters after launching from Cannes. 

In the U.S., IFC Films and Neon have track records with hybrid release models, either day-and-date or a short theatrical window followed by a digital rollout. These strategies are well suited for films that have achieved a certain level of media attention from festival launches, genre movies that skew younger or issue-driven movies with greater chances of media coverage.

Arianna Bocco, chief of IFC Films, a key purveyor of foreign-language movies in the U.S., calls day-and-date “a really amazing model, but not every film is one size fits all.”

Bocco is looking to build a theatrical campaign for Audrey Diwan’s Venice Golden Lion winner “Happening,” a film about a young woman facing an illegal abortion in 1960s France — which will get a 45-day theatrical window — and Penélope Cruz-Antonio Banderas starrer “Official Selection.”

The real game changer for foreign-language titles, says SPC’s Bernard, has been the push among U.S. theater owners to adopt digital strategies “to reach their customers who like international cinema and movies that are of a higher artistic merit.”

Now, thanks to those online marketing drives, these movies are getting more exposure, says Bernard.

“The box office tells the tale, but on the other hand, it is not really saying much because older people and other segments of the audience have not returned to theaters,” Barnard cautions. “But surely it’s coming back.” 

“Curation is the key for the future,” says German exhibitor Christian Bräuer, chief of European arthouse cinemas confederation CICAE. “We need to find new business models for the future, maybe even with the streamers. But it also means a technological upgrade of arthouse cinemas and customer communication.”

Comscore’s Dergarabedian underlines that, even now, “specialized films can often put more butts in seats on a per-theatre average.”

“The numbers show that audiences are interested [in speciality titles], and that this is a part of the business that I think is going to thrive once everything is back on track.”