Foreign-language films have always been a small fish in the big home-video pond. But, assessing last year, this fish appears to be getting bigger.
Since there are no official figures about foreign-language films on home video, quizzing experts is the best way to gauge what happened in that market last year.
"There are no charts or statistics on foreign films because they're such a tiny part of the home-video market," said Meir Hed, co-owner of Videotheque, the three-store Westside video chain noted for its extensive foreign-film department. "There are no exact figures but I'd say the foreign-film share of the overall market is about 2%. But it's growing."
Hed is judging the expansion of the market by the increase in the number of home-video releases: "In '86, I'd say 80-90 foreign films came out on home video. In 1987 there were 100-120 releases. I'd say there was roughly a 25%-30% increase in releases."
Hed estimated that half these titles are venerable oldies. "Foreign-movie buffs love the classics. There are all these classics by directors like (Ingmar) Bergman, (Federico) Fellini, (Akira) Kurosawa and (Luis) Bunuel that foreign-films fans would like to see--actually to own. When it comes to the classics, these fans are more interested in buying than renting."
The company that most caters to these collectors is Nelson Entertainment, which puts out far more classics in the home-video market than any other company.
Cinematheque Collection, which released Eric Rohmer's "Clair's Knee" and Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" last year, is the other major player in this market. CBS-Fox is involved on a smaller scale, with major recent releases such as "Betty Blue" and Kurosawa's "Ran"--which, according to Hed, were two of last year's most popular foreign titles.
Nelson has endeared itself to collectors by marketing its releases at the relatively low price of $29.95. Other companies are still pricing their titles mostly in the $60-$80 range.
"There are a lot of foreign-film collectors out there," said Rand Bleimeister, Nelson's executive vice president. "Very simply, you'll sell more if you market the movies at a lower price. And we're selling more and more. Last year was a big one for us."
Bleimeister said a number of classics in the company's catalogue--such as "Fanny and Alexander" and "The Seven Samurai"--did very good business. And some other Nelson titles introduced last year--"Forbidden Games," "Two Women" and "La Ronde"--should have long-range popularity.
"The nice thing about classics is that they have a long life," he said. "They'll sell forever."
Nelson's big problem with its foreign titles, Bleimeister noted, is lack of video-store exposure. Many stores in the country's five biggest cities carry foreign-language films but most stores outside these areas don't.
But Nelson came up with an alternative. "We work through several mail-order companies," Bleimeister explained. "If you're a foreign-film fan in some outlying area, you have no choice but to order by mail. About half our foreign-film business is done through mail order."
On home video you get nothing but the cream of the foreign crop; there isn't much of a home-video market for obscure foreign movies. According to Hed, even some quality foreign movies may play a few art houses and then disappear from the American market because they didn't attract a big enough audience to warrant home-video release.
"Even minor American movies don't do well in this rental market," Hed noted. "So what chance does a small foreign film have?"
According to Bleimeister, only a few new foreign-language films each year capture major fan and critical support. These few lucky ones have a high enough profile to compete in a home-video market dominated by recent, highly publicized American movies.
Among last year's prominent new foreign movies are "My Life as a Dog," "Jean de Florette," "Manon of the Spring" and "Dark Eyes." Of these, only "My Life as a Dog" is scheduled for release--in late April on Paramount.
A new company is entering the foreign-film home video market--Axon Video, based in New York. Its first offering, due Feb. 24 at $79.95, is director Gillo Pontecorvo's revered "The Battle of Algiers"--in French with subtitles. The company also has the rights to other classics, including "Z" and "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis."