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Subtitled Films Gaining in Fight for Share of Big-Screen Spotlight

Movies: Distribution struggles continue, but fans are supporting foreign-language pictures like 'Life Is Beautiful.'

January 08, 1999|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here's a paradox: If no one goes to see foreign films anymore, why are some of them posting record attendance figures?

Predictions of the foreign-language film's demise in the U.S. seem to alternate with reports of record-breaking grosses for subtitled films. Each time there's a lull in the quality and quantity of imported films, it suddenly turns around again and a major hit like the current bittersweet Italian fable "Life Is Beautiful" revives the audience's appetite.

Buffeted on the one hand by big studio movies and on the other by American and British or Australian-made independent films, subtitled movies have had a harder time securing release in the U.S.--and available screens--despite the occasional hit.

Yet, while fewer American distributors now buy and release foreign films, such recent entries as "Like Water for Chocolate" (1992), "Il Postino" (1995), "Shall We Dance" (1996), "Belle Epoque" (1992) and "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994) have taken in more at the box office than in the heyday of foreign-language film popularity back in the '70s and '80s.

For the most part the foreign films that struck a chord with American audiences are "feel-good" movies, heavy on sentiment and romance. Some of the bigger titles in recent years have involved a relationship between an older adult and a child--"Kolya" (1996), "Central Station" (1998), "Cinema Paradiso" (1989), "Life Is Beautiful"--which makes sense, say distributors, since the audiences who attend these films are often old enough to have grandchildren and emotionally respond to the subject matter.

Today the $1-million gross mark is considered the plateau for success on a foreign title, according to Michael Barker, a principal in Sony Pictures Classics. The company's current highly acclaimed Brazilian film "Central Station" is expected to achieve that level. The 1997 Belgian drama "Ma Vie en Rose" passed $2 million while the Russian drama "The Thief" and the Danish family saga "The Celebration," both released in 1998, have also topped $1 million.

But Bingham Ray, head of October Films, which released "The Celebration," notes that "most foreign movies wind up stalling in the mid-six figures." The few foreign films that work can stay in theaters for a year or more. But most are economic washouts. Complicating matters is the fact that foreign film distributors are usually playing without the safety net of video and cable.

"It's a theatrical-[release] driven business and the price of marketing all movies has increased dramatically," Ray says. "There's no video and little cable insurance because subtitled films on TV are difficult. People don't want to read their movies."

None of this bothers Miramax's co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. "We're definitely on an upswing," he says of Miramax's foreign-film releases.

Weinstein is one of the few distributors who is willing to spend money to buy television ads to promote foreign movies. He has even pushed theater owners--particularly outside of large metropolitan areas--to accept his foreign films by not making Miramax's big American hits like "Good Will Hunting" and "Pulp Fiction" available unless the theater owner agrees to book one of his subtitled films as well.

Miramax has released virtually all the "blockbuster" foreign titles in recent years, breaking the all-time record with Italy's "Il Postino," which took in about $22 million in 1995, just ahead of the Mexican romance "Like Water for Chocolate," the previous record-holder.

But as Mark McGwire can tell you, records are made to be broken. "Life Is Beautiful," which has already grossed more than $11 million (and has never played in more than 225 theaters at any one time) is on track to surpass "Il Postino" by the middle of next year, according to Miramax. Possible Oscar attention could give the film the same propulsion that "Il Postino"--a '95 best picture nominee--experienced. ("Life" will get wider release in January and February.)

Existing Audience's Loyalty Can Be Fierce

Still, the basic problem remains that the demographic for foreign films has gotten older. It's the same upscale, urban audience that frequented these movies as college students and young adults 20 years ago, says Ruth Vitale and David Dinnerstein, who recently began a specialty film label at Paramount Pictures.

"We haven't been able to cultivate a younger audience yet," Dinnerstein says.

The existing audience's loyalty can be fierce, however, as evidenced by the recent screening of the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part "The Decalogue" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The demanding series, shown over a three-week period, offered three performances of each hourlong film and sold out almost immediately, with scalpers lining the museum's Wilshire Boulevard entrance before every performance.

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