Foreign language films made with a mainstream wide-audience sensibility often fall through the cracks when being sold overseas. So why the snobbery?
Venice and Toronto showcased well over 100 new films not in the English language and, as you can expect, that volume of pictures threw up an enormous range of styles and subject matter. One morning, you could be sitting watching a broad audience title like France’s star-packed Little White Lies, the next you are sobbing at the harrowing atrocities of Canada’s Lebanon-set Incendies or contemplating the nature of violence in In A Better World from Denmark.
To distributors in many territories, certainly in the US, these films all fall into one category: foreign-language, and therefore arthouse. You can make the most commercial, audience-driven movie like France’s Heartbreaker or Spanish horror Julia’s Eyes, but, even though they are as slick and polished as any Hollywood studio movie, they are immediately tarnished with the stigma of “limited audience”. Even though riveting thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and creepy vampire flick Let The Right One In are considered successful arthouse movies, the audience for their US remakes will be dramatically bigger. Like it or not, it’s a fact.
Where I get confused is at the apparent dependence on highbrow critics for all these films, whether they are great works of art or obvious commercial propositions. Stephen Holden of the influential The New York Times recently eviscerated French romcom Heartbreaker, thereby dramatically affecting its box office chances in the US. But his review was telling. He described it as “more American than French”, even adding to that comment the statement “That is not a compliment”. He goes on to talk of its “Hollywood sensibility” as if Hollywood is the only industrial film-making culture able to generate glossy crowdpleasers. Perhaps all French cinema needs to be brooding character study or sublime abstraction to win the endorsement of a paper like The New York Times since Holden and his ilk expect that from French art cinema?
So how can audience-friendly international cinema – comedies, thrillers, romances – find an audience outside its home country if the whole world of foreign cinema is lumped into one ghetto defined by art and arthouse?
At a panel I chaired during Toronto for the OMDC International Finance Forum, Magnolia Pictures chief Eamonn Bowles said that the foreign language audience in the US is largely old and getting older. It’s what is commonly known as the blue-rinse crowd, retired men and women who prefer soft, more life-affirming titles like Le Concert or Les Choristes to tougher movies like A Prophet or The White Ribbon. The blue rinsers would lap up Heartbreaker and other well-made Hollywood-style foreign movies, but the avenues to reach them – distributors wary of falling between two stools (not arty enough, not in English), critics who can kill a foreign movie because it’s not Godardian enough while they have no impact on Hollywood movies any more, arthouse theatres reluctant to book the films because of lacklustre reviews – are limited.
Hopefully, the VOD platforms pioneered by Magnolia and IFC Films could bypass some of these hurdles by delivering entertaining foreign crowdpleasers to the home and enabling adventurous users to discover them. Audiences for foreign language films are as diverse as the films themselves and don’t necessarily want to watch challenging art films every time out. Many in the US don’t want to watch challenging art films at all.