A decade after Crouching Tiger rewrote the rules for foreign-language films in the US, the situation is looking more difficult than ever for sellers and producers trying to infiltrate the domestic market. Anthony D’Alessandro takes the temperature in the US foreign-language distribution arena

On paper, the foreign-language film business in the US looks like it is in a recession. According to studio estimates, ticket sales in 2009 from 136 subtitled foreign releases totalled $58.7m, down 36% from 2008 when the number of cinematic imports totalled 152. Absent last year were such double-digit million dollar hits as 2004’s Hero ($53.7m) and The Motorcycle Diaries ($16.8m). Even more mind-blowing, it has been 10 years since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon minted $128.1m, making it the highest-grossing subtitled foreign release — a clear indicator the film was more of an anomaly at the US box office than a trendsetter for foreign films.

But the US distributors which specialise in foreign-language films are upbeat on their prospects while overseas sellers remain committed to the territory, even though acquisition prices are running 50% below 2000 prices when there were more players competing for the films. “What has changed is that a lot of studio [specialty] divisions have disappeared, however, there’s a slew of new companies that are growing as a result in the marketplace-savvy groups that have a good eye for film,” says Sony Pictures Classics (SPC) co-president Tom Bernard. “The issue is how many foreign-language films are ripe for the US market, because the hits aren’t obvious.”

While the marketing spend of the studio specialised divisions drove foreign film grosses to great heights as well as increased rights fees, overseas sellers are not sidestepping the US just because foreign films are in a funk. Their primary gripe is that there are fewer buyers. “The US is still one of the top three territories,” says StudioCanal executive vice-president Harold van Lier who oversees sales of the company’s French-language films. “In terms of deals, it’s not necessarily where we get the biggest upfront commitment, but it remains extremely profitable to have a US theatrical distributor in place, not only for the overall prestige and the potential domestic success but because it generally triggers sales in other territories.”

Positioning the films
A strong foreign-language film pick-up goes for $300,000-$750,000 — that is for complete ancillary rights and a platform roll-out in the top 25 US cities. If the film makes $1m theatrically, that is not too shabby. Awards recognition can propel a film’s grosses to the double-digit millions, as happened in the case of 2006 foreign-language Oscar winner The Lives Of Others from Germany ($11.3m) and 2001 French nominee Amelie ($33.2m).

Another plus is that foreign films continue to have long legs at the box office: Coco Before Chanel ($6.1m) played for 20 weekends while Music Box’s 2008 French thriller Tell No One ($6.2m) was booked for 32 weeks.

The target audience for foreign fare continues to be a 30-plus, college-educated crowd, with a predominant portion of that age group skewing towards 65. It is a demographic that is not interested in social-networking websites, rather they still read newspapers — a plus for those distributors which continue to take out full-page ads in The New York Times. Currently such an advert goes for approximately $65,000, compared to $100,000 10 years ago. “This is an audience that responds to quality and the theatres are the filters,” says Bernard.

A foreign film’s theatrical performance is largely driven by reviews, which is why exhibitors and distributors alike are concerned about the layoffs of newspaper critics. Such free promotion can curb the average $1m-$3m ad spend needed to play foreign titles.”This doesn’t help the movie business,” says Landmark Theatres CEO Ted Mundorff. “The newspapers we advertise in aren’t supporting us by refusing to run a review, whether it is positive or negative.”

Day and date
IFC and Magnolia have been saving graces for those sellers looking to find a one-stop shop for distribution across all formats. VoD and TV deals are difficult to come by for foreign films and both distributors’ revolutionary day-and-date plan eliminates such challenges, not to mention those outside the major cities can still see a new foreign film on VoD just as it is unspooling in theatres.

Opponents argue the business model blows away several windows; that a foreign film needs time to establish itself before moving on to other ancillaries. Another downside is that 60% of cinema circuits refuse to book films which bow simultaneously on VoD, hampering ticket sales.

“Distributors who stick to the traditional means of releasing a movie are doing a disservice to the audience base and aren’t growing it,” exclaims IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring about day and date.

Eamonn Bowles, Magnolia’s president believes day and date only works with certain titles. “We don’t rule out doing foreign-language films on VoD, but they need some sort of star power, genre aspect (eg Red Cliff, Ong Bak 2) to make them easily identifiable to an audience breezing through a VoD menu,” says Bowles.

With day and date, sellers receive low upfront fees, around $50,000, with a larger back-end built into their contracts. Since starting day and date in March 2006, 70%-80% of IFC’s titles received overages in their first 24 months. If a foreign film generates half of its theatrical box office on VoD, or even on DVD, it is considered financially sound.

But the jury is still out on whether day and date poses a disadvantage to these films’ gross in the end, though most achieve final cumes in the low single millions, if not lower. Such films as 2008’s Gomorrah from Italy ($1.6m) and last year’s Summer Hours ($1.7m) played beyond their 90-day VoD window in theatres. “There’s always going to be an audience who wants to see the movie in a shared theatre experience,” adds Sehring.

All eyes on The Girl?
For distributors, the key to success with foreign films in the US remains in discovering those titles, such as Crouching Tiger and Hero, which can attract younger attendees outside the arthouse cinephile crowd.

“I’m always optimistic I will find that one title which defies the language barrier and crosses boundaries,” says Apparition Films CEO Bob Berney, who rode such films as 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth ($37.6m) and La Vie En Rose to great heights at the box office and awards season.

Distributors and exhibitors are betting the Swedish thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first instalment of the Millennium trilogy, is the next arthouse crossover. European buyers jumped on the films at last year’s Cannes market. However, the franchise flew under the radar of US buyers due to their unfamiliarity with the film’s source material; a trilogy of novels by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. The books were finally published last June in the US and have remained high on The New York Times paperback bestseller list since then.

Impressed with the handling of Tell No One, Zodiak sold the US rights to Music Box last autumn. Seeing an opportunity to benefit from the built-in brand awareness of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Music Box, led by William Schopf and managing director Ed Arentz, worked closely with the book’s US publisher Vintage in promoting the film at bookstores.

Similar to the way Warner Bros approached its Matrix sequels, Music Box will sync the theatrical release of the next two Millennium instalments with the DVD stores’ dates for the franchise’s previous chapters. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo DVD will be released on July 6, four days after the July 2 theatrical bow of The Girl Who Played With Fire. A similar plan is expected with the Fire DVD being timed to the October 1 opening of the trilogy’s final chapter, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest.

In its first seven weeks in the US at 152 sites, Tattoo has collected $511,000 for a North American total (including a strong run in Canada through Alliance Vivafilm) of $4.6m — a hopeful sign that foreign-language films are not lost in translation, nor that their audience, despite its blue hair, is dying off in the US. Box-office fluctuations aside, it is the distributors that keep foreign films alive.

Says Berney, “If you look at the executives who run Sony Classics, IFC, Magnolia and Music Box, we have all been doing this for so long and it’s passion that keeps us going; that we’ll find that crossover film out there, somewhere.”

Title (distributor, language) director, release date
Micmacs (Sony Classics, French) Jean-Pierre Jeunet, May 28
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Sony Classics, French-Russian-English) Jan Kounen, June 11
I Am Love (Magnolia, Italian-Russian-English) Luca Guadagnino,
June 18
The Girl Who Played With Fire (Music Box, Swedish) Daniel Alfredson, July 2
[REC] 2 (Magnet/Magnolia, Spanish) Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza, July 9
Le Concert (The Weinstein Company, French-Russian) Radu Mihaileanu, July 16
Lebanon (Sony Classics, Hebrew-Arabic-French-English) Samuel Maoz, August 13
Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Music Box, French) Jean-Francois Richet, August 13
Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 (Music Box, French) Jean-Francois Richet, September 3
A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop (Sony Classics, Chinese) Zhang Yimou, September 3
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets? Nest (Music Box, Swedish) Daniel Alfredson, October 1

Rank, title (distributor), domestic box office
1 Coco Before Chanel (Sony Classics) $6.1m
2 The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Music Box) $4.6m**
3 Broken Embraces (Sony Classics) $4.9m
4 The White Ribbon (Sony Classics) $2.2m**
5 Rudo Y Cursi (Sony Classics) $1.83m
6 A Prophet (Sony Classics) $1.9m**
7 Summer Hours (IFC) $1.7m
8 Departures (Regent) $1.5m
9 Paris (IFC) $1m
10 Seraphine (Music Box) $0.9m
* Excludes Hindi titles
** Still on release