New York: Foreign Language Films in the US market

Against the background of an overall decline of US revenues from foreign films, Europe as the dominant source of such productions has been surpassed by Asian Countries. Even for   internationally acclaimed films as evidenced by awards and critical reviews, audience recognition and the US income from theatrical distribution seems minuscule.  Of the 1000 foreign language films which entered the US market since 1980, 70% scored less than $1 million and only 22 more than $10 million. For each successful foreign release there are dozen if not hundreds of failures, most never make it to this country (apart from screenings at some film festivals) nor ever enter distribution. According to Toby Miller in the 1960s imported films accounted for 10% of the US  box office, in 1986  we had 7% and now less than 1%. The few films entering US distribution have marginal results.  Look at the superb DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU by Christi Puiu which was released in the US in 2005 and scored only $80.000. The more acclaimed and probably best film of 2009 Michael Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON garnering the most prestigious awards last year is totaling now only 2.2 million after 20 weeks in US distribution.


Commercial distribution of foreign films is a high risk business for many reasons. There has been a long term decline of the US audience for foreign language films with observers guessing that the theatrical audience for these films shrank by more than 60% over the last decade. This constraining development is also impacted by numerous other factors such as ease of access to foreign films through alternative venues like Netflix, the internet and Video on Demand platforms. Commercial venues for foreign films have become more limited due to the proliferation of movies entering the theatrical market, the adoption of carpet release patterns with fewer films booked into larger numbers of theaters, the concomitant reduction of available theatrical ‘art houses’ for foreign and independent films, a preference for films with high production value as evidence by the shift towards 3D movies and last not least I suspect a  related decline in film culture as suggested here in my   May 5th article “From Pipelines to Film Culture?”

It is certainly not a reduction in the number or quality of foreign language films which prompts a mute response by the US audience. Whereas US film production has been stagnant, the number if films produced in other regions has been growing steadily. As any regular visitor of film festivals can attest and as demonstrated by the large number of awards these films generate, each year more and better films are produced in Europe, Asia and Latin America.  I also suspect that fewer US films receive international awards than in the past, though there is continued though slowly declining international dominance of US commercial movies with a global market share of about 65%. Further as the declining number of US productions at the 2010 Berlin and Cannes International Film Festivals shows, high profile marketing of these films seems to be receding.

Unless there is a concerted effort by governmental agencies to engage in cultural diplomacy and provide the necessary film marketing subsidies as practiced by France, or support from public officials such as the Indian secretary of state who believes that Indian culture can be globalized through film, chances for success for foreign language films in the United States are rather slim, to say the least. The exceptions are some films from India. Corporations like Reliance BIG  Pictures and Reliance MediaWorks are  establishing in the  United States a distribution infra structure and adapting Indian films like THE THREE EDITS and KITES  to the US market by releasing shorter  and differently edited versions.  Large minority status or share in decent from a foreign language group does not ensure success of foreign language productions. Thus 16% of all Americans are Latin American or Hispanics, yet the box office of all Spanish language films in the United States over the last 30 years is below that of French language films. About 17% of all US Americans claim to be of German origin,   yet German films scored only $49 million during the same period, far less than the French gross of about $170 million.

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