Is the writing on the wall for subtitled films at the UK cinema?

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The decline of foreign language films at the UK box office.

Dallas King (@ChampCelluloid

Since the BAFTA Awards earlier this year, there has been much debate over Roma’s limited theatrical run in a small number of UK cinemas in order to qualify for the awards. Cinema chains such as Cineworld and Vue pulled (or threatened to pull) their support for BAFTA in the wake of the film’s Best Picture win as lines were drawn in the sand between UK exhibitors and Netflix, citing the preservation of the “theatrical window”. However, the question being asked should not be “Should Roma have received a nomination when it didn’t have a full theatrical release?”, but “Would Roma have been as successful if it had a wide theatrical release in the UK?”

Of this year’s nominees for the Best Film Not In The English Language Award, only Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War grossed over £1m at the UK box office (Netflix refused to publicly release Roma’s numbers). £1m might not seem like much when you compare it to something like Captain Marvel opening to £12.75m. Nonetheless, £1m is now seen as a numerical holy grail for a foreign language film in the UK. In 2007 and 2008, five non-Bollywood foreign language films achieved £1m at the UK box office including The Lives Of Others and The Orphanage. Fast forward five years, and 2013 and 2014 featured only one film to hit this marker; The Great Beauty and The Raid 2 respectively. Not a single non-Bollywood film grossed over a million in 2015, and 2016 saw only Julieta surpass the magic number.

What’s going on?

In 2017, the BFI published a report on specialised films released in 2016, which stated that 368 foreign language films were released in the UK that year. This accounted for 44.8% of all film releases, yet only made up 2.4% of the overall box office gross. Why such a large discrepancy between the volume of titles and the box office gross? When you look at the list of the highest grossing foreign language films, four of the top ten were released in 2004: The Motorcycle Diaries (£2.8m), House Of Flying Daggers (£3.8m), Hero (£3.8m) and The Passion Of The Christ (£11.1m). For a simple answer to the question, you just have to look at the number of films released in these two years. In 2004, there were 259 films screened. In 2016, there were 743. That is a near 300% increase in the volume of films screened in UK cinemas. Films not in the English language are getting lost in a crowded marketplace, where the turnover rate is so high that without that immediate opening weekend impact, they quickly lose out on screens to new movies arriving the weekend after.

So if Roma had received a wide rollout at the time of its limited release in mid-December, it would have been going up against Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns and Christmas classics for screen space. Then the logjam of other Oscar contenders in January/February makes it more difficult to gain a foothold. Perhaps Netflix did indeed offer Roma the chance to reach a much wider audience than the theatrical window ever would? The small screen has slowly cultivated an audience for foreign language programmes, with recent successes including The Killing and The Bridge. Even inspiring the Walter Presents strand on 4OD. Cinema can transport viewers to other cities, countries and even worlds, allowing them to see and experience life, but not as they know it. Yet for many, just the idea of watching a subtitled film is a barrier to entry, which is a shame, especially in a time when we need to be breaking down barriers. How many cinema ushers have heard a customer exit a screen complaining “I paid to watch a film, not read one”?

Many may wish to wait for the inevitable Hollywood remake a la The Departed/Infernal Affairs, Let The Right One In/Let Me In or Cold Pursuit/In Order Of Disappearance, but by doing so will miss out, as some of the magic can get lost in translation. Foreign language films provide audiences with a certain je ne sais quoi.

But what is being and can be done to tempt audiences back to the cinema to watch these films on the big screen, especially in a time when exhibitors are threatening to exclude films that don’t adhere to the 16-week window? In terms of marketing, distributors have already tried sleight of hand by creating trailers that rely heavily on ‘In a world’ voiceover men and feature no spoken dialogue, most famously in trailers for Coco Before Chanel and Pan’s Labyrinth. However, this feels like it is tricking the audience into watching it, rather than being upfront about the fact it features subtitles.

Support is at hand from the British Film Institute through their Distribution Fund and Film Audience Network. The Network aims to support four “amazing films from around the world that deserve to be seen on the big screen” every year, with funding to assist with freelance marketing, budgets for social media advertising and support for Q&A events. In the past year, they have helped titles including Happy As Lazzaro and the Oscar-nominated Shoplifters and Burning to reach wider audiences. The truth is people will watch a film with subtitles in, even if they don’t realise it straight away. After all, the highest grossing movie of all time is Avatar, a film where over a third of its dialogue is in Na’Vi… which is subtitled…

Five good entry points to subtitled cinema

In The Mood For Love

Let The Right One In


Cinema Paradiso

Train To Busanord

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