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February 24, 2006

DO FOREIGN FILMS HAVE TO BE GOOD?

foreign movies are viewed as the broccoli on the cinematic plateIn this week's Newsweek there's an epic, multi-page article by David Ansen and Ramin Setoodeh that wonders "In the era of globalization, why can't foreign films catch a break?" The article maps the depressing landscape for foreign films in the US, and criticizes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for demonstrating "mediocre taste" in their selection of the five nominees for "Best Foreign Language Film".

These are all good points, and the article has some interesting things to say, but one of the major problems with foreign films in the US is that no one wants to see them. There's no audience. And in a way, people who value foreign films are to blame. The existing audience for foreign films has helped to kill its potential audience.

Take, for example, this Newsweek article. We have to assume that David Ansen and Ramin Setoodeh like foreign films, but listen to how they talk about them and look at the quotes they print. Everything they say reads like an attempt to divide the world into two kinds of movie: movies that are junk and movies that are good for you. And they seem to only value foreign movies that as far as those movies are "good for you".

- "The theatrical audience for foreign art fare (as opposed to kung fu, anime and Japanese horror) is a decidedly graying breed."

- "It makes me angry and sad," says Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Co., "that we deny the American public the great potential to learn from other cultures."

- "When I was an undergraduate, I lived for foreign films," says producer Mark Johnson ("Narnia"), who chairs the Oscar committee that selects foreign-language films. "In fact, it's where you took girls to impress them with how smart you were."

- "The South African entry, "Tsotsi," is likely the movie to beat. It's about the transformation of a ruthless, baby-faced gangster in Johannesburg. This feral, nameless boy comes to terms with his own traumatic childhood when he impulsively rescues a 3-month-old infant from the back of a car he's stolen, after shooting the child's mother. The movie features a mesmerizing performance by Presley Chwene-yagae, and it gets to your emotions. But it doesn't unfold like real life. Every plot turn is as inevitable as a '30s gangster movie with Jimmy Cagney. (For a shattering, truly revelatory foreign film about Africa, see the documentary "Darwin's Nightmare.")"

- "The other nominees aren't likely to challenge your assumptions, either."

- "Johnson would love to introduce five wild-card films into the pool of prospective nominees. "Take the top film from the five major film festivals and add them to the mix," he says."

So, basically, foreign films should challenge our assumptions, they should unfold like real life, film festival favorites are the best example of foreign films, watching foreign films is a sign that we're intellectual, watching foreign films should be about learning from other cultures, J-horror, anime and "kung fu" movies are not foreign films.

With this kind of implied attitude, is it any surprise that the average audience member avoids foreign films like the plague? As long as foreign movies are viewed as the broccoli on the cinematic plate everyone's going to eat around them. What people who love foreign films should be doing is making them more accessible, they should be assuring everyone that they are entertainment, too. They should be selling them as good movies, not as a course at the Learning Annex.

February 24, 2006 at 08:33 AM in News | Permalink

Comments

"It makes me angry and sad," says Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Co., "that we deny the American public the great potential to learn from other cultures."


And I am sure that Harv's habit of bad English dubbing, replacing of music and trimming scenes out of his HK imports don't deny the American public the great potential to learn from other cultures...

Posted by: Rich Drees | Feb 24, 2006 8:52:37 AM

A sharp-eyed reader just sent me the link to this Indiewire article that talks in depth about the closing of Wellspring and what that means for arthouse theatrical distribution in the US. The relevant section is the last one that basically comes to the conclusion that there is no financially workable model for the distribution of foreign films in America. So maybe this entire post is moot, anyways.

http://www.indiewire.com/biz/2006/02/considering_the.html

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Feb 24, 2006 9:10:51 AM

For Netflix, NY times' views is different from Newsweek.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/22/movies/22kauf.html?ex=1295586000&en;=e460cfdeed661cb0&ei;=5088&partner;=rssnyt&emc;=rss

[ And some art house distributors hail the arrival of Netflix, the mail-order rental company that has leveled the playing field for smaller pictures. According to Netflix, the percentage of foreign film rentals has varied little; it was 5.3 percent in 1999, when the company was founded, and 5.8 percent today. ]

Posted by: No name | Feb 24, 2006 9:11:40 AM

...the assumption with foreign movies still largely remains the same as pre-2000, in that they must fall more into either the 'worthy' art or the 'kooky' novelty. theres quality and variety to match whats knocked-out in the west to a great extent, but when you spend all your time around movies that are essentially polished turds costing $10s of millions of dollars to guild, you would be hard pushed to shift your expectations enough to put up with a lot of whats being sold and whats historically been offered up or most obviously talked about. yes, this blocks people from seeing the wealth of what's out there, of getting a sense of other cultures on are producing on a day-to-day basis - gives a better sense though of what other areas of the world are actually like than any tourist guide written from preconceived ideas...

Posted by: logboy | Feb 24, 2006 9:18:19 AM

"There are young cineastes, but they're watching their Wong Kar-wai on DVD. Increasingly, so is everybody else. The number of units Blockbuster carried this year was up by 64 percent, thanks to kung fu and horror, and the escalating renown of Gael Garcia Bernal, Audrey Tautou et al."

So people are still watching plenty of foreign-language movies; just not in theaters, and not all 'approved' art-house fare (which is often of only minority appeal in its countries of origin anyway). The market's changing, that's all.

Posted by: jic | Feb 24, 2006 10:01:02 AM

I was thinking the same as JIC - perhaps "serious" foreign film is dying in the theater (but then film in general is dying in the theater and certainly all serious film is) but its alive everywhere else like no time in the past - on the internet which has become a huge platform for publicizing these films, thru myriads of film festivals everywhere and thru dvds in which many people have become savvy enough to simply bypass the US distributors/gatekeepers to buy them online from overseas sellers. But as he says I walk into Blockbuster or Tower and I am constantly amazed at the number of new foreign films that have been picked up by US distributors - but a tiny pct of these will make it to a theater (and in truth most of them don't deserve to). And I would have to guess that in total these films are making money for the US distributors or they would have stopped purchasing them and the video stores would have stopped stocking them. So I think foreign film is far from dead here - its just less visible and its not a big event any more like it used to be when a Godard, Kurosawa or Fellini film opened in NYC. Now its a Johnny To film like Breaking News and no one notices.

Posted by: Brian | Feb 24, 2006 2:04:45 PM

I don't know what Johnson thinks are the "top 5" film festivals, but let's quickly look at what are almost invariably considered the top 3 with competetive awards.

In 2005 the South African film U-CARMEN E-KHAYELITSHA won Berlin's Golden Bear. It might be sensible to let the film compete, alongside the official selection from that country TSOTSI. Would it have been nominated instead or in addition to TSOTSI if the Academy had screened it? Seems unlikely to me, but maybe.

Cannes' 2005 Palme D'Or winner was the Dardenne Brothers' L'ENFANT. Supposedly a real assumption-challenging, educational, artisitically valid foreign film. Perhaps just the type that unfortunately doesn't get a fair shake for a shot at Oscar, according to these folks, right? Why not allow it a shot at a nomination based on its Palme D'Or? Oh, wait. Sorry. It was Belgium's official submission and was screened and rejected by the Academy as a potential nominee.

OK, but I KNOW that Venice's 2005 Golden Lion winner wasn't submitted for consideration by its country of origin at all! The outrage! Considering the history of Venice as the world's oldest film festival, surely its top prize-winner deserves an automatic slot on the Academy's foreign film consideration list! If not an automatic nomination! Why this year's winner wasn't allowed to compete is simply beyond reason.

The winner, in case you've forgotten, was BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

Posted by: Frisco Brian | Feb 24, 2006 4:46:20 PM

"Where do NYU students go to see their movies? A big commercial theater."

while this is true for the most part, the big commercial theaters are not typical. they do show a lot of foreign stuff, actually(and indie stuff). not that they devote a huge amount of screen time to them, but foreign films do have a presence at regal and lowes in nyc that they don't have in most other places.
however, the IFC, the landmark, the film forum, cinema village, etc., are all still close and get visits from nyu kids. if only the imaginasian was near the bowery or union sq.

as for the rest, i'd like to give the writers 1000 thank you's for pointing out the white, borderless subtitles issue. how hard is it to throw a black borer or at least use yellow? it's very annoying. hopefully someone listens up.

Posted by: rob | Feb 24, 2006 8:17:17 PM

Someone else asked the subtitle question a while back and, unfortunately, I don't think it's going to be fixed. You have to be striking more than 25 (I think that's the number) prints before you get a price break on yellow subs. Under 25 prints (or maybe it's 15) and the price is just too high for most small time distributors to handle.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Feb 24, 2006 9:15:58 PM

Harvey Wienstien must have the biggest stones of any man alive to say that with a straight face. Considering his company's practices of treating any forign film that isn't Oscar bait(and even some of those) as if it were some member of a backwards civilization, and in dire need of "refinement" if it were to ever be seen among polite society.

He's part of the problem. The big successes foreign films have had in America (Life is Beautiful, CTHD, Hero) prove to me that people will give a dang and actually bother to READ a movie, if its something that they are interested in seeing.

Why amazingly good films with mainstream appeal(Red Lights, Kontroll, Oldboy) don't make more money, I really don't know. But I'm positive that if people were more aware of how much fun a subtitled entertainment flick could be, they would go. The modest success of Run Lola Run, Kung-Fu Hustle, and the like show that audiences aren't nessecarily xenophobic, but the studio bosses who are afraid of promoting anything too different may be.

Posted by: Max K. | Feb 24, 2006 9:28:16 PM

You know... Zhang Yimou's Hero was robbed of his Oscar.

Posted by: dan lam | Feb 27, 2006 9:20:44 AM

If so, the head robber is the guy who in this article is quoted as being "angry and sad that we deny the American public the great potential to learn from other cultures"

Posted by: Frisco Brian | Feb 27, 2006 4:13:22 PM

Getting back to this article's main claim... that it's the audience for foreign films that are killing it... I'd have to say I agree to a large extent. And according to ex-Tommy Dorsey clarinet player, Ken Peplowski, Jazz appreciation suffered from the same rarification.

Peplowski is currently touring with a show called SING SING SING, which is a recreation of the Benny Goodman's legendary 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. When asked about the grave risk he took in so doing, given the sacred place this concert holds in the hearts of the most devoted of jazz fans, Peplowski answered:
"We're not doing a note-by-note re-creation. That's not my thing. I don't want to treat jazz like a history lesson. We got enough problems keeping this music going."

Posted by: Dizzy | Mar 1, 2006 4:27:13 PM

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