February 14, 2006



Americans don't watch subtitles. That's the traditional wisdom among US distributors who view adding subtitles to a movie as a way to automatically wave bye-bye to a huge portion of your potential grosses, and they're right. Last year only ten foreign films earned more than US$1 million at the American box office, and foreign acquisitions seem to be slipping: out of 54 Oscar nominations, only 12 have US distribution in 2005, compared to 19 in 2004. Part of this decline is attributable to people who say they don't want to "read" movies and the only solution seems to be dubbing movies into English. But the Russian film NIGHT WATCH offers a third way and it impressed me to no end.

NIGHT WATCH is a big budget blockbuster about a war between good and bad vampires on the streets of modern day Moscow, and it was a huge hit in Russia when it was released a couple of years ago. Fox Searchlight picked it up for US distribution and they instantly had a big problem: what to do with a foreign language action/horror movie with no pretensions to the arthouse. Director Timur Bekmambetov had a solution: integrate subtitles into the visual design of the film so that they flow with the movie, rather than feeling like something tacked on at the last minute.

The result is subs that come and go as characters speak. They sometimes appear in different places on the screen, most strikingly when a character is hurled across a kitchen and his shouts of "No!" and "Stop!" explode across the screen like impact marks in a comic book. The words of a curse appear in red and disappear in puffs of digital mist. A computer's output types itself across the screen with a blinking cursor. Some of these stunts work, and some don't, and they may only make sense because this is a fantasy film. But one place that everyone could learn something is in the timing of the subtitles, because it's perfect. Jokes are set up so that the punchline doesn't appear full minutes before it's delivered onscreen. If a character pauses, the subtitles pause. If a different character starts talking the subtitles for the now-silent character go away.

The result of all this? Although the occasional sub stunt is too conspicuous, for the most part the subtitles disappeared completely giving the illusion that you were hearing the characters talk in their natural voices. And that's the goal of subtitles.

Fox Searchlight collaborated on this experiment with director Timur Bekmambetov and say that this isn't part of some new approach to subtitling all their movies. But this is something every distributor of foreign films should take a look at because it works.

(NIGHT WATCH opens in NYC on 2/17 and then opens in the 15 major markets the following week)

February 14, 2006 at 09:31 AM in News | Permalink


"what to do with a foreign language action/horror movie with no pretensions to the arthouse"

Yes, that kind of movie is different to do well in US.

But BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF enjoyed box-office success in US. (Universal bought the film for a few hundred thousand dollars; the film has grossed $10.9 million in US and became the second-highest-grossing French-language film in the United States in the last two decades..) Maybe Fox Searchlight can look at what Universal did to BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF.

Posted by: No name | Feb 14, 2006 9:44:31 AM

Well, I'm hoping they take the same tactic. It looks like they want to try to build word of mouth, which is a good idea. My only problem with the movie is that it ends on a real cliffhanger that obviously leads into the sequel, and since the sequel is already out in Russia (I believe) then I'm hoping we don't have to wait a couple of years to see it in the States.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Feb 14, 2006 11:35:21 AM

Don't know if anyone saw this but here's a New York Times piece that puts the movie into a business context:


This kind of major advertising campaign is also what tied a bottle rocket to the Korean film industry's butt back in 1999 - TELL ME SOMETHING was, I believe, the number 3 local film of the year based largely on its saturation advertising techniques.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Feb 14, 2006 11:40:38 AM

Sounds like a logical extension of the text-foolery Tony Scott experimented with in Man On Fire.

I'm intrigued.

Posted by: Gus Mastrapa | Feb 14, 2006 12:35:19 PM

I saw Nightwatch in this form back at the Tribeca Film Fest and I have to say that it really annoyed the heck out of me. The previous poster was right in saying that it was a lot like the subs in Man On Fire, which was horrible. Don't forget that the opening (where the mythology is laid out) of this version of Nightwatch is completely done in badly read English in a Russian accent.

Posted by: Al | Feb 15, 2006 11:10:15 AM

I'm actually quite curious about this subtitle tactical variant and to see if it does add or detract from the experience after several viewings of such a tactic. I've always hated when the subtitles disrupt the flow of a joke's delivery. Plus, that damn white text problem on white background where you can't READ THE DAMN TEXT!!! How could people not notice that before releasing a film? It happened for CACHE, for chrissakes, you'd think those distributors would show more care! But, alas, yes, I am simply happy that non-English films get the occassional release in the U.S. so I'm not complaining, just voicing a frustration.

Posted by: Adam | Feb 16, 2006 11:12:58 AM

Actually there's a reason behind the madness for those white subtitles. Apparently if you're making less than 25 (I think that's the magic number) prints then you don't get any kind of price break at the subtitling places to make the yellow subs (which are more expensive) feasible. So if it's a tiny release it gets white subs, but if it's a slightly wider release (or the distributor has deeper pockets) then you get the nice yellow subs.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Feb 16, 2006 7:17:57 PM

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