Indie Cinema Forces: The Decline of Foreign-Language Films

The decline in the popularity of foreign-language films has contributed to the increased success of American indies. “Independents are taking up the space a Fellini or a Truffaut film used to occupy,” said Philip Garfinkle of Entertainment Data. “Though an Il Postino (The Postman) occasionally breaks through, only American-style product travels well.” The Italian film was indeed the exception, first winning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, then, with Miramax's help, running for months to a cumulative gross of $22 million.

Which came first: the decline of foreign cinemas or the shrinking market for foreign films in the U.S. No matter, indie filmmakers have captured the art-house audiences of two decades ago, appealing to those viewers who embraced the work of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, and Kurosawa. The death of Kieslowski (Red), the last of the breed of European art directors, may have signaled the end of an important era of international cinema.

During the European film renaissance after WWII, Americans regularly saw a variety of foreign-language films in first-run theaters. Art theaters in big cities and campus colleges screened subtitled films with actors little known to Americans. There were a few exceptions: Films starring Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, to mention a few international stars, always played better.

But ever since that renaissance ended in the 1980s, arthouses have become a rare commodity in the U.S. Cinema Studio, one of a handful of N.Y. theaters which regularly showed foreign films, closed its doors in 1990, following the closing of the Thalia, the Regency, and other houses. Foreign-language films are increasingly difficult to find in first-run theaters–the only place to see a plethora of foreign films is in specialized venues, such as N.Y.'s Film Forum, L.A.'s Nuart, and in major festivals.

In the 1990s, foreign-language films in the U.S. amount to no more than 2 percent of the entire market. For foreign movies, the major stumbling block to crack the American market remains language. Over 100 foreign-language films are released in the U.S. every year, yet few gross more than $1 million. The top end has been about $20 million for the Italian Il Postino and the Mexican Like Water for Chocolate. In today's market, the Japanese Shall We Dance, with its $10 million grosses, and the Italian Life Is Beautiful, with its similar record, rank as blockbuster.

The aversion towards English dubbing is new. In the 1960s, La Dolce Vita, A Man and a Woman, and Z, grossed more than $10 million by opening with subtitles, then moving into dubbed versions in urban centers. Released in 1960, Dolce Vita still ranks as the fourth biggest foreign grosser–at today's admission prices, its box-office would translate into about $70 million. The last time the dubbed strategy worked was in 1977, when La Cage aux Folles attained more than $17 million (over $30 million by 1998 standard).

For a foreign-language movie to “play” in the 1990s, it needs to be framed as an event, like the Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated films that Miramax has succeeded in promoting: the Italian Mediterraneo, the Mexican Like Water for Chocolate, the French Ridicule, the Czech Kolya. Even the rare foreign film that wins recognition at Cannes or Venice often has trouble securing release, let alone finding success, in the U.S. Foreign film aficionados must turn to videocassette–but, again, foreign films on video appeal primarily to those with an already developed interest in foreign cultures.

Distributors claim that American audiences are reluctant to read subtitles, are uncomfortable with the lack of sync in dubbed films, are bored by foreign films' slow pacing, and are unhappy with a technical quality that falls short of Hollywood standards. Acknowledging the complaints about subtitles from young viewers, Miramax's Weinstein speculated: “American independents may be more appealing to a generation that listens to radio and watches TV, where reading may be eighth on the list.” What makes the situation worse is that foreign cinemas are experiencing a decline in productivity as a result of Hollywood's growing dominance.

The Death of Cinephilia

In a 1997 essay, Susan Sontag lamented the death of cinephilia, the special love inspired by film. Cinephilia was born out of the conviction that cinema was a unique art: modern, accessible, poetic, mysterious, erotic and moral–all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. It was like religion, a crusade. For cinephiles, cinema was both the book of art and the book of life. Going to movies, thinking about movies, talking about movies became a passion among students of the 1960s. The temples were the cinematheques, which specialized in exhibiting films from the past and directors' retrospectives. The 1960s and 1970s represented a feverish age of moviegoing with new masterpieces almost every week.

According to Sontag, in the present climate, one hardly finds remnants of cinephilia–not just love for movies, but a certain taste in films, a desire to see and resee cinema's past. Playing no role in the era of hyper-industrial films, cinephilia has come under attack as quaint and outmoded. And yet cinephilia does exist, albeit in an altered form and on a smaller scale. It doesn't revolve around foreign films: 1990s cinephilia is mostly defined by exciting American directors: Scorsese, Lynch, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and a few others with a loyal following.

The lowered expectations for quality and the inflated expectations for profit have made it impossible for ambitious American directors like Scorsese or Coppola to work at their best level or on material that suits their talents. Abroad, some of the greatest maverick directors have stopped making films altogether. Godard now makes films on video about the history of film that are shown in festivals. Global financing, international casts and co-productions have had disastrous effects on the work of directors like Bergman and Tarkovsky.