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Americans are seeing fewer and fewer foreign films

Once upon a time, when foreign-language films dominated art houses like Philadelphia's Ritz Five, in a given week moviegoers could sample French, Italian, or Chinese fare as easily as they could at local eateries.

Despite being one of the most most heavily attended foreign films of 2009, "Coco Before Chanel" grosses only $6 million.
Despite being one of the most most heavily attended foreign films of 2009, "Coco Before Chanel" grosses only $6 million.Read more

Once upon a time, when foreign-language films dominated art houses like Philadelphia's Ritz Five, in a given week moviegoers could sample French, Italian, or Chinese fare as easily as they could at local eateries.

Consider the last days in December 2000, when La Buche played the Roxy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon drew crowds at the Ritz East, and Malena - an Italian film featuring Monica Bellucci - was at the Ritz Five.

When Crouching Tiger went on to become the most successful foreign-language film ever in the United States, earning $128 million, industry pundits predicted the box office for subtitled films was rising.

Instead, it plunged.

The presence of foreign films in America is on the wane. By The Inquirer's count, from 2004 to 2009, the proportion of foreign films shown in the Philadelphia area dropped dramatically, from 20 percent to 12 percent, mirroring a long-term national trend.

"In the 1960s, imports accounted for 10 percent of the U.S. film box office," says Toby Miller, coauthor of Global Hollywood. "In 1986, that figure was 7 percent. Today, it is 0.75 percent."

Foreign-language films represent less than 1 percent of the domestic box office "at a time when Hollywood movies account for 63 percent of the global box office," says Len Klady, box-office analyst for and Screen International.

While a trade imbalance may be great for the American film business, it creates a lopsided cultural exchange in which the world learns about America while America isn't learning about the world. Observers suggest that the imbalance is caused by a variety of factors, including parochialism, diminishing box-office revenues, the supposed inferior quality of foreign-language films, and the dreaded subtitle.

As culture and politics are more globalized than ever, the isolationism of American film audiences presents real perils, says Larry Gross, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School.

"American films reinforce a worldview in which we are always the center of attention and the heroes of the story," Gross says. "It's difficult to imagine that an Iraqi filmmaker would create a film such as The Hurt Locker to represent the war we imposed on his or her country."

Foreign-language films often show America how the world sees us, says Annette Insdorf, director of film studies at Columbia University.

"In the context of American antiterrorism, Arabs are often stereotyped onscreen as villains, much like Native Americans were in westerns of the 1930s and '40s," Insdorf says. "But foreign films like Amreeka - in which a sympathetic Palestinian woman from the West Bank tries to make a life for herself in the American Midwest - challenge those stereotypes."

Foreign films also challenge the Hollywood recipe, says Marianne Bernstein, a photographer and gallery curator in Society Hill. Bernstein used to go to the Ritz once a week to satisfy her foreign-film cravings but lately, with fewer foreign films out there, it's more like once a month.

"What I get from foreign films that I don't get from Hollywood is subtlety and nuance, that gray area - which is life," she said. "I'm not interested in the comfort food of American movies with their clear-cut heroes and villains."

Bob Vitalis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sees how films he shows in his course, Politics of the Middle East, affect his students, some of whom are U.S. military officers getting degrees before returning to Iraq.

When Vitalis screens Egypt's On Boys, Girls and the Veil, a 1995 film in which Cairo youths discuss love, sex, and marriage in an era of contracting economic opportunity, "kids in the class identify immediately with those in the film," he says. The soldiers "are surprised to encounter a movie about the Middle East that they can see in terms of their own lives rather than through a prism of ethnic and sectarian conflict."

Not everyone wrings his hands at the diminishing presence of foreign-language films in U.S. theaters.

"With more and more Americans traveling abroad, and access to a very wide range of foreign publications available on the Internet, it's hard to say that Americans aren't learning about other countries," says Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University. "Maybe the foreign films just aren't very good."

While many would challenge his speculation about quality, you can't argue with the box office. Compare the $128 million in revenue for Crouching Tiger with the $6 million grossed by Coco Before Chanel, the United States' most commercially successful foreign-language film of 2009.

John Kochman, executive director of the French Film Office, promotional body for Gallic flicks in the U.S., asks whether a French film must necessarily speak French. Taken (2009), an English-language thriller with Liam Neeson, is a French production modeled on the American action-film template. It made $145 million in North America, and could represent one kind of future for foreign-produced films in the global market.

Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theaters (operator of the Ritz screens in Philadelphia), calls this "the Chocolat effect," after the French-themed, English-language confection starring Johnny Depp.

"When I go to festivals, many of the films with foreign producers, settings, and appeal increasingly are made in English," he observes.

The decline in number and popularity of foreign-language films in America is a historical paradox.

Before World War I, when America was at its most isolationist, more foreign than American films played on U.S. screens. Today, despite a globalized economy, domestic product dominates to the virtual exclusion of all else.

"Despite the fact that we talk globalization, the average American doesn't know where Singapore is," says Jehoshua Eliashberg, professor of marketing at Penn's Wharton School. "American audiences don't like to read and watch at the same time," he says, citing that bête noire of U.S. moviegoers: the subtitle.

If Americans are so subtitle-averse, what explains the success of Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 Oscar winner, which made $143 million in North America? Or, for that matter, Inglourious Basterds and Avatar, huge passages of which are subtitled?

"Americans love movies about underdogs," says Eliashberg, who has done extensive research on American moviegoing tastes. He suggests audiences were willing to suspend their resistance to the subtitle in exchange for watching an underdog triumph.

Marketers of foreign-language films long have resorted to subterfuge to get around American reluctance to try the unknown. With Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Pedro Almodóvar's 1988 breakthrough hit, Sony Pictures Classics pioneered a no-dialogue trailer that hid the fact that the movie was in Spanish.

Lately the fear of diminishing box-office returns, says Landmark's Mundorff, is the biggest challenge to distribution of foreign-language features at theaters like the Ritz. Apart from Slumdog Millionaire, which was half in English, or The Passion of the Christ, the American movie made by Mel Gibson in Aramaic, there has not been a breakout foreign-language hit since Pan's Labyrinth made $37 million in 2006.

Among local cinephiles, the perception is that the Ritz showed more foreign films when the theater chainlet's founder, Ramon Posel, was alive.

In 2004, the last year that Posel booked movies, 61 of 306 movies that opened commercially in Philadelphia were foreign-language titles.

In 2009, four years after Landmark acquired the Ritz Five, Ritz East and Ritz at the Bourse, it was 37 out of 315 films.

Landmark is committed to foreign-language films, says Mundorff, adding that 58 out of the 61 foreign-language titles the Ritz presented in 2004, when it was owned by Posel, also played on Landmark screens elsewhere. "In '09, in foreign-language, the films just weren't there," he adds.

"It's true," agrees Emily Russo of Zeitgeist Films, which distributed the splendid Nowhere in Africa, 2001 Oscar-winner for best foreign film. "You're seeing fewer foreign films and they're playing shorter runs."

"Foreign film distribution has always been hard," she says. "And it's gotten harder."

Still, Mundorff is optimistic: This year, among the most successful titles at Landmark theaters is the Swedish-language Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Which will soon be remade by Fight Club director David Fincher - in English.