Where have all the foreign language movies gone?

In the last few years, January has become a desert as far as diversity in UK cinemas is concerned. The US/UK ‘awards films’ fill all the specialised cinema screens that would usually take a major foreign language film release. Distributors are discouraged from competition with Hollywood and mainstream independent distributors. So, currently, 12 Years a Slave (eOne), American Hustle (Columbia/Entertainment) and Gravity (Warner Bros) are still in cinemas alongside The Wolf of Wall Street (Universal). Dallas Buyers’ Club (Universal) and Her (Warner Bros/Entertainment) are to open soon. We did get The Missing Picture the Cambodian entry for Foreign Language film (in French) a couple of weeks ago but only in a very small number of cinemas and the Palestinian entry Omar has not yet been released in the UK.

I’ve complained about this before but it is getting worse and as Charles Gant reported in Sight and Sound (February), 2013 was the worst year for foreign language films at the UK box office since he started monitoring data in 2007. I genuinely fear that we are going to lose the audience for these films. The two most dynamic film industries in the world in terms of production and domestic success in 2013 are China and South Korea. When was the last time you saw a Chinese or Korean film at the cinema? I should point out that both exhibitors and distributors are part of the problem, but both are likely to rely on perceptions of what audiences want. Where do these perceptions come from? If younger audiences have never had the chance to see foreign language films how can they form a view about them?

It’s very important to support any foreign language films you can find on release. We do get regular South Asian films in our multiplexes but they remain ghettoised. Please, please go and see what is on offer. I’m hoping to catch a Pakistani film today and a Chinese film on Tuesday (a special screening at Cornerhouse by the indispensable Chinese Film Forum UK). I’m also looking forward to tonight’s last two episodes of The Bridge on BBC4. The popularity of foreign language drama on UK TV is one of the few pluses at the moment.

February should bring the new Claire Denis film Bastards and Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best – while the former is most likely to attract devotees, the latter sounds like a return to more accessible filmmaking. I’m sure both will feature on the blog and I hope they find their audiences in cinemas.

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3 comments

  1. keith1942

    How right Roy and how depressing. Partly this is down to exhibitors responding to the box office. It is getting harder to see many foreign-language films, either because venues that once screened them now do so less: or because the films only get a single screening, which means it is down to coincidence. The latter is aggravated by the change over to weekly programmes, which means longer-term planning becomes difficult.
    The other factor is the reliance on DVD and Blu-ray. Quite a few exhibitors frequently use these in preference to DCP or even 35mm. This just encourages a blan attitude to film. I asked a professional colleague what he had seen recently at the cinema: and he had seen nothing, he watches at home with Blu-ray and a 52 inch plasma screen. I dispute this equals cinema quality. Moreover, it is not cinema in the sense of an audience and all the associated factors.
    And lastly, Distributors are using 2k format when they should use 4k. The prime examples are 12 years a Slave and The Great Beauty, both of which deserve the higher quality but appear to have only been released in the UK in 2k.

  2. teachermrw

    Sorry to learn this. On the other hand, not an issue here in the U.S. In fact, in my community, Bollywood films are shown monthly; there is a large Indian population. Additionally, there are several art house theaters in the area which show foreign films.

    • Roy Stafford

      That’s good to hear. I should clarify that in the UK, Hindi, Punjabi and Tamil films are shown regularly (sometimes two or three on release in the same week) in multiplexes in most major UK cities. However, they are usually promoted only to the local South Asian diaspora and rarely mentioned in mainstream media (newspapers, TV reviews etc.) unless a star like Sharukh Khan is involved.

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