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A foreign-film fadeout

Many acclaimed non-English movies never make it to the big screen in the US.

By Robert KoehlerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 2009

Spain's 'In the City of Sylvia' (with Pilar López de Ayala) won critical acclaim abroad.

Courtesy of Eddie Saeta S.A.

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Call it a foreign-affairs problem, only far from the halls of Washington. If you live in the United States, chances are you have never heard of some of the best international films. Foreign-language movies by world-class, award-winning directors whose careers are the subject of global acclaim are a fading presence in US cinemas, if not absent completely.

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Consider these filmmakers: Spain's José Luis Guerín (whose exquisite "In the City of Sylvia" has received critical raves on the film festival circuit), South Korea's Hong Sang-soo (whose observant drama-comedies about male-female relationships are frequently compared with those of French master Eric Rohmer) and Argentina's Lisandro Alonso (considered by Latin American film experts to be one of the great filmmakers of his generation). They have seen few – in some cases none – of their films given a wide American release. And these three are only a few of those whose films have played on the world's biggest festival stages – from Cannes to Venice – yet are virtually unknown to American audiences.

In his book, "Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See" (2000), film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum exposed the multipronged system that effectively reduces what used to be Hollywood's diverse movie product stream and which determines which foreign films are commercially released in the US. Mr. Rosenbaum's highly informed declaration in the book's first pages made a case that: "We aren't seeing certain [movies] because the decisionmakers are ... interested only in short-term investments and armed mainly with various forms of pseudoscience – and it becomes the standard business of the press, critics included, to ratify these practices while ignoring all other options."

Nine years on, his concerns remain. While foreign films struggle to get onto screens and stay there, suffering a resulting drop in box office returns, the absence of films by world-class directors is possibly even more serious. Distributors and exhibitors alike lament the down cycle at the ticket window for non-English films, attendance for which has fallen off 30 to 40 percent over the past five years.

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