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.
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.
Those involved with bringing foreign films to audiences, and those who observe the situation such as Rosenbaum, list several factors that may explain the slowdown. Greg Laemmle of the 71-year-old family-run Laemmle Theatre chain – a longtime specialist exhibitor in foreign cinema – notes how popular American independent, British, and Australian films (not needing subtitles) have been crowding out non-English titles for well over a decade. "There's also the simple fact," he adds, "that you have more movies coming out, week after week, than ever before, and it becomes extremely tough for us to hold over a film that we love but that audiences aren't coming for."
Jon Gerrans, copresident of specialty distributor Strand Releasing (which has had a few successes of late with such films as Claude Miller's "A Secret"), wonders if the aging of the type of "art houses" that his company regularly does business with might be deterring the crowds. "The theater business is always on thin ice," Mr. Gerrans says, "and especially these kind of theaters may often lack the extra revenue to upgrade screens to the high standard audiences have been expecting. So they'd rather stay home."
Whatever the cause, don't blame it on the films. Factoring in the harsh truth that only a sliver of any year's crop of foreign-made work manages to be sold to American distributors, there's virtual consensus among all parties that the sheer quality of the few foreign-language films that make it to US big screens has never been better. Just this year, Italian cinema has been making a powerful statement with both Matteo Garrone's extraordinary Mafia epic, "Gomorrah," (released by IFC Films) and Paolo Sorrentino's boisterous and elegantly conceived political tale, "Il divo." ("Il divo" was released by tiny upstart Music Box Films, whose surprise French hit, "Tell No One," took an unexpected $6.1 million at the US box office in 2008.) From Magnolia Pictures' successful nurturing of Tomas Alfredson's startling Swedish vampire film "Let the Right One In" to Regent Releasing's promising new rollout of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's widely acclaimed "Tokyo Sonata," there are plenty of signs that audiences will go to see great films in any language.
But for every foreign hit, many more founder once they reach America's shores.
At the same time, there is no end of proposals to help reverse the course. Video-on-demand (VOD) is now the hot term among art film distributors, who believe they have found new audiences and fresh injections of income from simultaneous release of titles in theaters and through TV-based VOD platforms. "VOD has given us the extra revenue stream that would allow us to get films," says IFC Films' Ryan Werner. "It's kind of crazy and wonderful to consider that Philippe Garrel" – a veteran French director whose work has long been absent from American screens – "is having his latest film, 'Frontier of Dawn,' available to 150 million viewers on VOD." Following Garrel's film, IFC is set to unveil Béla Tarr's "The Man From London" and Hong Sang-soo's "Night and Day" through VOD, which will mark the widest exposure either director has enjoyed in America.
Richard Lorber, CEO and president of Lorber Digital, believes that American film festivals "can take a leadership position by exposing audiences to the great auteurs of the past and present. It requires the three C's: curatorship, criticism, and contextualization. Then you make a dent in audience awareness," he says. Mr. Lorber, who is set to release Chilean director Pablo Larrain's festival hit, "Tony Manero," and the long-awaited "The Sun," by Russia's Alexander Sokurov, acknowledges "that the subtitled business is at an all-time low. But I would offer a counterperception that there [is] a plethora of alternative venues, including microcinemas, arts centers, and community sites, and audiences are hungry."
Film programmer Irena Kovarova, whose recent program "Disappearing Acts" was screened at New York's Czech Center and profiled fine European films that have gone begging for American distribution, argues that the problem with audience awareness of foreign films "isn't so much one of access as it is of knowledge. Yet people knew about our series, and they attended in excellent numbers."
Rosenbaum predicts "the future of the kind of cinema we're talking about isn't going to be in theaters as we know them today, but on everything from small portable screens to peoples' homes, where cine clubs have been organized.... People still enthusiastically watch and share films, but now it may be over the Web."