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Posts Tagged ‘Theatrical Motion Pictures’

The Death of Foreign Films in America

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time.

Once upon a time, every movie had to open in a conventional 35mm theater run to make money. This made for a kind of financial egalitarianism; a $100,000 horror movie would have to open in a theater the same way that a $5,000,000 movie would have to; there were no DVDs, streaming videos, video on demand services, or even cable. While no one would want to go back to the analog age, as this blog itself demonstrates, the fact remains that from the dawn of cinema until the late 1980s, foreign films had a solid chance in the US market, and were roughly divided into two groups: commercial cinema and art cinema. But no matter what the label was, every film still had to open in a theater to make money — there simply was no other market.

Commercial foreign films, such as Italian westerns or horror movies, or Japanese science-fiction spectacles, were hastily dubbed into English and dumped into theaters on a mass basis, and made their money back. More serious fare, such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – which I wrote about in a 2010 article in the web journal Senses of Cinema – were presented with subtitles, and no one seemed to mind. Eventually, La Dolce Vita, too, was dubbed for wider distribution, although this version never really caught on, and audiences of the period were discerning enough to notice that replacing the actors’ voices in the film essentially destroyed Fellini’s work.

But La Dolce Vita — which is one of my favorite films of all time, and perhaps the best examination of modern pop throwaway celebrity culture ever created – made the bulk of its money in a subtitled version, and thus audiences were educated from a very early age to realize that there were many different kinds of films available. There were American films, of varying degrees of budget and artistic ambition – and often some of the lowest budget films were the most artistically ambitious — and then there were foreign films, and the junk was dubbed, while the better films were presented aurally and visually intact, with subtitles. But now it seems that dubbed or subtitled, no one is going to foreign film anymore, except for Bollywood films, which have a huge audience throughout the world, as well as here in the States.

As Richard Corliss, who knows his way around cinema history, writes in an article in Time Magazine, “you probably know about Blue Is the Warmest Color, the French movie with the lesbian lovers romping through a five-year affair. But chances are you haven’t seen it. For all its ballyhoo and bravas, Blue has earned only about $2.1 million at the U.S. box office. Given the high price of art-house tickets, that means only a couple hundred thousand people have paid to see it in its three-month American run — fewer than the number that bought tickets to Ride Along this past Tuesday.

These are hard times, maybe the end of times, for a kind of film that accounts for only about one in every 200 tickets sold in the U.S. But before we get to the depressing news about the current state of foreign-language films in the States, consider a time when this tiny niche was a tremendous niche — representing about 5%, not 0.5%, of the domestic market — and when foreign films were thought essential to any true cinephile’s education and appetite.

We speak of the 1960s. Giants like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and François Truffaut strode the earth; and their favorite actors — Marcello Mastroianni, Max von Sydow, Toshiro Mifune and Jeanne Moreau — became icons on this side of the pond. Mastroianni and the rest provided the best directors with faces and personalities that charmed the foreign-film audience across America. And soon other movies with these stars appeared in U.S. theaters. In the early ’60s, as many as 30 Italian films reached U.S. shores.

That’s because of the startling success of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which, in terms of tickets sold, is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time. It earned $19.5 million in U.S. theaters in 1961, when the average ticket price was just 69 cents. In today’s dollars, that would be $236 million — more than the domestic gross of 2013 hits like Oz the Great and Powerful and Thor: The Dark World. In 1966, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, a race-car love story starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, grossed the modern equivalent of $107 million. Three years later Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z took in what would be $92 million today. As the moguls would say, real money.

Two quick reasons for the appeal of foreign-language films in the ’60s: They had a higher IQ than the average Hollywood movie — making works like Fellini’s and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad the subjects of earnest debates at penthouse cocktail parties and on college campuses — and they were sexier, exposing flesh along with their vaunted angst and anomie. A third reason: they gave any American with cinematic wanderlust a view of other countries and cultures. Here were people and ideas so different, perhaps forbidding, yet often enchanting.

At the end of the decade, Hollywood grew up fast, with copious infusions of sex (Midnight Cowboy), blood (The Wild Bunch) and double-dome philosophizing (2001: A Space Odyssey). That’s an oversimplified way of saying that American movies had recaptured the conversation [. . .] Another factor: Americans lost interest in other cultures; we were not only No. 1, we were the only 1 we cared about. With foreign films’ monopoly on intellectual maturity and adult themes broken, they receded to specialty status: canapés for connoisseurs.”

I’m afraid that Corliss is right; the multiplexes, as I have observed many times before, play simply the biggest hits in a very tight playlist, and no one seems to have for more thoughtful cinema anymore. The big news these days is the upcoming Superman/Batman team up, and ComicCon rules the box office. Not much chance for anything enlightening there. In the 1960s, and until the late 1980s, theaters gave audiences a choice, simply because they had to — theaters were the only venue available. Now that the studios can dump smaller films on VOD or streaming, you can forget about a theatrical release. Which means that most people will never hear of it, which means most people will never see it, which means that if you want thoughtful film viewing, it’s either the VOD foreign cable channel, or a a DVD, or Netflix.

But it’s not the same as seeing it on a big screen, and at the same time, it has much less cultural impact. This is bad for American viewers, bad for the future of cinema, and portends an endless array of nonstop comic book movies with no content – just action, action and more action, like the Fast and Furious franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, if all you want is to see a bunch of cars crashing and things being blown up. But it would be nice to have a choice, available to all and widely publicized. Once, you had such a choice. Now, you have no choice at all.

Foreign films led the way to a more enlightened cinema – what has happened to that cinema today?

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

Digital Age Prompting Closure of Military Base Movie Theaters

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Military base movie theaters are closing because of the shift to digital projection.

Here’s an interesting piece by Dirk Lammers of the San Francisco Chronicle on the closing of numerous military base movie theaters around the globe, because they can’t get the funding to make the jump to digital projection. As Lammers writes of the photo above, “movie patrons wait for the showing of Hotel Transylvania inside the theater on Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota on its last day of operation, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service theater serving airmen and their families is one of 60 across the globe that’s closing because it’s too expensive to switch from 35 millimeter film prints to an all-digital projection format.

Stacey Darling loves watching family movies at the Ellsworth Air Force Base theater in South Dakota because it’s so much more affordable than taking her three children to the multiplex in nearby Rapid City. Darling, whose husband is an airman, has been catching second-run films on base for about 2 1/2 years, and was there Saturday for the theater’s last showing. The movie theater is among 60 around the globe run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service that is screening its last picture show amid the industry’s conversion to digital projection.

Darling said she wishes she could go to the theater even more now that her husband, Senior Master Sgt. David Darling, has deployed to southwest Asia. [But] it’s just not cost effective for the exchange service to invest the $120,000 per theater needed to convert from 35 millimeter film to the new format at the theaters that are being closed, said spokesman Judd Anstey. ‘At locations where customer attendance is decreased due to a preference for off-installation entertainment venues, a determination has been made that continued operation is no longer a viable option,’ Anstey said.”

I have only this to say: $120,000 a theater to convert to digital? This is too much money? These theaters provide both entertainment and a meeting place for those in the armed forces; once again, one more place for people to gather together and share a sense of community is vanishing in the digital era.

Read the entire article by clicking here.

Frame by Frame Video: Commercials in Movie Theaters

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

I have a new video today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on advertisements in movie theaters. You can see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

I’m not at all sure that the image above is appropriate in this regard; these people seem to be enjoying what’s on the screen, which isn’t often the case with commercials. As the profit margin for theatrical presentation of films continues to drop, however, and even concession stands profits don’t really make that much difference, commercials at the movies have become a necessity if movie theaters are going to continue to survive.

This video offers a brief explanation of the problem; thanks again to Curt Bright for an excellent job on the direction and editorial supervision of this piece.

Hollywood Moves to The Web

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Hollywood’s theatrical fortunes continue to decline, as the ever-reliable Brooks Barnes reports in The New York Times, but it seems they have a fix on how to move to the web, and make it pay.

As Barnes reports, “Movie attendance hit a 16-year low in 2011. Star wattage continues to dim. DVD sales keep plunging. Almost none of the films being honored at Sunday’s Academy Awards have struck a mainstream nerve.
Yet Hollywood has a noticeable spring in its step. After all, it’s not the music business.

Instead of Hollywood suffering its own Napster moment — the kind of digital death trap that decimated music labels first through the illegal downloading of files and then by a migration to legal downloads almost solely through iTunes — several deals announced this month have it feeling more in control.

While studios still consider piracy a huge problem and feel stymied by Silicon Valley (and Washington politics), they nevertheless control their content. And now the Web is coming to them.

Google is developing a home entertainment device and several media companies have announced plans for new online streaming services. Taken together, the moves mean no supplier will have a monopoly over the distribution of films and television on the Internet. With more buyers comes leverage, and higher prices for content

‘The mood has shifted from,”Oh, my God, our business models are broken and we’re going to be cannibalized” to something resembling euphoria,’ said Peter Guber, a former chairman of Columbia Pictures who is now chief executive of the Mandalay Entertainment Group, which has interests in movies, TV and sports. ‘Studios see a robust, accelerating online market.’”

It makes sense; with admissions at a 16 year low, the viewers have to be somewhere, and unlike the music business, it seems that Hollywood has figured this out in time for a variety of reasons.

Read the whole piece here; more evidence of the ever changing landscape of cinema.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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