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Three reasons why foreign language cinema is struggling in the UK

Earlier this year, German-language spy drama Deutschland ‘83 made TV history when it became the UK’s highest rated foreign language television drama with 2.5m viewers.

The stylish Cold War thriller is one of several successful TV imports – The Killing, The Bridge and The Returned are other examples – that have dispelled the myth that Britons don’t do subtitles. Capitalising on the growing appetite for subtitled content, Channel 4 has even launched a new video-on-demand (VOD) service, Walter Presents, with over 600 hours of free-to-view programming.

But while foreign language TV dramas are enjoying unprecedented success, foreign language films have seen a dramatic slump at the box office.

Though overall cinema admissions have remained relatively stable for the last decade, admissions for non-English language films have declined by 56%, from 7.9m in 2004 to 3.5m in 2014, according to data from the British Film Institute (BFI). Excluding Bollywood films, ticket sales fell by 82%, from 6.2m to only 1.1m – just 0.7% of the total UK box office.

A decade ago, four non-Bollywood foreign language films – Volver, Pan’s Labyrinth, Caché and Fearless – managed to take over £1m at the UK box office. Last year, there were none, with Argentinian comedy Wild Tales the highest-grossing title with £728,000.f

Some audiences may be choosing to watch foreign language films at home online rather than in cinemas. Netflix offers a fairly large catalogue of international movies for a fraction of the cost of a cinema ticket, as do more specialised VOD platforms, such as MUBI, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player. But there are three more important factors behind the decline in foreign language cinema admissions.

1. Arthouse Hollywood

Arthouse cinemas, the traditional champions of foreign language film, are increasingly showing mainstream Hollywood films, partly to attract the growing number of older, wealthier cinemagoers who tend to shun teen-orientated multiplexes. “You get cinemas which a few years ago would show a solid arthouse/independent programme suddenly showing The Hobbit,” complains Robert Beeson of art-house distributor New Wave.

This is particularly the case within the so-called “arthouse” chains – such as Picturehouse, Everyman and Curzon – which have emerged in recent years. In 2013, Cineworld, which owns 21 Picturehouse cinemas, was forced to sell three cinemas in Cambridge, Aberdeen and Bury St Edmunds after the Competition Commission ruled there was “considerable overlap” between the audiences and screenings at its multiplex and Picturehouse venues.

Meanwhile, multiplex cinemas, which account for 40% of the country’s cinemas and 76% of screens, show few foreign language films other than Bollywood movies, which mainly appeal to Britain’s South Asian community. In 2005, the UK Film Council introduced a scheme that persuaded one in four multiplexes to programme foreign language and other specialised films in return for a £50,000 digital projector. But with the UK Film Council’s abolition in 2011, most have reverted back to showing mainly Hollywood movies.

Taking over. 94595772@N04/flickr, CC BY

2. Too many movies

Foreign language films are facing more competition than ever. Over the past decade, the number of cinema releases has almost doubled, from 451 in 2004 to 712 in 2014, according to BFI statistics. In an average week, there are now 14 new releases, making it harder for smaller titles in particular to stand out. “The big weekly film release tends to get quite a lot written about it while everything else gets a couple of paragraphs,” says Beeson.

The constant churn of new releases also hinders audiences developing through positive word-of-mouth. On average, subtitled films remain only four weeks in cinemas, down from six weeks in 2012. Many only receive a one-off screening during off-peak hours, as with the Picturehouse “Discover Tuesday” or “Vintage Sundays” slots.

3. Audience appeal

Thirdly, funding bodies are providing less support for foreign language films with mainstream audience appeal. In 2003, the UK Film Council introduced a scheme to support the marketing and distribution of specialised movies, including subtitled films. But while spending on foreign language film distribution has stayed at around £1m per year, there has been a slight change of emphasis since the BFI took over the scheme in 2011.

Whereas the more commercial-oriented UK Film Council tended to prioritise subtitled films with wide audience appeal, such as the German-comedy Good Bye Lenin! or the Chinese martial arts film House of Flying Daggers, the culturally-orientated BFI has favoured more challenging films by critically-acclaimed directors or festival winners. Earlier this year, for example, the BFI announced £100,000 in distribution support for six foreign language films, including the Chilean documentary The Pearl Button, which won the Silver Bear for Best Script at the Berlin Film Festival, and the Oscar-nominated Turkish-language drama Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven.

Yet, as the BFI’s own cinema exit polls indicate, foreign language film audiences actually care more about the film’s story or genre than whether it won an award or appeared at a festival. The director, meanwhile, is a key draw only in a minority of cases (such as Pedro Almodóvar or Lars von Trier).

The BFI should perhaps look more closely at the success of subtitled TV drama if they really want to boost foreign language film admissions. Part of the reason why shows like The Bridge and Deutschland ’83 have been so popular is the emphasis they place on story and characters over directorial style. They also stick to formats (such as the police procedural) that British viewers are familiar with.

Providing more support for subtitled films with mainstream audience appeal – such as comedies, action and thrillers – might be one way to revive foreign language cinema admissions.

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