05 June 2010

Subtitles and Film Marketing for US Audiences

In 1985, the folks at Orion (today Sony Picture Classics) were trying to figure out how to market Akira Kurosawa's 'Ran' to US audiences. Co-founder and co-president Michael Barker remembers clearly how he and co-founder / president Tom Bernard saw the dilemma: they thought this was a film that could really appeal to young audiences yet, Barker recalls, 'at the time, young audiences wouldn't go to subtitled films.' So they did something that was so brilliantly obvious that it's hard to believe it wasn't already commonplace, something that instantly became the norm: they had a trailer made for 'Ran' that omitted the Japanese and thus rendered subtitles unnecessary. They marketed the film, in other words, with the hope that it might be mistaken for an English language picture. 'We knew that if we could just get them into the theater, then they'd love the film,' says Barker. Art house distributors had adopted the retailers' bait-and-switch tactics, and they were working.

With Marcie Bloom, Barker and Bernard ran Orion until 1991, when the trio left to found Sony Pictures Classics. They strategy continued: in November 1988, they had a huge success with Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown after putting out a pumped-up, no-Spanish-here trailer. Barker still chuckles over a story he attributes to New Yorker Films founder Dan Talbot, who went to a movie theater to see Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, a Mandarin language film from China that Sony Pictures Classics released with the same, no-dialogue trailer strategy. The audience settled contentedly in their seats until the opening credit sequence ended and the talking - and subtitles - began. Then, Talbot reported to Barker, a sudden burst of groaning was audible. The audience was face-to-face with the ruse and realized it had been duped. But people stayed. And the film became another hit.

In 1986, just a year after the Orion breakthrough with Ran, Russell Schwartz was head of marketing for Island Pictures. He was trying to figure out how to position Dark Eyes in theaters, given that its stars were multinational talents working in languages including English, yet the film itself was in Italian with subtitles. Marcello Mastroianni could have made an English language film; it just happened, in this case, that he hadn't. The solution? Same thing: a trailer that disguised the language of the film itself and disclosed no subtitles to give pause to a prospective ticket-buyer. Schwartz thinks he might have done the same thing even earlier, but Dark Eyes is the one that really sticks in his memory. And he isn't proud of it. 'I never really believed we were fooling the public, particularly when the only place these trailers ever ran were in the very theaters that played the subtitled versions.'

Nonetheless, a trend had begun, and along with his colleagues at other companies, Schwartz remained committed to the new kind of trailer. After Island, he worked for the infamous Weinstein brothers at Miramax. During 1990-2, as their marketing guy, he imported the practice and fine tuned it. In February 1990, Cinema Paradiso broke records; in 1992, it was Meditteraneo. With the kind of full-on push that Harvey Weinstein is so famous for marshaling, the no-foreign-tongue trailer became a point of entry that Miramax adopted, sanctioned, and would virtually put on steroids for the remainder of the decade, all in the effort to increase the number of bodies (and dollars) for its foreign language films. Like the college guy who gets his date drunk to make sure he gets laid, the marketing departments of many distribution companies in the 1990s, especially the mini-majors, came to believe that if it were only possible to manipulate prospective audiences into the desired position, they'd say yes.

One of the most memorable trailers of this period wast the one introducing audiences in the summer of 1995 to Il Postino (The Postman): it used the voices of movie stars reading Pablo Neruda to imply that the voices declaiming in English were somehow excerpted from the Italian language, subtitled film.

The campaign for Shall We Dance?, the Japanese film about a salaryman who falls in love with ballroom dancing classes and his teacher, went even further. The trailer showed the couple dancing but made their race indeterminate, sustaining the illusion of the nonexistent dialogue; unlike Ran, it didn't allow the audience to peg nationality visually. The poster showed only dancing feet, shorn of nationality. A universal picture, indeed, especially with the characters pictorially decapitated and reduced down to fancy, and of course inherently non-verbal, footwork.

While it's the companies with muscle that have really pushed this strategy, even smaller companies have had to follow suit. Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo at the boutique distributor Zeitgeist Films admit to giving in to the trend and crafting no-translation-please trailers for films with crossover appeal. Defending the practice as inevitable in the current market, Gerstman points to the necessity of trying every trick possible to increase audiences at a difficult time for the quality films they distribute. Furthermore, Gerstman points out that trailers changed in many was during the 1990s that accelerated the move to drop dialogue: the pace sped up, the number o cuts increased, and in general trailers adopted a new form that was increasingly incompatible with all dialogue, whether in English or another language. Need I point out the practice also coincided with the full establishment of music videos? And channel-surfing, a practice that sped up television in an effort to grab viewers before they passed on? the shift away from foreign language trailers was as overdetermined as it was multifunctional.

In 2003, with a surprise success on their hands (the German film Nowhere in Africa by Caroline Link had won the Oscar for best foreign language film and taken in nearly $5 million by mid-spring), Gerstman and Russo had to become experts on the current status of subtitling, too. As it turns out, subtitling technologies had improved, first with laser processing and then with new fatter letters, outlined words, and semi-transparent bands that have contributed to increased legibility. The idea was that once the public was seduced into the theater by the notion that there are no subtitles, at least the subtitles that would meet the presumably resistant audience were better.

Jack Lechner, today a producer with Radical Media, spent the 1990s in the script development department at Miramax. He remains in awe of the effort that Harvey (by now, the first name alone suffices for identification) was willing to make to overcome the famous American resistance to subtitles. It didn't stop with trailers, either. In 1993, when Miramax was distributing the French film Les Visiteurs (The Visitors), Weinstein decided that a dubbed version would do better business. He hired Mel Brooks to supervise a full American re-cut and dub. Lechner recalled that it wasn't even released on video.

On the other hand, when Miramax acquired Princess Mononoke, the Japanese animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, Weinstein went all out: he hired Neil Gaiman to write the English adaptation and secured such notable actors as Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup, and Billy Bob Thornton to provide voices for the cartoon characters. This time, the strategy resulted in a huge hit. With no real-life characters, audiences were willing to accept the dubbed version.

When Miramax tried to repeat the gambit by releasing a dubbed version of Life is Beautiful, though, it failed again. And when Miramax crafted a similar campaign for Pinocchio in 2002, with advertisements that made it look like an animated film and with another star-studded roster of actors (such as Glenn Close) supplying voices, it was the biggest disaster yet.

If the good news is that American audiences won't accept dubbed movies, the bad news is that they don't seem to accept the alternative, either. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, 'even quality subtitles, however, don't bring in the crowds.' The article quotes Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a firm that monitors box office performance, as saying, 'American audiences generally don't want to go to the movies to read. They'd rather the experience flow over them, be spoon-fed rather than interactive. Reading dialogue takes them out of the movie, they say, shattering the illusion.'

[This essay was excerpted from a longer piece by B. Ruby Rich entitled 'To Read Or Not To Read: Subtitles, Trailers, and Monolingualism,' originally published in Subtitles: On the Foreigness of Film, edited by Atom Ergoyan and Ian Balfour (The MIT Press, 2004, pp. 157-162).]

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