Language Barrier Slows Movie Releases


With more than half of Hollywood’s box-office revenues coming from foreign audiences, shipping movies quickly is critical. By the time a movie opens overseas, usually months after its domestic debut, bootleg copies have siphoned off much of the ticket-paying audience.

One obstacle preventing simultaneous foreign releases of major movies is the antiquated and often expensive process of dubbing or subtitling a film. All the major studios continue to rely on a decades-old system of inserting subtitles on film prints that dates back to the 1930s. That’s because studios have not invested in technologies to convert English-language films for foreign audiences. They prefer to wait until the arrival of digital movie projection, which will eliminate the delays caused by the cumbersome process of etching words on individual frames of film.

“Subtitles seem like such a trivial thing,” said James Korris, chief executive of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center. But “it really has an impact on a lot of things.”


The delay, which can amount to several months, contributes to the $2.5 billion a year in worldwide losses due to piracy, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. The lag time also prevents the studios from taking full advantage of their multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns.

“We would like to capitalize on a lot of the marketing that is already going on,” said Gray Ainsworth, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.’s senior vice president for technical services. “It’s tough because you have to create these foreign versions almost simultaneously with the release, and you can’t finish that process until the film is finished.”

So studios make do with a handful of older techniques for readying their films for the foreign market. Studios dub films in a foreign language for distribution in 10 markets, including France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Russia and Thailand. Movies geared for children also are dubbed.

“The principles of all of what we do here go back to the late 1930s,” said Rob Dekker, managing director of Titra of California, based in Glendale, one of two local shops that do most of Hollywood’s subtitling work. “Not much has changed.”

Dubbing is more expensive--adding at least $70,000 per movie release--than subtitling because voice actors must be hired to record new soundtracks. The process can take months, and often studios are at the mercy of a voice actor’s schedule. Only a few actors are used for the voices of Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and other popular actors so that foreign audiences who frequent their movies hear the same voice from one movie to the next.

Most of the foreign market, however, receives subtitled films. Subtitled films are sent to more than 40 markets, including most of Latin America and Asia.


There are three basic subtitling techniques. Laser etching is the most common method and can be the least expensive if the studio plans to subtitle only about a dozen prints. It costs about $700 to laser-etch each print, Dekker said, but the costs mount if the studio orders more than about 20 copies.

Laser etching “is the most expensive way, but in limited quantities it becomes the cheapest,” said George Hively, a film editor at Sony Pictures Entertainment in Culver City and a 46-year veteran of the business.

But laser etching is slow. The words are literally etched on the bottom of each 35-millimeter frame. And it takes about seven hours to laser-etch one copy of a film. But on the dialogue-heavy “America’s Sweethearts,” lasers labored for 12 hours to subtitle a single print for shipment to Puerto Rico.

Studios use another method if they plan to distribute hundreds of subtitled prints. In this case, a clear overlay containing the subtitled dialogue is combined with the film negative, which is then re-shot to strike new subtitled prints. It costs about $6,000 for the overlay, in addition to the cost of each print, $2,100.

The third method is the most expensive--and least common. Reserved for foreign films in wide release, such as Sony Pictures’ “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the method adds subtitles before the film negative is made. This process costs about twice as much, or about $12,000 per negative, Dekker said.

“But once you have an integrated negative, that’s it,” Dekker said.

Several companies have tinkered with devising a more efficient system, including DTS, an Agoura Hills firm that produces one of three competing digital sound systems for theaters. DTS has been working on a stand-alone digital subtitling system that the company says could save studios money by eliminating the need for labs to laser-etch subtitles on film prints and overlays.


Instead, DTS’ system projects digital subtitles directly onto the screen. The system, scheduled to be introduced to theaters this fall,would be used primarily in foreign cinemas and at film festivals.

Under the DTS system, studios could send a computer disk to theaters containing the movie dialogue in up to 40 languages, along with a film print. Theater operators could simply load the disk and punch up subtitles in whatever language they wanted.

“We are trying to find a solution that fits within the current framework,” said Jon Kirchner, president and chief operating officer of DTS. “Because the subtitles are separate from the film, you can turn them on and off. Now, once you have Japanese subtitles on there, it’s finished. You can’t send that print to China or Brazil.”

DTS has been working for two years on the portable projector, which it plans to sell for about $12,000.

Yet all of these subtitling systems might someday go the way of the eight-track tape.

“The technology is sitting right on the horizon,” Hively said.

That technology is digital cinema, in which a digital image is projected directly on the screen and does not require physical contact between a projector and a strip of film. Film prints would be replaced with digital files that could be beamed to theaters or shipped on a disk. That would wipe out the need for labs that laser-etch subtitles print by print. Instead, subtitles would be included on the computer disk sent to theaters along with the digitized images.

But industry experts estimate that it will take at least a decade before digital projectors begin replacing the old reel projectors. The biggest problem is paying for the new system, and theater owners, many of whom have been struggling through bankruptcy, aren’t willing to spend the estimated $150,000 per screen for the conversion.


Studios have the most to gain from the conversion because digital cinema would eliminate the need to spend nearly $800 million a year making prints for distribution.

“We view the transition to digital cinema as the ultimate solution to some of these problems,” said John Fithian of the National Assn. of Theater Operators. “It addresses the needs for access for the deaf and the hearing impaired.”