WORD OF MOUTH: Remaking foreign-language films in English

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Hollywood loves foreign-language films -- as long as it doesn’t have to release them.

American studios, producers and filmmakers are pursuing remakes of several prominent foreign titles -- including “Let the Right One In,” “Tell No One” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” -- even as most domestic distributors steer clear of everything with subtitles.

“It’s funny how many remakes there are,” says producer Rick Schwartz, who recently completed an English-language version of France’s “13 (Tzameti)” and is developing a Nicole Kidman-starring remake of Colombia’s “At the End of the Spectra.” “It really is a huge business.”

But not necessarily for the brave souls still committed to releasing the overseas movies in U.S. art houses. The original “13” grossed just $121,000 in domestic release; “Spectra” never made it to American theaters.

Of the nearly 1,000 foreign-language films released in the U.S. since 1980, only 22 have grossed more than $10 million, with more than 70% of them taking in less than $1 million, according to Attendance for overseas product has fallen by as much as 40% over the last five years, according to one estimate. It’s hard to say if the collapse is being driven by audience indifference, specialized film distributor downfalls (Miramax, Picturehouse, Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent and ThinkFilm all have vanished), unrealistic box-office expectations or a combination of the three. What’s undebatable is that, to some distributors these days, overseas imports are about as attractive as dramas about the Iraq war.

“They were treating these films as Hollywood fare, and it had a negative effect on everybody,” says Jonathan Sehring of IFC Films, which with Sony Pictures Classics and Music Box Films is among the most dedicated distributors of foreign fare. “The advances that were paid to the sales companies were out of whack, and the marketing costs were out of whack with what the return on investment was,” Sehring says.

“The cost of releasing these films is expensive, and people don’t want to put up the money to market them,” says Gloria Feldman of Circle Associates, who represents foreign distributors and producers. “They also play to a small art house circuit, and mainstream exhibitors don’t see enough money in return to exhibit them.”

Adds Glen Basner of the independent production and international sales company FilmNation Entertainment: “One of the biggest issues with foreign-language films is that they don’t qualify for pay TV deals, and that’s a key engine for U.S. distributors.”

Graded on a slight curve, there are nevertheless some recent success stories.

The 2008 Swedish vampire story “Let the Right One In” grossed more than $2.1 million domestically, while the 2006 French thriller “Tell No One” grossed $6.2 million. If Sweden’s 2009 crime drama “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” which opens in L.A. theaters this week, attracts a tenth as many American patrons as it has in Europe, it could join those minor hits.

The Niels Arden Oplev-directed adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s crime novel about disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist and quiet but fearless investigator Lisbeth Salander looking into a decades-old disappearance already has grossed more than $100 million globally. Those eye-popping returns are consistent with the blockbuster sales for the late author’s “Millennium” trilogy, which also includes “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

The first novel was released here in September 2008, debuting at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list in early October (there are more than 1.6 million copies of the book in print, and the paperback version hit No. 1 by the end of 2009). “The Girl Who Played With Fire” went on sale in July, and became the first translated work in 25 years to hit the top spot on the hardcover list. (The third book arrives in the states on May 25.)

Given the books’ popularity -- coupled with their often gothic violence and unforgettable characters -- it was little surprise that American companies wanted a piece. The English-language rights ultimately went to producer Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures, with “Schindler’s List” screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapting. Among those rumored to be interested in the American version: directors Sam Raimi and David Fincher, and actress Natalie Portman as Salander.

The foreign-language remake fetish is understandable.

In addition to looking for movies that have pre-sold awareness, studios also are searching for stories that already have been tested: There’s such an inherently good plot in the 2002 Hong Kong police drama “Infernal Affairs” that it didn’t take a huge leap to imagine it as 2006’s “The Departed.” Future remakes include Chloe Moretz in “Let Me In” (from “Let the Right One In”), Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in “The Tourist” (France’s “Anthony Zimmer”) and Russell Crowe “The Next Three Days” (France’s “Anything for Her”).

But the distributors of the foreign films aren’t banking that every ticket buyer will wait for the versions without subtitles.

“There is such great product out there,” says William Schopf, whose Music Box is releasing “Dragon Tattoo” and also handled “Tell No One.” He first watched the Larsson adaptation over the Internet, and even though the picture was tiny its impact was huge. Music Box soon made a deal to release all three of the Millennium films. “I was fascinated by it. It grabbed me,” Schopf says. The film will debut in about 30 cities on Friday, with more markets added in the coming weeks.

Roy Lee, one of the most active producers of foreign-language remakes (“The Departed,” “The Ring,” “The Grudge”) tried to buy the U.S. rights to “Dragon Tattoo,” calling Larsson’s book “as compelling a read as ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’ ” But he worries that the film’s huge overseas sales could crimp the international returns of the subsequent American version. “It’s a reason you might not want to make it,” he says.

Music Box’s Schopf says all the “Dragon Tattoo” remake attention is a nice compliment. “But I sure hope people see the film,” he says, “rather than just send e-mails about which actress should be in the remake.”