Although Hollywood movies are making more money than ever overseas, it’s still a struggle for foreign films to sell tickets in the United States.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" collected nearly a billion dollars abroad this year, the most of any American studio production. About $120 million of that sum came from one country — Japan. Other U.S. films that hit big overseas this year were also sequels: “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” made more than $800 million, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” sold around $770 million worth of tickets, and “Kung Fu Panda 2" ended up with about $500 million.
In contrast, the highest-grossing foreign-language film this year in the U.S. so far has brought in $7.7 million. That movie is “Sarah’s Key,” a part-English, part-French drama starring Kristin Scott Thomas in an adaptation of author Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel about World War II.
Other foreign films that caught on with American audiences this year include “Biutiful,” a drama set in Spain from a Mexican filmmaker that earned a best foreign-language film Oscar nomination as well as a lead actor nod for star Javier Bardem; “Of Gods and Men,” a French picture with strong religious themes; the Indian film “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” about three friends on a bachelor trip; and “The Skin I Live In,” a Spanish film directed by Pedro Almodóvar.
All told, these films have taken in about $22 million total at the box office stateside, according to data compiled by Hollywood.com. In each of the last four years, the top five foreign-language films released in the U.S. have collected, together, no more than $40 million. The year 2006 saw a bit of a surge in foreign film-going, driven largely by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which attracted a more commercial audience and grossed almost $40 million.
Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which released “Of Gods and Men” and “The Skin I Live In,” said that despite this year’s tepid figures, foreign films are finding audiences beyond the typical art house theaters in big cities.
“That film had a special resonance for the Catholic audience, so our marketing campaign got to churches and priests and ministers in the South and Texas. When we started several years ago, so many of the foreign films would only open in New York and nowhere else,” said Barker, whose film unit has a number of foreign films coming out in the next few months, including Iran’s “A Separation” and Poland’s “In Darkness.” “What’s been interesting to me is that the DVD and video-on-demand marketplace has caused audiences to be more sophisticated, because they have access to films they didn’t have access to before.”