A One Way Street: Foreign Films in America

William Wasielewski

I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and raised an hour north in Appleton, Wisconsin, a small metro area of about 250K people. Being raised in an area with a small town feel, yet a number of niche groups around, movies became a large part of my life. I started college in the fall of 2006 - attempting first a Journalism degree, then a Radio/TV/Film degree. Three years later, seven majors later, and $12,000 dollars in debt, I decided to drop out of school and pursued truck driving. A year and a half later, I deliver pizzas for a living and quietly work on a number of manuscripts I hope to have published one day (and I've never been happier).

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15 Responses

  1. Wildling says:

    The fact The Good The Bad The Weird wasn’t the biggest blockbuster of the year when it was released still boggles my brain.

  2. Travis McClain says:

    Unfortunately, film is a microcosm for seeing two of our worst traits as Americans. The first is, despite celebrating our reputation as the great melting pot of humanity, ethnic diversity is only really accepted in large, urban environments. Throughout the rest of the country, you learn to speak Americanized English as best you can so your community will tolerate you. Being, or at least looking, like a WASP will help.

    The other part of the equation is, there’s a very pronounced anti-intellectualism streak in our country. Foreign films are dismissed as “artsy” and “uppity” by the masses. It doesn’t matter that a film might not actually *be* pretentious; by virtue of not being made “in Uhmurrica” it is regarded as such.

    Look at the venues that actually bother to screen such fare and you’ll see those places enjoy a reputation for drawing the artsy crowd. This only exacerbates the high brow/low brow divide, because there’s a sense that if the movie wasn’t just for snobs, it would be playing somewhere else. (Of course, then you get into a chicken and egg debacle.)

    I am surprised that so far no Spanish language releases have had a major release in the United States, given our growing Hispanic population. Surely, the audience isn’t hard to find. I suspect the absence to date owes more to the increasingly open hostility toward Hispanics in America than to any business sense that such a release would be foolhardy. If you have to produce papers for not being “American” enough in Arizona, who wants to risk advertising a wide release of a movie with Hispanics as its target demographic?

  3. William Wasielewski says:

    Travis, the whole though of “artsy” types being those who adore foreign films is sort of a double edged sword. I originally started watching these types of films as a teenage rebellion. Now it is almost as if I am on a crusade to bring foreign enjoyment to friends and family. However, had foreign films already been somewhat popular, I may never have gotten into them.

    As for your point about there being no major Spanish releases, I can envision a problem with a Spanish release. If a film is released in Spanish with no English subtitles, there will be a demonstration against it and politically it would become far too large of a talking point.

  4. Travis McClain says:


    I suspect many fans come to foreign films in a state of rebellion. Some, against the endless clones of blockbusters; others, against the cliched drivel that too often passes for “thoughtful” Hollywood. Yes, a certain amount of that is needed to keep what little presence these films have in the U.S. going, but I suspect that many will find their way for other reasons in the coming years.

    Firstly, the Internet makes it much easier for people to be introduced to things that aren’t brought to their attention by a mass marketing campaign on TV. For instance, I’m on Twitter, and I follow Roger Ebert. He, in turn, has introduced me to India’s Natasha Badhwar. I haven’t watched any of her work yet, but I’m aware of her and am interested. As social networking proliferates our daily lives, I think some of these walls will fall.

    The other thing about foreign films that is encouraging is that I get the impression that a lot of fans of American re-makes are taking the time to explore the original versions of their favorite movies. I hear about it a lot among horror fans, who seem to wait for someone to mention a movie so they can respond by saying, “The original Japanese version was much better!”

    It’s this kind of pretentious, snobbish behavior that I think alienates a lot of casual viewers, but I think it also demonstrates that a sizable audience *is* evolving for foreign films.

    As for a Spanish language wide release, you’re absolutely right: it would invite an Us vs. Them condemnation from the “We speak English in America” crowd. And it’s a shame, because I have a very difficult time believing that no Spanish language movie would perform well in the United States. I would expect English subtitles for such a release, just as is common for other non-English movies. It would be insufficient, of course, for the increasingly hostile anti-Hispanic segment of our population whose petty fears must apparently be abated at the cost of introducing worthy art into our theater halls.

  5. Adam says:

    If you’re a foreign producer or director who wants to make a big-budget movie, where do you go?


  6. FitFortDanga says:

    It’s funny how this very site is a reflection of the problem. Wanna know how many of the top 100 movies at Flickchart are foreign-language? ZERO. None, zip, zilch, nada. You have to go all the way down to #137… which is, of course, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. (You could make the argument that #136, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is a foreign language film, but c’mon… no one watches it that way).

    Roughly two-thirds of my top 100 are foreign language. I don’t mean to sound snobbish (though I’m sure it comes off that way) but I do feel a bit out of place on sites like this.

  7. Nathan Chase says:


    Well, the good thing is that it’s your list – and no one else’s. It’s true that Flickchart is heavily slanted towards a more populist American opinion because that’s the userbase. We do plan to offer ways for you to be able to see what’s the best just among you and your friends; so you can see how your circle of film aficionados appreciate movies.

  8. William Wasielewski says:

    Interesting about the first Foreign Language film being at #137 … Amelie & Pan’s Labryinth are within 10 spots of that. Then you have to go all the way to #359 for City of God. After this it begins to sprinkle in with The Pianist and Seven Samurai up to #400. Then, it’s another gap into the 700’s.

    Like Nathan said, it’s just a reflection of our culture (although I believe the percentages of people out of the group who have watched foreign films would be higher on this site; I feel those more likely to be interested in foreign films are more internet savvy as it is much easier now to find good foreign films with the internet. Kind of a chicken or the egg thing) and I would expect nothing else. It is interesting to note the percentages of Won compared to percentages of Seen. Most of the foreign films in the top 100 are over 50% won but have low %seen, and many of the films which outrank them are low %won and high %seen.

    Also, the comment about The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (and other Leone films) is a hard topic. What is even a harder film to look at, is Sukayaki Western Django. I don’t even want to think of what the classification is of that film.

  9. KingofPain says:

    I don’t really view Flickchart as a place to meet people who think about movies like me, but rather as a place to understand how I think about movies. I’ll watch pretty much anything, and my Top 100 has a mixture of genres and languages. I think to fully get something out of a site like Flickchart, people need to have a diverse pool of movies to compare. There’s only so much enlightenment that can be achieved by comparing American-made blockbusters from the last thirty or so years.

    If you can compare Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles against Schwarzenegger’s Raw Deal, then you can play with the big boys.

  10. fishbiscuit says:

    I think there is a simple conclusion for me anyways. I work in a video store and I will describe a lot of foreign titles to the customers and they will light up and get excited. However once I reveal the title is subtitled they immediately lose interest. I ask why does that make a difference? They just reply that they don’t want to read all the subtitles and they want to be lazy and set their brain aside when watching a film. I just stand there and sigh.

    I agree though. I really wanted to see the movie Departures when it was nominated for best foreign film. I couldn’t find any where to watch it and it wasn’t even playing in my state. The closest location I could see it was in like Texas or New York which are on the other side of the country. I waited until DVD but it was worth the wait. It just amazes me how foreign films are left out of mainstream. I mean Inglourious Basterds was released worldwide and there was SOME subtitles but people I knew were getting pissed at that because they had to *GASP* READ!!!!!

    Who knows maybe one day I will find a theater that will play foreign films locally.

  11. RagingBullwinkle says:

    Unfortunately Hollywood produces concept oriented product that they can sell in 30 seconds or less to drive box office, while the rest of the world (including American Indie’s) produce film in a quality oriented fashion.

    It’s too bad that mainstream audiences are just too sold on the former and have a hard time breaking the habit. The problem is how to expose “The Lives of Others’s” and the “White Ribbon”s to those who have never heard of them?

    The good news is that box office isn’t the best indicator of exposure any more thanks to DVD’s and the availability of foreign titles online. I think audiences are hungry for good films. Either I’m just getting older or the films are getting worse but it’s rare when there are even a four or five films a year that I really want to see anymore coming out of Hollywood.

    Secondly, the internet is becoming a great tool for exposing audience to good titles, and sites like Flickchart and imdb and other mainstream sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are slowly getting a foot hold on exposing audiences to the quality market. and the real finds which are overseas in Europe and Asia and occasionally in the Independent realm here in North America.

    I discovered foreign films in high school thanks to my obsessive love of films and wanting to see all the greats (Kurosawa, Truffaut, Antonioni, Bergman etc.) I remember reading how Hollywood films were considered merely popcorn entertainment until the French critics saw otherwise. But that Hollywood doesn’t exist much anymore though I still think there are sparks of it in film-makers like the Coen Brothers.

  12. aphexbr says:

    It’s a catch-22 in many ways. The perception is that foreign language movies won’t sell, so the majors usually don’t bother. So, only independent distributors pick them up, and they can’t afford to distribute them widely. So, they’re not “successful” compared to Hollywood standards, which leads to the perception that they don’t sell, and… so on.

    I’m glad that in recent years movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and Hero have been financially successful (I’ve always found Crouching Tiger rather overrated), the trick now is to convince larger distributors that these weren’t one-offs and that a market exists for them. There’s a lot of movies that have lots of potential mainstream appeal but are buried (recent examples include The Orphanage, District B13, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).

    For example, I think the studios missed a trick with [REC], an excellent Spanish horror movie. Rather than release the original, they remade it as Quarantine and made a mild profit. However, the sequel to [REC] goes in directions that a Quarantine 2 cannot possibly follow as the US movie excised the supernatural angle that’s now key to the series.

    With [REC] 3 & 4 both currently in pre-production and the fact that the second movie was also excellent, a lot of time and expense could have been saved by simply releasing the original and following up with sequels. Perhaps it would have been less successful to begin with, but there’s a potential cash cow that’s been missed because the studios assume English speakers are too ignorant.

  13. I’m a member of another movie website and each month there’s a different themed challenge. This month, the theme is the Criterion Collection and I’ve (finally!) had the impetus to explore some of the highlights of foreign cinema.

    For instance, late last night I watched “M,” about a child predator in 1930s Germany. It was just as captivating as any crime drama I’ve ever seen, and it was fascinating to actually sympathize with German characters in a movie after years of seeing them portrayed as cruel villains.

    This afternoon I saw my first-ever Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles on a Summer Night.” I had to pause it for about 20 minutes due to my Crohn’s disease, and when I resumed playing I forgot to keep reading the subtitles! I was so into the movie, I’d become oblivious to the fact I was even reading them.

  14. Kevin (Ket) says:

    “I am surprised that so far no Spanish language releases have had a major release in the United States, given our growing Hispanic population. Surely, the audience isn’t hard to find. I suspect the absence to date owes more to the increasingly open hostility toward Hispanics in America than to any business sense that such a release would be foolhardy. If you have to produce papers for not being “American” enough in Arizona, who wants to risk advertising a wide release of a movie with Hispanics as its target demographic?”

    Actually, I can’t cite where I read it. But I believe French cinema used to be very popular in America. Then, after 9/11, they apparently took a dip in popularity. I believe this was around the time where it was the thing to do to eat freedom fries instead of French fries.

    I used to think it was all about fear of subtitles and lack of marketing power. To a degree, it probably still is about these. But more and more, I’m beginning to feel like there is outright hostility toward the foreign in America these days. Or “Don’t buy Jap crap” as the graffiti likes to put it. The idea that viewers of foreign films are “pretentious” and “rebellious” stems from somewhere, and I believe it is at least partially because of a shift towards a belief that to engage the non-American is un-American.

    I hate to put political viewpoints behind this as I hate talking about politics. But it does feel like there has been a rise in conservativism in our country. Film buffs like Roger Ebert (who is a huge supporter of the distribution of foreign films in America) are very open about their liberal democrat beliefs. Acclaimed, and even mainstream, foreign films tend to have backgrounds that would be seen as more left wing than right wing by our country’s standards. Example: An immensely popular Thai film was [i]Love of Siam[/i], which went over well with audiences in Thailand as well as other countries like Taiwan and Japan. One of the central themes of the movie was homosexuality. In America, only “pretentious”, “artsy”, “uppity” movies go into subjects like this.

    Of course, not everybody would be so petty, but I do feel many Americans don’t look to foreign films because…well…they’re foreign and that’s all there is to it.

  1. July 6, 2010

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