US Films Don’t Translate

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As the Cannes Film Festival winds down, many were shocked that a small Romanian film about communism and abortion beat out the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel for the much coveted Palm d’Or. But it brought to the fore a trend in the global film business that might not be apparent to the average US movie-goer. While the US global blockbuster is still very much alive, local-language films have gained a stronger foothold in several key markets and — here’s the kicker — Hollywood is actually fueling the trend.

No dummies when it comes to money, film financiers worldwide have noticed that locally produced films are cheap to make and competitive at the box-office. As the LA Times reported last week, Sony, Disney, Universal and Fox have all jumped on the bandwagon, shifting investments from American fare to Chinese, Argentinean and German productions. And the promise of films like Kung Fu Hustle, a Hong Kong production that kicked bootie worldwide, further incentivize global financiers to place their bets widely.

While it used to be persnickety US audiences that wouldn’t abide bad dub-jobs and shaky subtitles, other markets that have long put up with lip-flap now refuse. In Japan, Brazil, South Korea and France, audiences flock to films that speak their language and represent their local culture. Media scholars like myself have long wondered how long it would take before US films suffered from “cultural discount,” that is, the diminished appeal of products rooted in an unfamiliar culture and produced in a foreign language. Looks like that time is now.

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