First-half 2009 statistics on independent films point to some not-so-obvious differences between foreign-language and English-language movies. They also highlight some not-so-surprising commonalities.
Foreign-language films that are released into the domestic theatrical marketplace seldom, if ever, open at more than 1000 theaters. Furthermore, very few are produced by one of the six major American studios. Thus, by examining foreign-language films that played at 1000 domestic theatrical venues or fewer on their opening weekend, we get a solid picture of the domestic market for foreign-language independent films. (For more info on the limited-release theatrical market and independent films, see â€œThe Market for Independent Films: A Mid-Year Analysis.â€)
In the first half of 2009, this pool of limited-release films consisted of 66 foreign-language movies, only four of which were financed by an American major. 130 English-language films were released during the same time period, with eight of them receiving studio financing.
One of the major differences between these two groups is in their use of stars. As in Hollywood Economics by Arthur De Vany (p. 231), â€œstarâ€ here refers to an actor who has previously been the lead in a feature grossing at least $50 million in domestic box office. Naturally, most foreign-language (FL) films are produced in other countries using more local, or at least regional, talent. So, it follows, fewer stars would appear in FL pictures, and this is indeed the case. Only 2 out of the 66 FL features had at least one star in the cast, versus 60 out of the 130 English-language (EL) films.
The question that naturally follows from this is: How did the two groups of films compare in terms of performance? Using Quarter 1 (Q1) box office figures, since many Quarter 2 films have not completed their runs, we see that for Q1 films as a whole (both FL and EL) only 20 out of 95 breached the $500k mark. Of these 20, 12 were EL and 8 were FL. The 8 FL films had zero stars and 8 of the EL films had at least one star. This result tends to fall in line with academic research showing that stars have almost no effect on increasing box office upside (see Hollywood Economics, p. 67).
Another distinction between FL and EL pictures appears in their use of private equity financing. 56% of EL films had budgets comprised primarily of private equity (i.e., more than 70% of the budget) compared to only 17% of FL pictures. FL pictures typically avoid the heavy need for private equity by relying on some form of distributor backing, often coupled with government support. 62% of FL films had at least one distributor involved in their financing, in contrast to only 27% of EL features. (None of the aforementioned private equity films were included in these 62% and 27% totals.) Remember, a distributor can be anything from a major motion picture studio to a pay TV or government-funded broadcaster.
Turning to commonalities, two chief ones stick out: festivals and genres. 85% of EL pictures debuted at a festival prior to their domestic theatrical release, while 71% of FL projects did the same. In fact, if reissues and Indian releases are removed, the FL figure climbs to 100% â€“ Indian films that play in North America do not typically debut at festivals. FL and EL indies are heavily dependent on festival play to generate interest and word-of-mouth among distributors and potential audiences. Distributors often key their acquisition decisions off of how a film is received at a particular festival.
In terms of genre, this is where indie films, regardless of language, live up to their reputations as odd creatures of high drama. 62% of first-half 2009 FL films were dramas, with the second most popular genre being comedy, at only 12%. When it came to EL limited releases, 36% were dramas, followed by documentaries and comedies at 28% and 13%, respectively. In the EL market, some of the audience demand for drama is sated by documentaries, a genre which leans toward the serious treatment of subject matter. FL documentaries were only 5% of the FL total â€“ not surprising, given that many docs are very language heavy.
The raw data for this article can be found here.
Jeremy Juuso is the author of Getting the Money: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writing Business Plans for Film. He is also the founder of Jeremy Juuso Consulting (www.jeremyjuuso.com), a firm specializing in the writing of film business proposals, analysis of film data, and education of investors on the basics of the movie business. He may be reached at email@example.com.