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By Hammad Zaidi | October 26, 2010

It’s 1 AM Sunday night and I just finished watching an amazing Indian film called My Name Is Khan (2010). I’ve never been a fan of Indian films, as nothing will put me to sleep faster than a three and a half hour singing and dancing marathon littered with blatant overacting and unrealistic romantic relationships. But, My Name Is Khan was different. It was extremely well written, beautifully shot and fiercely poignant. It was also void of singing and dancing, and surprisingly enough, it was readily available through Redbox, which made me think maybe I shouldn’t discount it too quickly. Along with the Academy Award winning gems Life Is Beautiful (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), My Name Is Khan is one of those magical foreign films that I soon won’t forget. It also sparked today’s article:  Release Strategies For Subtitled and Ethnic Films.

For the most part, subtitled and ethnic films have struggled to perform domestically and ethnic films have struggled even more internationally. Mind you, nobody in the international film sales world – including me – likes discussing how poorly ethnic films perform. But, if you’re a filmmaker who is about to embark on making a subtitled or ethnic film – the information in this article will help you strategize your release.

Before we dive into this, let’s get the exceptions out of the way.

On the subtitled side, The Passion Of The Christ (2004) made $370.274 million at the domestic box office, Slumdog Millionaire (2008) made $141.319 million (although it was based in English with some Hindi subtitles) and Life Is Beautiful (1997) made $57.598 million.

On the ethnic side, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) made $241.638 million domestically, both Will Smith’s and Eddie Murphy’s films have made billions of dollars over the years, Jackie Chan’s films have been solid financial ventures for decades, and Tyler Perry is printing money on his projects.

But, if you take away the top tier, a grim reality exists about releasing subtitled and ethnic films in America and beyond.

Here’s some insights you should know:

Only Large Waterfront Cities Love Subtitles…
You’re probably cringing at this paragraph, because you’re an astute film aficionado who loves subtitled films.  But, most people have never even heard of Life Is Beautiful (1997) or Amelie (2001) or Cinema Paradisio (1990), much less having seen them. The ironic thing is, all three of these cinematic gems were hits domestically. They made the majority of their money in large metropolitan waterfront cities (i.e. New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago). Meaning, if you offered the average person in North Dakota or South Carolina $100 to tell you what any of these pictures were about, you probably wouldn’t wind up being any lighter in your wallet or purse. That’s not a hit against the good folks of North Dakota and South Carolina; it’s just the truth of how subtitled films sell in America.

So, if you’re a filmmaker or producer making a subtitled film, you should do your research about which cities, and more specifically which neighborhoods have traditionally supported subtitled films. Then find a theater that will allow you to four wall your film (that is if you’re going down this road without a distributor). Remember to contact local publications that may give you ink or web space about your release, (free publicity is always good), and make sure you have a publicity crew on the streets plastering flyers and handing out postcards about your film. You should also have a clever website that appeals to the community you’re trying to have embrace your film, as well as a corresponding viral campaign that’s targeted to that community. The key is to start a groundswell of positivity in areas most likely to love your film. Having a few sold-out or nearly sold-out screenings in a neighborhood theater will go a long way toward getting you distribution.

International Territories Are More Accepting Of Subtitles
This is because they’re going to have to subtitle your film into their language anyway. Thus, it may make sense to sell your subtitled film overseas before you release it domestically. You’ll have performance statistics from foreign territories and you’ll have an article or two about how wonderful your film is; both of which will help you with your domestic release.

The key here is to understand the world is your oyster and you have to look at the entire globe to build your release strategy. Don’t let your ego or emotions get in the way; just because your film doesn’t start out in America, doesn’t mean it can’t wind up being a smash hit here. It’s all about doing the best for your film, and in turn, doing the best for you.

A Successful Dub Of A Subtitled Film Is Genre Dependent
While a great dub job can do miracles for a film’s domestic box office, a poor dub job will make the film instantaneously comedic – even if it wasn’t meant to be. The film’s genre also matters a great deal regarding if the dub is deemed successful. For example, action films and physical comedies are far easier to dub, because there’s less lines of dialogue in them. There are also gunshots, explosions and wildly humorous situations deterring the viewers’ attention away from the mouths of the characters. On that note, Sci-Fi films are easy to dub too, because many of the characters are drabbed in uniforms, helmets and other outfits that hide their mouth movements. Animated movies also dub well for similar reasons.

Dramas and romantic comedies are difficult to dub believably, because so much of the focus is on the main characters’ expressions and dialogue. Furthermore, certain phrases don’t translate well from language to language. Dramas and romantic comedies also have more close ups and heart wrenching moments, which demand more focus on the characters.

Ethnic Films Don’t Sell Well Overseas
They just don’t, and film buyers worldwide reflect this truth in the offers they make on ethnic films. Of course Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Jackie Chan films do well internationally, (but, of course those are all huge, studio backed monstrosities.) Some Bollywood films hold their own outside of Asia, but for the most part the offers for ethnic films are far lower than they are for non-ethnic films.

Ethnic Films Don’t Sell Well Domestically
I’m not talking about star-studded studio films; I’m talking about indies. They just hold a lesser value than non-ethnic films to both distributors and viewing audiences alike. I’m not saying domestic audiences don’t love them, I’m just saying these films make less money than non-ethnic films. That’s why their foreign values are traditionally lower; because most foreign values are based upon what the film does domestically.

If you’re releasing an ethnic film in America, just follow the same guidelines of how to release a subtitled film (target specific cities, neighborhoods, theaters, publications and have a hip website and corresponding viral campaign), and rest assured you’re doing everything you can to help your film.

Please be clear in understanding that I find this truth about the international film sales world to be utterly disgusting and there’s nothing I’d love more than for your film to be the “game changer” that makes this idiotic rule obsolete. But, until then, it’s my mission to provide you with information you’ll need to position your project in the best possible light, regardless of how unsettling that information is.

Subtitled films and ethnic films are vital components to the world of cinema, because they shed light into cultures that many of us may not experience otherwise. They are enriching, entertaining, and essential, and I encourage you to make them. Never let horrible “rules of the game” deter you from playing the game, as with any game, rules are made to be broken.

Here’s to you helping to shatter these age-old rules and creating a world where our future children can develop whatever films they want, without even considering what language they’re making them in, or what ethnicities they choose to tell their stories through.

Thanks for lending me your eyes and I’ll see you next Tuesday.

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