Header Ads

Breaking News

After ‘Parasite,’ Are Subtitles Still a One-Inch Barrier for Americans?


Last month, when Bong Joon Ho, the South Korean director of the film “Parasite,” accepted the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, he teased American moviegoers that a whole world of wonderful cinema awaited them beyond Hollywood.

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong said during his acceptance speech.

In the United States, foreign language films with subtitles rarely gain the traction that “Parasite” has. It won over both audiences and critics and raked in more than $35 million on its way to winning four Academy Awards on Sunday, capping a glittering awards season with a best picture Oscar. It was the first film not in English to take home the top prize in the Academy’s 92-year history.

It was a seismic night for fans of foreign films in the United States, where moviegoers have historically preferred their popular films in English. And it left some wondering: Are those one-inch-tall subtitles still a barrier?

Even before “Parasite,” a thriller about the class divide in South Korea, took off, there were signs that things had begun to shift for subtitled entertainment in the United States. The film joined a small group of subtitled films that have broken through to mainstream success in Hollywood over the last two decades, like “Roma” (2018), “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), “Amelie” (2001) and “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (2000), a Chinese drama that earned $128 million, making it the highest grossing foreign language film in the United States.

Over the same period, as streaming services have replaced network and cable television, subtitles have also gained a stronger toehold on smaller screens, from cellphones to TV sets.

Researchers credit the shift in part to two factors. The first is a 2016 rule from the Federal Communications Commission that made it mandatory for a TV show that has been captioned for broadcast to also be captioned when it is posted online or on a streaming service such at Netflix or Hulu. The second factor, they say, is Netflix itself. It is the most popular streaming platform in the United States, with more than 60 million paid subscribers, and much of its original content is in languages other than English.

More than 50 percent of the audiences for the Netflix shows “Dark,” which is in German, and “3%”, which is in Portuguese, are international.

A Netflix spokeswoman pointed to “Narcos,” a series about drug dealers in Mexico and Colombia. It has scenes in both Spanish and English, and uses subtitles for the Spanish dialogue, but that hasn’t kept the show from being popular, she said.

For people who dislike subtitles, common complaints have been that they distract from the action onscreen, are hard to focus on, or that reading them can feel like work if a plot is complicated. Dubbing, in which speech in the target audience’s language replaces the original dialogue, is an easier alternative, some say.

And it’s true that watching a movie with subtitles is cognitively different than watching one without, experts say.

“Whenever you are watching a movie there is a whole orchestra’s worth of things happening in your brain,” said Jeffrey Zacks, a professor of psychology and brain science at Washington University.

“That information includes what the words are and how they are ordered but also information about pitch and amplitude, which tells you a lot about emotional expression,” he added.

The need to read to understand what is going on means you have to use other parts of your brain, according to Tim Smith, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at Birkbeck, University of London.

But there is no scientific proof that the extra cognitive load is what keeps people from plopping down in front of a screen to read and watch a subtitled movie, Smith said.

Rather, the extra work does not necessarily detract from the experience the movie has to offer, he said.

“When you’re watching a subtitled movie, you have to be engaged with the screen and be more attached, but once you engage with that, you can have as rich an experience as if it were your language,” he said.

When it comes to subtitled films, there’s what happens in your brain, and there’s what happens in the entertainment business.

In the 1930s, subtitles for foreign-language films were called English explanatory titles. One man who translated over 300 films in the early Hollywood era, Herman G. Weinberg, was profiled in 1947 by The New Yorker, which called him the “nuance preserver.” He started with literal translations from the original language, and then worked from there.

“We’re adapters, rather than translators,” he told the magazine of the work he and his three assistants performed. “We try not to lose any wisecracks, even if it means stepping up the pace, because an American will hear a couple of Frenchmen in the audience howl at a joke in French and it burns him up not to be in on it.”

Weinberg was credited with the superimposed titles for the smash hit German film “Zwei Herzen im Dreiviertel-Takt,” or Two Hearts in Waltz Time. The film is considered by many to be the first subtitled for the American market.

Through the 1950s, subtitled foreign language films were marketable in the United States, according to Carol O’Sullivan, a historian of film translation at the University of Bristol in the U.K.

“There were two big audiences for subtitled films,” she said. “You were either really well-read or were from an immigrant community that knew the language,” she said.

Back then, movies from around the world were mainly being shown in New York, she said, and if they found success there, they would be shown elsewhere.

But few foreign films could ever surpass a Hollywood movie at the box office, O’Sullivan said.

In the 1970s, as American films became more experimental, diverse and exciting, the marketability of foreign language films diminished, Dr. O’Sullivan said, adding that not much has changed.

“The situation has always been that there are more standout successes,” she said.

Theater owners, from national chains to local independents, have yet to find the surefire formula to marketing a subtitled foreign language film.

About a decade ago, the national theater chain AMC decided it wanted to show more subtitled films — and make money doing it. To help with the effort, it hired Nikkole Denson-Randolph to be the vice president of content strategy and inclusive programming.

Despite a growing acceptance of subtitles, a movie still has to be captivating to make it in the American market, Denson-Randolph said.

“There are a couple of distributors who have kind of figured out how to attract a younger psyche,” Denson-Randolph said. “Films that can attract attention are very character-driven.”

“Parasite,” she said, had what it took to succeed in the American market, including a hefty marketing budget.

“Inherently the film was slick, and the direction was gorgeous, she said. “It is much harder when you don’t have a budget and you’re targeting a different audience.”

For the past 10 years, Denson-Randolph has brought more subtitled foreign language movies to American screens, some from China and some from India’s Bollywood.

“We are opening dozens of subtitled foreign language films a month, some on one screen, some on 10, as we learn what our guests are looking to watch,” Denson-Randolph said, adding that AMC has not yet been able to crack the code.

“We have seen a lot of distributors attempt to produce the same magic as ‘Parasite,’” she said. “But if you don’t know who the audience is, it’s hard to make them work.”

In the art world, subtitled films can always find an audience, said O’Sullivan, the film translation historian.

“Subtitled films cannot compete with Hollywood in market terms but they could compete in cultural prestige terms,” she said. “They have always been more important in cultural circles.”

In the past, theaters were selective about what movies they showed, because of limited distribution. For many subtitled films, audiences had to go to special cinemas. But with digital distribution and streaming, there is a larger opportunity for a wider audience to watch foreign films.

Today Netflix adds subtitles to their content in 28 languages, allowing their content to be marketable in different countries.

“We’re seeing a growing number of our members choosing shows and films that transcend borders, and cultures,” a Netflix spokeswoman said.

Watching a movie with subtitles may require more brain activity but cinema is a great way to look at the world, said Dennis Lim, the director of programming at Film at Lincoln Center, one of New York’s premiere independent theaters.

“What it requires is orienting your eyes and your body and your cognitive system to stay on that task,” Zacks, the Washington University professor, said. “You don’t need so much.”

Source link

No comments