Foreign language films have never been popular with American audiences. It’s only a small portion of even art house or indie audiences who more than occasionally watch a film in a language other than English.
Americans are notorious for being “American audiences—even sophisticated ones—appear to be insular, provincial and possibly xenophobic,” as the article in ReelPolitik mentions. It’s well known that, compared with the citizens of most other countries, Americans are much less likely to speak any other languages. However, it also seems they don’t like to read subtitles either.
Indie audiences certainly go through phases when French, Italian, Chinese and Spanish films are trendy, at least up to a point. However, it’s only a handful of directors who can command any kind of audience for these films. Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and a few other French directors have always held certain American audiences captive, especially in the 70s and 80s.
All sophisticated movie fans will have seen a few of Fellini’s masterpieces. More recently, we’ve seen the rise of Spanish language films, most notably by Pedro Almodovar and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (the Mexican director who created Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel).
Yet, the fact remains that the vast majority of American moviegoers seldom, if ever, watch foreign films. And even theaters that show art house films only show non-English language movies every so often. Why is this the case?
It really goes back to the fact that Americans, for the most part, only speak English. And while reading subtitles allows viewers to understand the dialog, let’s face it -it takes a certain amount of effort, and the kind that we’re not used to putting forth when watching a movie. Arguably, the effort it takes to read the subtitles detracts from our ability to take in the medium of cinema as it’s meant to be seen -as visual images combined with dialog. It turns the experience into more of a left-brained experience, more like reading -which, of course it is.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of films with subtitles. In my opinion, it’s well worth the effort if the film is good. It’s simply an explanation of why foreign language films will never be hugely successful in the U.S.