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Foreign Language European Films in UK Cinemas

Subtitled dramas like The Killing and The Bridge have become a regular feature of British TV schedules  over recent years. Yet UK cinema admissions for foreign language European films remain low. Huw D Jones explores this paradox.

Last Saturday over 1 million Britons tuned-in to watch the Italian detective series Inspector De Luca, the latest foreign language import to be shown in BBC Four’s Saturday evening drama slot.

Ever since the introduction of Spiral in 2006, foreign language dramas have been a regular part of the BBC Four schedule. Shows like The Killing and The Bridge have frequently drawn over 1 million viewers, along with acres of newspaper coverage and social media chatter.

French comedy drama Untouchables was a hit across Europe in 2012, except in the UK.

French comedy drama Untouchables was a hit across Europe in 2012, except in the UK.

And it’s not just BBC Four. Rival Channel 4 scored a hit last year with the French supernatural drama The Returned and recently premiered the Norwegian thriller Mammon on More4, its sister channel. Meanwhile, Sky Arts has just acquired the rights for The Legacy, a ten-part Danish family drama, having previously shown foreign language dramas from Italy (Romanzo Criminale), France (Braquo) and Spain (Grand Hotel).

For a country better known for its poor language skills and antipathy towards the EU, Britain has become an unlikely fan of subtitled European television imports.

And yet, in cinemas foreign language films still struggle to attract audiences. According to the BFI’s Statistical Yearbook for 2013, foreign language films accounted for only 2.4% of admissions in 2012. Exclude Bollywood movies – popular amongst Britain’s Asian population – and only 0.9% of the UK box office were European foreign language films. That represents about 1.6 million ticket sales. By comparison, Skyfall, the UK’s biggest cinema release of 2012, sold over 16 million tickets alone.

The most popular foreign language European film of 2012 was the hit French comedy drama Untouchable with 316,686 admissions, followed by the Norwegian thriller Headhunters (225,837) and Michael Haneke’s Amour (96,192). Most of the 103 European titles released in the UK averaged only 15,072 admissions.

The popularity of European television imports suggests that low cinema admissions for foreign language films cannot simply be explained by British hostility towards subtitled drama. The second series of The Killing, broadcast the same weekend Amour was released in UK cinemas, pulled in 1.2 million viewers.

Neither is it because Britons don’t like going to the cinema. Despite the country’s low screen density (6.1 screens per 100,000 people), the average Briton went to the pictures 2.8 times per year in 2012, compared with an EU average of 1.9. Amongst middle-class professionals – the social group most likely to watch foreign language films – admissions were slightly higher still.

True, tickets are a bit pricier in the UK than the rest of Europe (£6.37 compared with an EU average about £5.82). Yet as a proportion of average national income, they remain relatively inexpensive.

Part of reason why foreign language European films have such low admissions may be due to perception. A 2011 BFI report found that only 58% thought the production values of such films were good, compared with 93% in the case of Hollywood films and 95% for British films. When asked about the quality of acting, 61% rated foreign language films, compared with 87% for Hollywood films and 94% for British films. Put simply, Britons think that British and American films are better than features from other countries.

Yet there are also structural issues at play. Foreign language films find it much harder to make into British cinemas than either Hollywood or domestic features. At their widest point of release, foreign language European films are shown on average in just 17 theatres across the country. Compare that with 159 theatres for most English language pictures.


The award-winning drama Amour was released in only 49 UK theatres in 2012.

Even a critically acclaimed drama like Amour, which had picked up the prestigious Palme d’Or award at Cannes prior to its UK release, was only shown in 49 theatres at its peak, though it did manage to stay in the cinema for 16 weeks. (Most foreign films last a fortnight at most.)

Efforts have been made to improve the availability of foreign language films. In 2012, UK distributors received over €1.3 million in subsidies from the EU’s MEDIA Programme, to help with the release of European imports. MEDIA also gave €883,500 to Europa, a network of 54 UK cinemas which specialise in Continental film.

Even so, the vast majority of UK cinema screens – 74.7% of which are located in Hollywood-orientated multiplexes – never show foreign language films. Only 7% of UK screens (mostly small independent cinemas) are dedicated to specialised programming, and the vast majority of these (84.3%) are located in major towns and cities. In Wales, there are only seven specialised screens (2.6% of total) including one Europa cinema. In Northern Ireland, there are just two (0.7% of total).

But though few Britons get the chance to see foreign language European films in cinemas, they still watch them in other ways. 1.8 million saw Swedish-language thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on Channel 4 in 2012 – twenty times the amount who saw it on its initial cinema release in 2010. The Death of Mr Lazarescu, a Romanian dark comedy watched by only 9,494 cinema-goers in 2005, had 560,000 viewers on Channel 4 in 2012 – 60 times its box office admissions.

The increasing popularity of Video on Demand (VoD) services like Amazon Prime and Netflix – the market value for which has increased by 50% since 2011 to reach £243 million – has made it even easier for people to access foreign language European films. Netflix has 218 films in its World Cinema catalogue, including acclaimed European titles like Amour, The Hunt, A Royal Affair and Black Book.

Many more titles are simply accessed on pirate websites. A recent EU report on audiovisual audiences found that 2% of Britons frequently download or stream foreign European films for free, often illegally. Most cited the cost of cinema tickets or VOD services as the main reason for doing so, though the limited availability of certain films was also an important factor.

Swedish thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was initially seen by only 367,459 in the UK cinema. On television it gained 1.8 million viewers.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was initially seen by only 367,459 in the UK cinema. On television it gained 1.8 million viewers.

Policymakers, keen to encourage access to the best in European cinema, are beginning to respond to this trend. Since 2007, MEDIA has provided support for online content distribution via its VoD scheme. In 2012, it spent over €6.7 million on platforms that offer European content to audiences worldwide. Curzon, a London-based cinema chain specialising in foreign and art house films, received €400,000 to expand its VoD service.

The British Film Institute (BFI) likewise supports new ways of accessing specialised film via its Distribution Fund. It also recently launched its own VoD service (BFI Player), with a healthy selection of European titles.

Some of these initiatives seem questionable, though. Given that commercial platforms like Netflix are already beginning to provide large numbers of foreign language films, why spend limited public funds on duplicate services? Won’t investment in VoD distribution mean less money for specialist cinemas, where the need to overcome market failure is far greater?

Furthermore, many of the beneficiaries of MEDIA’s VoD scheme have failed to deliver. Between 2009 and 2011, Mercury Media received €700,000 for – an on-demand documentary portal. Yet the service ran into difficulties in 2012 after failing to pay its regulator fees. Apart from an inactive Twitter feed, the firm appears to have little to show for this vast sum of public investment.

Policy issues aside, there is certainly an appetite for foreign language European film in the UK. A BFI report found that 34% of Britons thought too few non-English language films are shown in the UK. Another study found 51% of British respondents had seen at least one foreign language film in the past few months while 5% were frequent consumers of such films.

Yet, whether out of convenience or because they cannot access foreign language pictures in cinemas, Britons tend to rely on their own screens for such cultural encounters.

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