Mexican director Arturo Ripstein was just explaining how he and his filmmaking colleagues persevere in the omnipresent shadow of Hollywood, when his train of thought was suddenly derailed. One of six international directors participating in a panel discussion as part of a series spotlighting foreign film last August at the American Cinematheque, Ripstein told the 80 people in attendance that, given the numbers of Hollywood films dominating Mexican screens, he often feels like a foreign filmmaker in his own country. ”But we’re not making a product,“ the director continued, speaking for fellow panelists Claire Denis, Ken Loach, Tsai Ming-Liang, Garin Nugroho and Idrissa Ouedraogo. ”We do one work at a time and hope that it finds its niche.“

”Niche,“ broke in moderator and Variety critic Emanuel Levy. ”That‘s a very Hollywood marketing term.“

Nonplussed for just a beat, Ripstein shot back, ”It was French before it was marketing.“ The audience burst into applause.

In a discussion that probably couldn’t have been duller for the average filmgoer — the panel‘s title was ”Foreign Films: National Versus Global Filmmaking in the Next Millennium“ — Ripstein’s retort provided an electric moment that crystallized the frustrations many cineastes feel. When it comes to film, a niche just isn‘t what it used to be. That is to say, precisely at a moment of supposed globalization, it’s getting tougher to see a wide variety of foreign-language films on American screens. And this during a period when an array of national cinemas — from all parts of Europe to the Middle East, Latin America and Asia — are producing some of the most exciting, innovative films in the world.

The U.S. film industry has always had its specialized markets, from exploitation to foreign-language, served by relatively small groups of intimately intertwined filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors working outside of Hollywood. It wasn‘t until after World War II, however, that the promise of profits lured the major studios into foreign-language film distribution. In 1956, the then-unheard-of international success of Roger Vadim’s Brigitte Bardot vehicle And God Created Woman opened the way for the studio-backed distribution of films by Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut and Michelangelo Antonioni. And audiences went to see them in record numbers. During what many still consider the golden age of foreign-language films, art houses sprang up like mad, from around 100 nationwide in 1950 to close to 700 by the end of the 1960s.

Still, even in the best of times, foreign-language films have only accounted for around 5 percent of annual domestic box-office returns. With the rise of New Hollywood in the late ‘60s — and the emergence of directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, both, ironically, influenced by foreign film — the bottom began to drop out of foreign-film distribution, and Hollywood backed off. During the ’70s — the period when distributor and exhibitor Dan Talbot, the near-legendary hero behind New Yorker Films, single-handedly introduced the works of masters such as Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene and Rainer Werner Fassbinder to American audiences — foreign-language films were, by and large, back in the hands of the independents.

”In those days,“ says Talbot, who still runs New Yorker, ”there weren‘t too many foreign-film distributors. It was just a handful of people who were passionate about what they were doing.“

While there were scattered foreign hits throughout the ’80s, such as Wolfgang Petersen‘s Das Boot and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, Hollywood didn‘t really turn its attention to the art-film market again until the early ’90s, around the time Miramax turned Alfonso Arau‘s Like Water for Chocolate into the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever. A series of relative hits followed, including Il Postino, Eat Drink Man Woman and Antonia’s Line, and culminating in 1998 with Roberto Benigni‘s Life Is Beautiful.

Not only is Benigni’s Holocaust fable the reigning foreign-language champ — having earned $57 million when the average foreign-language film is considered a hit if it makes $3 million — but it topped Landmark Theaters‘ recent nationwide audience poll of the 100 most popular foreign films of all time. Backed by Miramax’s sales savvy and Disney-deepened pockets, the success of the film is indicative of the situation that Arturo Ripstein and Emanuel Levy‘s curt exchange over ”niches“ was all about. Films such as Beautiful, Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino represent more than victories for Hollywood marketing. The popularity of these films, awash as they are in nostalgia and sentimentality, is equally dependent on their whole-hearted embrace of Hollywood-style narrative. They are foreign films in language only. Even those who believe it’s a good time for foreign-language films, such as Greg Laemmle, vice president of the Los Angeles–based Laemmle Theaters, acknowledge that it‘s only good for a certain kind of film. ”We’re in great times for foreign films,“ says Laemmle. ”It‘s just that many of the foreign-language films succeeding now are very light, very frivolous. Light is in, dark is out.“

While Life Is Beautiful was playing on 1,130 screens at its peak, other, more challenging international fare was forced to go begging. ”The Miramaxes and the Fine Lines are dominating the screens,“ says Talbot, whose New Yorker Films will bring out Claire Denis’ Beau Travail later this year. ”It‘s hard for us to get the best screen times, because we’ve got to go up against the big guys.“ It took the independent-niche distributor Strand Releasing over a year to find an exhibitor willing to screen Arnaud Desplechin‘s critically acclaimed existential medical thriller La Sentinelle, which premiered at Cannes in 1992. When the film finally played in 1998 on a single screen in New York, it ran for two weeks and grossed $10,000. It never even made it to Los Angeles.

”As each year goes by,“ says Strand’s co-president, Marcus Hu, ”it gets more and more difficult to bring out those intellectual foreign-language films, films that aren‘t sold on sex appeal or some kind of marketing hook.“ Long gone are the days when Talbot could put Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun into New York‘s Cinema Studio 1 and let it run for a year.

The infusion of major studio resources into specialized markets has only exacerbated other problems in a foreign-film landscape that is radically different than it was in the golden age, among them the demise of college film societies, an aging audience base, skyrocketing promotional costs and the indifference of an entertainment press enthralled by Hollywood stars and spectacle. Critics such as Susan Sontag may be willing to declare film culture itself dead, but distributors like Hu and Talbot are simply too encouraged by the quality of work being produced abroad to throw in the towel. ”Film culture isn’t dead, it‘s just changed,“ says Talbot. ”The films are there, but the names are different. These filmmakers are not Truffaut or Godard. They’re doing their own thing. And you only need that one film that hits you in a heavenly way to make everything else worthwhile. And the smaller distributors . . . we‘re like second-story operators. We have to find a way to sneak into the second floor to get our films shown in our own way.“

There are signs that sneaking in is getting easier. Ripstein’s latest film, No One Writes to the Colonel, may not have U.S. distribution, but some exhibitors, distributors and critics have begun to realize that this new cinema needs to be sold and discussed in new ways if audiences are going to turn out. If Ingmar Bergman isn‘t exactly hip with the kids these days, there’s no reason why — if the pitch is right — Hong Kong‘s Wong Kar-Wai can’t be. In the last year, not only did Sony Pictures Classics tap into a younger audience with Tom Tykwer‘s Run Lola Run and Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, but a number of successful reissues, including Grand Illusion and Nights of Cabiria, and the relative heat around Denmark‘s Dogma 95 film group offer hope. Art-house chains from Laemmle’s to the national Landmark Theaters, which owns the Nuart, are even looking into — or are in the process of — expanding the number of screens for foreign-language films.

”Film is a window onto the world, and that window has to stay open,“ says Cary Jones, head of marketing at Landmark. ”And we think there‘s an audience out there.“

This is the first in a two-part series. Next week: The good news?

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