New Global Market Opens Up for Foreign-Language Fare

Parasite - TIFF - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of TIFF

As American indies struggle to sell internationally, titles like Bong Joon Ho’s 'Parasite' ($110 million and counting) are benefitting from an increasing global appetite for non-English content — and buyers have noticed.

Ironically, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite — a parable on the insidious nature of modern-day capitalism — has proved very good for business. The drama about two families, one living in squalor trying to con their way out, the other in aseptic, isolated luxury, has grossed more than $110 million at the worldwide box office so far. In the U.S, Parasite will cross the $10 million mark this weekend.

But while there have been foreign language hits in the U.S. before — Sony Pictures Classics earned $128 million with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 — the real surprise is how well Parasite has done around the world, with seven- and eight-figure grosses in France, Germany, Russia and Australia, among others countries.

"The film has really opened up a market in territories, like Europe, where audiences are not used to watching Asian films," says Yoonhee Choi, head of international sales and distribution at CJ Entertainment, which sold Parasite worldwide. "We are now doing theatrical deals in these territories for Bong Joon Ho’s earlier films, which never got a cinema release there."

Parasite is not alone. Even as American indies are proving a harder sell internationally, a new market is opening up for non-English-language titles. Shoplifters, the Japanese feature that won the Palme d’Or in 2018, earned $68 million at the global box office, with strong performances in France, South Korea and, especially, China. Nadine Labaki’s Lebanese drama Capernaum also tapped the burgeoning Chinese market for non-U.S. features, grossing an astounding $54 million in the Middle Kingdom alone.

Jimmy Wu, chairman of nationwide Chinese cinema chain Lumiere Pavilions, attributes the new Chinese appetite for international fare with a maturing movie audience that is hungry for movies that are neither Hollywood nor home-grown blockbusters. "As a rapidly modernizing former 'third world nation,' China has plenty of social problems that aren’t being interrogated thoroughly by its own cinema because of censorship constraints," Wu says. "This has created an opening in the market, among the many sophisticated Chinese content consumers."

In the U.S., the broad appeal of Parasite is still the exception to the rule. "I don’t see a trend that foreign-language films are super popular in the U.S.," says Neon boss Tom Quinn, "Parasite is simply an extraordinary film that delivers a thrilling good time in the theater." But, notes Choi, there is a "solid and stable" business stateside for Asian films targeting the diaspora community.

"Over time, that diaspora audience has become accustomed to seeing these films theatrically in the U.S., and they come out for them," says Jason Pfardrescher of Well Go USA, which has success releasing Chinese blockbusters for the Mandarin-speaking audience in America. The animated fantasy thriller Ne Zha — a $700 million juggernaut in China — earned $3.7 million in the U.S, still a substantial figure for an "indie" movie.

In today’s market, that’s good money if you can get it. Which might explain why international titles keep flying off the shelves. Just this week, AFM saw two such domestic deals, with Strand Releasing taking U.S. rights to Maryam Touzani’s acclaimed Moroccan drama Adam and Neon picking up Memoria, a Colombian-set drama from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 9 daily issue at the American Film Market.