Should film distributors hide that films are subtitled?

Feature Simon Brew 28 Nov 2012 - 08:13

Subtitled films often have difficulty finding an audience. But should distributors be more open about their foreign-language films?

I grew up in Birmingham. If you live outside of England, Birmingham is a picture postcard paradise kind of place, an idyllic, calm retreat that’s a must for a tourist stop-off. If you live within the UK, you’ll know that, er, it isn’t.

Nonetheless, at the start of the 1990s, there was a fairly new cinema built in the middle of the city, under the MGM banner. That particular cinema, and the MGM Cinemas name, have long since gone, but it was a comfortable place while it lasted.

I’d often turn up there to take advantage of cheap daytime showings, with no idea at all what I was going to see. That’s how I got to see Delicatessen. This was a film about which I didn’t know too much. Birmingham wasn’t doing too well for independent cinema at the time, and so to see a film that few had heard of on the schedule was very welcome.

I loved Delicatessen. Not many people around me in the cinema seemed to, but I laughed hard, and laughed often. The main objection, though, was that at no time had the cinema forewarned its patrons that Delicatessen was a French film, with English subtitles. Ironically, this was around the time when Dances With Wolves had reaped lots of awards, in spite of having around a third of its on-screen dialogue subtitled, but few seemed to complain about that. With Delicatessen, though, the grumblers were out. The MGM in Birmingham never showed a foreign language film as part of its daily programme again, from what I could remember. 

The conundrum here was an obvious one. By not telling people that the film was subtitled, more people went to see it. As a result of that, it’s a fairly easily conclusion to draw that people got a chance to try something genuinely different from the usual fare, and I’d wager that a good number of them went on to seek out more films of its ilk. I certainly did.

But then, if you’ve paid good money for a Friday night movie, and just want to switch off, how would you feel? Would you be annoyed that there’s two hours of subtitles to work through? I certainly have some sympathy for that argument, too.

The problem, of course, is that subtitles have become something of a cinematic firewall, to be filed alongside black and white movies, and silent films (note how The Artist is the lowest grossing Best Picture Oscar winner for a generation at the US box office). Granted, there’s the occasional exception, but I’m also reminded of the fact that some of the advertising for Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street neglected to put across that it was a musical.

I’m guessing the rule of thumb here is that the more you tell someone about a film, the more reasons they have not to see it. It’s perhaps a negative way of looking at it, but for smaller releases, I wonder if this is becoming more and more of a reality.

The finest action movie of this year, for instance, is The Raid (or, bizarrely, The Raid: Redemption if you live in America). In the case of The Raid, the amount of dialogue is actually really quite minimal, and yet by nature of its main language, it was treated as art house fare in many territories (when in truth it's anything but). We’ve seen in the past Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon cross over into the mainstream, but an English dub was a contributor there. With The Raid, there’s little reason why it shouldn’t have been in line to make far more than the $4m it took at the American box office. In the UK, it did comparably better, opening at number five in that week’s top ten, to a take of around £1m in total. But still: had it been in English, there’s an argument it had the potential to make at least five times as much. If not more. 

Now there are lots of contributory factors to such a low take – the breadth of the release, promotions, the weather, and so on, and so on – but The Raid nonetheless had tremendous word of mouth. Yet I’ve spoken to several people who didn’t see it because it was subtitled. I’d argue that of those who told me that, each would have enjoyed the hell out of the film had they seen it, subtitled or not. They never even made it to the opening credits, though.

So here’s a thought. This wouldn’t work for all films, but are we at the stage where it’s an idea to selectively remove advance warning of subtitles from certain foreign language movies? At the very least, some of the more mainstream ones? Is that fair, or is the mere word ‘subtitle’ now a poisonous word, that in virtually all cases costs a film wide distribution?

The Raid is a perfect example, and perhaps that’s why its distribution was wider than most in the UK (credit to Momentum for that). What about Headhunters, though, one of the thrillers of the year? Most people, sadly, haven’t got anywhere near it. It’s a treat waiting to be discovered, and it’ll stay that way for the bulk of the English-speaking film audience. 

I don’t think there’s a perfect answer to this, but I do believe the surprisingly black and white divide between what’s a wide distribution film and what’s a limited one is denying people the chance to see something other than a big blockbuster of whatever flavour.

For me, because one film booker at one big, mainstream cinema in Birmingham took a gamble some 20 years ago, I got to see something that chances are I’d never had otherwise got to (the same booker brought in The King Of Comedy for a classics series of occasional screenings too, and I can’t repay them enough for that either). I fear that the way cinema distribution is heading, where bookers aren’t able to take such chances, such happy accidents won’t happen again.

Perhaps it’s less vital that it does in the DVD and video on demand age. But it still feels like a pity, and it still feels as though occasionally disguising the fact that a film is subtitled – as more and more seem to do – gives it a lot more of a fighting chance of being noticed.

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One foreign language film that's benefited from a broader release in cinemas recently is Rust and Bone. I graduated from uni last week, and was shocked at how many different people brought it up in conversation, saying it wasn't the kind of film they would normally have seen, but they were blown away by it. None of them had seen the trailer, and the cinema listed it as "French with English subtitles" on the programme, so, to me, it goes to show that people won't necessarily blanch at subtitles, even if it's not their usual thing.

Was The Raid advertised as being subtitled? I don't think I knew that it was before I sat down to watch it, apart from a warning from the box office staff at my local Vue who told me it had subtitles when I bought my ticket. I took that to mean that they'd obviously had folk complaining after previous screenings.

I know there are some people who just don't like subtitles if they find them difficult to read, poor eyesight, whatever. Anyone who has small children though and watches TV in the bedroom is probably well accustomed to subtitles, even on English speaking programmes.

I think the stigam attached to subtitles is diminishing. I don't know about at the cinema as much, but on TV especially. BBC4 now show subtitled programming on almost every Saturday night and The Killing is tremendously popular. I know people who aren't keen on subtitles but will now make the effort to watch a programme with them if it rewards them well enough.

There's a good chance this trend could make its way into cinema too. I don't think the fact that a film has subtitles should be hidden away.

I would like to see people complain about the subtitles and then being treated to a film where they can't understand the native language of the film which obviously warrantee the need for subtitles. I watch subtitles everyday (hearing loss aside) and I really got used to it. If people are keeping aware of the subtitles in foreign films and such, they would get used to it. (On a personal note, I actually would want to know if a foreign film have subtitles so I can make sure and double check. There are many foreign filmmakers out there that break through the English speaking barrier.)

Considering that in my country, 9 movies out of 10 are in a foreign language and thus subtitled, I don't get where the problem is. It's something you get used to quite quickly, you just have to be NOT lazy - and you mustn't have the attention span of a gnat.

The solution is simple, just stick really OTT animated subtitles ala Nightwatch/Daywatch and ADD teens may just watch it. Also stick an English dub on for good measure (something which Headhunters has got... and it beats me that Nicolaj Coster-Waldau doesn't do his own English dub voice, since he is clearly capable of perfect English in Game of Thrones).

One big reason for people's aversion to subtitled films is that subtitling into English is usually so poorly done. It's poorly done for three reasons:

1) Much of the dialogue isn't idiomatically translated, resulting in strange sentences.

2) A very odd convention in English subtitling says that a subtitle may not stay over a cut. Consequently, sentences are often broken into short segments that flash by in an incredible speed. The reasoning behind this is that the subtitle is a graphic element, and thus should adhere to picture changes. However, the subtitles are based on the audio, which often isn't taking picture changes into account.

2) Everything is subtitled, even totally irrelevant side remarks that can't be really be heard. This results for the viewer is confusion about what's relevant or not, and a very high reading speed (i.e. subtitles change very quickly).

Good subtitling is an art form, where you turn fast spoken language into written language that can be digested at a comfortable speed through smart, condensed editing. The masters of this art form are to be found in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where most films and TV series are foreign language imports and have always been subtitled. Through the years, their public broadcasters have done extensive research into how viewers read subtitles, resulting in subtitles that are easy to read and still convey everything essential that is said.

One basic rule in Scandinavia and the Netherlands is that a subtitle should stay on screen so long that a person with average reading speed skills have time to read it twice, That way the viewers will have time to both read the subtitles and watch the action - because all research show that you can't do both things at the same time.

Once in a while one sees good language subtitling on British TV. Heimat was one example, the first season of The Killing another. Unfortunately the current third season of The Killing is very poorly subtitled.

I wish British and American importers were willing to pay the little bit extra required for good quality subtitling, as I'm sure it would make viewers less averse to foreign language films. Because there is so much good film out there, that is never shown because of the subtitling issue.

Well, there is the case that audiences should be aware that it's subtitled, in case they have vision problems. My father in law is registered blind, but enjoys going to the cinema, as the picture's big enough for him to watch, but if it's subtitled, he can't read it.

I have never understood the problem with subtitles.
I love to watch a film in it's native language with subtitles as opposed to the dubbed versions which usually have horrendous acting. After a while it becomes natural to read the subtitles and you start to not notice them. It's not like it is distracting or takes you out of the film at all. I can understand that some kids under 5 years old may find it hard to but once you can read what is the problem?
It's funny many films that have had huge success has subtitles in them frequently even if they aren't all the way through. Star Wars & Lord of the Rings are two examples of films that have many subtitles in, I don't think I have ever heard anyone complaining about it though.

Interesting article; shame about the Birmingham jibe.

It's not racist when Brummies say it.

It's not racist when anyone from that country says it. Digging at a town or its populace isn't racism.

We don't have subtitles at the cinemas here. In Germany EVERYTHING gets dubbed. So its imposible to watch an english-speaking movie in its original Version if you life in a small town. Most times thats okay, because they make great jobs dubbing, but it gets annoying sometimes. For example when Chistain Bale and Johnny Depp are in the same movie, because they have the same dubbing actor and so suddenly Bale talks with another voice than usuall.

I can't remember what the films were, but...
Myself and a couple of friends arrived late for a film and missed the screening time. On being told this by the girl selling the tickets, she suggested another film we might want to see because that had subtitles too...

"By not telling people that [Delicatessen] was subtitled, more people went to see it."

"I loved Delicatessen. Not many people around me in the cinema seemed to..."

Nuff said I think.

I watched and loved the raid, the version I watched had no subtitles but it was a joy to see.

The author (Simon Brew) of this piece
has a criminal mind. What he is proposing is fraud. Intentionally
selling a product without one of its expected parts (a language track
that is understandable) is in most cases a liable offense. Having to
read a movie is like purchasing a car without a engine. No matter
how fine the rest of the car is, it's a rather worthless lump.

Someone should report mr. Brew to the


The annoying thing about Nightwatch/Daywatch is, to my knowledge, they still haven't released that version (with embedded, animated subtitles) on disc anywhere. They're all your standard, below the picture subtitles. It's frustrating cos those animated subtitles were one of the best parts of the movie!

In Australia the multicultural channel, SBS, does all its own subtitling in house. They never use the ones that are provided by distributors. I'd like to think this means we get a better end result...

LOL, that's hilarious. I studied German in high school and was aghast to learn that all of their films are dubbed. I feel sorry for you guys.

On a side note, i saw a couple of English language films in cinemas Switzerland which featured two sets of subtitles (French and German) - they took up half the screen! The only problem in that situation was that people reading the subtitles laughed at the jokes ahead of time, which meant I often couldn't hear the English punch lines over their laughter...

This is where the pompous git inside me comes out to play...

Aside from those with vision impairments, there's no bloody excuse to refuse to see a film purely because it has subtitles. When I worked in a video store, a guy came in asking for a kick arse action movie. I recommended Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pact des loups) because, let's face it, it's friggin' awesome. After giving him an idea of the plot and telling him how amazing the fight scenes were, he was really excited about it, until he looked at the back cover and said, "Oh, it's got subtitles? Nah, forget it. I don't feel like reading subtitles," and put it down. WTF?! I kicked him out of the store and told him to never come back*.

*This part isn't true.

i love subtitles, they make you take in every line, and you get more out of it. but, if its discreetly advertised you should be ok, if it isn't then its bad the audience weren't told, but they are genuinely missing out on a good film. it's true cinemas should expand their range into international territory, i don't want to sit at home all the time, i like going to the cinema, i can totally relax there. with all the trite thats released from the U.S and the occasional warm and fuzzy brit com it's about time we got some intelligent international thought provoking films that give us a new perspective on life and society. who knows, looking through the eyes of another culture may teach us something, and the west may not know everything there is to after all...

Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' and 'Apocalypto' were entirely subtitled, and were met with extraordinary (and fully deserved) success for the former and totally respectable success for the latter... subtitles are like visual effects, they don't make the film better or worse, it's the quality of said film that counts!

Just let's hope the Gibbo does his Viking epic, 'Bezerker', for which he was scouting potential locations in Ireland back in June, it would be entirely in ancient Norse - or as near it as possible - with obvious subtitles, but it would be one hell of an action movie if the script is anything to go by...

Personally I love a subtitled film. I get more engrossed because I find its another level of concentration.
I remember seeing Pans Labyrinth a the cinema and LOADs of people started whinging about the subtitles.
It would be a bad idea to not inform people there are subtitles.

I agree to an extent but the subtitles are more than a foot tall in the cinema.
My eyesite is pretty poor without my glasses, I can barely watch TV without them at home but I can easily see the subtitles at the cinema. I guess if I sat in the back row I may struggle.

I guess a lot of cinemas don't expect many blind people to go and (not to sound harsh) it is a bit ridiculous to expect them to accomodate blind people in a standard viewing. If you are blind then this is something that could perhaps be researched before going to hear a film at the cinema, if it's a problem then they can try to find a dubbed version somewhere.

I remember seeing "Inglourious Basterds" at the cinema and noticed 2 people leaving very near the beginning whenHans Landa was talking to the farmer in French. I heard them muttering something about subtitles when they walked out.
They neve came back. This made me very sad for them.

Um Yes it is. It is racist if the 2 town/cities are distinct. In Britain there are many different cultures. It can be considered racist if an Londoner was prejudist to someone from Manchester, Glasgow or Belfast for example or vice-cersa.

They are on the DVD release, just not the Blu-ray.
I think the Blu-Ray has multiple subtitle languages, and audio tracks on it so
they aren't embedded.

I disagree. Racism is defined as 'prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.'.
The key word being 'race' (rather obviously). Londoners trash-talking Brummies IS discrimination but is NOT racism.

But I think the problem is lazy audiences. I love subtitled films, and would never by choice see a dubbed version over a subtitled version. People have an aversion to them over what seems to be ridiculous and lazy reasons. I responded with the example of my father in law because the question was 'should the fact films are subtitled be hidden?' and I say they shouldn't, because the information you say he should look for would be hidden. And the fact that people who don't like subtitled films because they're suibtitled are idiots.

'Race' is the keyword but it is a very loose concept. You are using it here as a synonym for ethnicity but it is broader than that. The word means a population or group with shared culture, history, religion, language etc. In the UK, many cities have different cultural history (celtic, picts, anglo-saxon) different religion (prodestant, catholic) and different langauge (dialects). Admittedly these distinctions are become more diluted in modern times but it's still there and there are still cities and towns in the UK that feel like an entirely different country especially when it comes to communicating with locals. In the case of Birmingham the obvious discrimination is because of their dialect which would be covered under the broader definition of racism.

I am sad for them too. People who are too lazy or adverse to reading subtitles are truly missing out.

Really? Which country is that? I've checked several versions of the Australian DVD and they weren't there...

It was the US region 1 DVD.

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