Dub Be Good To Me: Why the lack of love for subtitles?

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Nearly two weeks ago, I had a wonderful weekend at the Empire / BFI Movie-Con in London. Among the movie previews, trailers and Q & A sessions, there were some unexpected treats, not least for this Belgian animated movie from last year, soon to receive a limited cinematic run in this country.

The most refreshing thing about this trailer for me was not only the wonderfully off-the-wall, absurdist humour, but the fact that the trailer itself was in French with English subtitles. I get the same thrill each time a foreign language film has a trailer which sticks to its principles and its original language, which sadly isn’t always. I’ve now seen 71 movies in a cinema this year, and a fair proportion of those have been not in the English language. The list is currently as follows:

The Secret In Their Eyes

Ponyo

I Am Love

Dogtooth

Heartbreaker

Lebanon

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Micmacs

Leaving

A Prophet

Vincere

White Material

There are three movies that stand apart on this list, and they are Heartbreaker, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Micmacs. The reason they stand apart becomes apparent if you watch their respective trailers (you can click on the link for each), in that the trailers for all three give no indication that the movie is not in English. It seems that distributors feel that their best option for maximising the audience attendance is to cover up the fact that there will be subtitles, thus hoping to retain as many people as possible once they’ve paid for a ticket.

That’s a sad state of affairs. But it’s driven by the fact that foreign language films are a hard sell, and that seems to be something unique to English speaking countries. For the rest of the world, watching in a different language is a much more normal occurrence, but there it is a fact of life, rather than a choice to watch what is often regarded as a minority product.

A fourth on the list, Ponyo, actually has a trailer in English. John Lasseter of Disney / Pixar has now overseen English language versions of several Studio Ghibli movies, and has assembled strong English casts to do the dubbing – easier, of course, when you’re matching up to animated mouths rather than real ones. There is a historic preference, though, in many European countries, not least France, Spain, Germany and Italy, to have versions of English movies dubbed rather than subtitled.

And it would seem that the preference also extends to the UK. At the time of writing, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has two versions in the iTunes top 100 videos; at number 74 in the chart is the cinema release, with subtitles, but at a more impressive 43 is the dubbed English version. It would seem that the English align with their European cousins in preferring voices out of sync and not from the original actors, rather than having to read at the same time as watching moving pictures.

So in that context it’s entirely understandable that distributors would rather cover up the fact that they’ve had to subtitle, for while the general public seem put off by subtitles, those that watch regularly undoubtedly feel more comfortable being able to appreciate the original performance in full. It’s just a shame that more people aren’t willing to give subtitles a try, for it’s also leading to a trend of remakes where the originals are fantastic films in their own right. This week sees the second in the Millennium trilogy hit cinemas, but David Fincher is working on a remake of the first; in a little under two months we’re also due a remake of Let The Right One In from Cloverfield director Matt Reeves.

This probably wouldn’t be necessary, or indeed financially rewarding for the studios, if enough people were willing to watch the original versions in the first place. The mere fact that they’re being remade shows that there’s a market for those stories, but somehow writing on the screen seems to be a bar that most aren’t willing to hurdle. Only two heavily subtitled movies have ever made over $100 million dollars (out of 463 movies to achieve the feat), and one of those was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the other being Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. To put that in context, of my list above, none has made more than $10 millon, and only three have made more than $2 million.

We’re a little better in the UK – Coco Before Chanel took £2.6 million last year, which is respectable, but would still not trouble the top 100 for the year. So next time you see a trailer that looks interesting, don’t judge it by its cover. Subtitled movies aren’t that hard to follow if you give them a chance – as final proof of my case, my wife is dyslexic, yet still managed to come to watch Heartbreaker with me this year and had no trouble following the words or action. If she can do it, why can’t you?

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