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DVD's Foreign Language Love Affair

28 Jun, 2001 By: Ralph Tribbey

Approximately 6,800 languages are spoken on planet Earth, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a private organization that monitors language trends. A mere fraction — 33 of these languages — have arrived on DVD in their original theatrical presentation.

This number may not sound like stellar progress for the format in terms of world cultural representation, but about half of the world’s languages have fewer than 2,500 people speaking them.

Counted among this group is Eyak (native to Alaska), an obscure tongue that the Associated Press reports is down to just one surviving individual. Isolated individuals, speaking a near-lost language, tend not to make many movies. They have other issues.

Of the 10,799 DVDs released to the general market from the format’s inception through June 22 of this year, 6.5% — 706 films — have arrived speaking in tongues. The number doesn’t include all of the anime, opera, adult-themed or special interest titles derivedfrom foreign sources, just theatrical movies on DVD.

Indeed, not every foreign film has arrived with its original language track intact. Non-studio sourcesdominate the roster of DVD suppliers that provide the original language. They account for 91.2% of such releases. Only Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment (No. 5) and MGM HomeEntertainment (No. 8) rank in the top 10, with 39 and 15 foreign film offerings respectively.

In the foreign-language DVD lead is South San Francisco-based specialty import distributor Tai Seng Video Marketing, with 237 foreign films available. Another 40 hour-long, adult and mainlyJapanese-language imports are also part of the company’s DVD library. Tai Seng consistently releases seven to 10 titles per month, including one or two of the aforementioned adult-themedreleases. The balance of the release slate is generally Chinese-language imports, with both Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks provided, along with English subtitles.

For August, Tai Seng has slated 11 new DVD releases, including what the company bills as “the most expensive film ever made in Korea,” director Kim Young-Jun’s Bichunmoo. The DVD streets Aug. 14 (prebook July 10). Language options include the original Korean presentation, Cantonese,Mandarin and English titles. Price is $29.95.

In the second slot is New York City-based Winstar TV and Video (aka Fox Lorber) with a nice blend of 127 foreign-language films, including an extensive collection of French offerings (63 titles) from such renowned directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut. Otherlanguage selections include Arabic, Dutch, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish and the linguist-created language of Esperanto (for director Leslie Stevens’ Incubus).

Rounding out the top five DVD foreign-language suppliers are Image Entertainment (87 titles), The Criterion Collection (46 titles) and Columbia TriStar (39 titles).

DVD’s rapid household penetration is also expanding the number of foreign-language imports arriving from alternative sources well outside the purview of established distribution and retail networks.

Quick to take advantage of the potential demand for foreign DVD releases has been online retailer Netflix.com. “Foreign rental in total accounts for just over 12% of our rentals,” says Netflix’s v.p. of content acquisition Ted Sarandos. To support the company’s diverse national consumer base, Netflix has built a library of 814 titles from India. One of every six foreign-language rentals comesfrom this mainly Hindi-language import category.

Sarandos agrees with the estimate that for every foreign-language DVD available to consumersthrough established home video channels, two more titles may be in the country through alternativedistribution sources. “Most rentals take place in non-traditional retail (grocery, liquor and convenience stores),” Sarandos says. “There is a huge problem with piracy and the distribution channels are even more fragmented than the retail channels.

“Most Indian product is below the radar and sometimes the same movie is available in multiple languages, but not on the same disc,” Sarandos says. “We (Netflix) do try to carry the most mainstream dialects of a language.”

“Generally speaking, foreign language has been pretty good to us,” says Matthew Kiernan, a sales executive at independent DVD label First Run Features. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t keep releasingforeign language films.” First Run’s target is to release approximately 12 titles per year, Kiernan says. The latest is EastGerman director Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer, which arrives Sept. 18 (prebook Aug. 21) in German with English titles. Price is $29.

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