Subtitled movies generally attract an older audience to UK cinemas – but surely younger viewers are grown up around text on screens.

As he picked up a Golden Globe for his soon to be Oscar-winning movie Parasite in January 2020, director Bong Joon-ho made further headlines around the world with his acceptance speech. You may very well remember it. “Once you overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”, he said, to sizeable applause.

What he was saying didn’t need too much decoding. For years, the last thing a subtitled film was regarded as was good box office. No matter what genre or how commercial a film was on paper, if it arrived in a different language to English, off to the art house circuit it must go. On the plus side, it gave a foothold to brilliant independent cinemas. On the downside, it still limited the potential audience for a film.

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Parasite bucked the trend to a degree, ultimately outgrossing many Hollywood blockbusters when it landed in the UK. But still, it’s also the exception that proves the rule. For a subtitled film to earn such success generates lots of headlines precisely because it’s so rare.

But which sector of the audience is it that’s holding back a broader spread of subtitled films in our multiplexes? It’s fairly clear that infant patrons are going to struggle with reading subtitles, so it’s understandable there’s some reluctance there. That said, I used to show one of my children Studio Ghibli films from a very young age and they looked at them with awe. Never mind they couldn’t quite grasp what was going on, they just loved looking.

The cliched audience for a subtitled film though I’d suggest is older adults, and this is what friends involved in independent cinemas have confirmed to me. With the exception of some younger cinephiles, there’s a conception that it’s people more in middle age than their youth happy to enjoy films in a foreign language on the big screen. My anecdotal evidence of visits to the cinema for subtitled features backs that up, but I can hardly claim that’s a scientific test. I’d also counter it with the fact that I’ve sat through plenty of mainstream films that have a subtitled section, and hardly hear an audience in uproar. I’ve always felt that if you tell people something’s a problem, they treat it as such. You don’t make a thing of it, and on the whole it’s not a issue. Shove ten minute of subtitles into a Marvel film, and I don’t think anyone would give two hoots.

A couple of slight exceptions to my assumptions. I remember the French comedy Delicatessen playing, surprisingly, at my local multiplex without an indicator that the whole thing was subtitled. That was in Birmingham in the 1990s and it caused a few grumbles and I’d wager a few refunds. Nowhere near as many, mind, when people realised that Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd film was a musical, something cunningly hidden from half of its promotion. That’s a whole other story, though.

Secondly, I’m fully aware that for some people – for a variety of reasons – subtitles are a genuine barrier. I fully acknowledge and respect that.

Accepting those two points though, I do wonder if some of the fears of distributors might just be a little misplaced.

I remember reading an interview with Ang Lee, no stranger to terrific films that got a subtitled release – including the record-breaking Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon of course – when he was making his Hulk movie. That was all the way back in 2003. Full disclosure: I’m one of those who thinks his Hulk is terrific. But what intrigued me here was a chat he had with Premiere magazine ahead of its release.

In the interview, published in its July/August 2003 edition, Lee discussed the use of so much on-screen text in the film, of deploying moving comic book panels and the complexity of some of the visuals he was looking to use. Would the audience go with that?

Well, he said that he was influenced by the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and how in America children as young as eight were said to be dragging their parents along to the subtitled version of the film. They hadn’t been told that subtitles were a problem, and so didn’t treat them as such.

Lee went further, pointing towards videogames and the web. “We realised that kids who are on the Internet are using to seeing images, words, text – they were used to hybrid image-text environments”, producer and co-writer James Schamus added. “I said to Ang, ‘the lesson here is that the audience is ahead of the filmmakers”.

This struck a chord. Lee dragged in his then 17 and ten-year old sons for an experiment, that would lead to him taking some gambles with the visuals of the resultant film. He put them in front of a PlayStation 2 console – it was the early 2000s, remember – and a pile of games. Fantasy games and sports games were chosen, and the youngsters set off playing them whilst the adults observed. “One of the things that you notice immediately is how much text there is, and how detailed and involved the story worlds are”, Schamus explained.

And he’s right.

Almost everybody up to the age of, say, 40 at least, has grown up with videogames as a part of their life. Furthermore, games have become more and more sophisticated, requiring a growing amount of on-screen text. How many times have you heard a youngster sitting in front of a game complaining that it’s subtitled? How many people, when framed within a game, strenuously object to the text on screen? Yet somehow, when that’s transferred to cinema – when the screen is even bigger – it instantly seems to spook mainstream exhibitors.

You don’t need me to tell you that international cinema can be as mainstream or as downright niche as you want it to be. Thankfully, given the revolution in home viewing and distribution, it’s never been so easy to explore either. But still, there’s still some reluctance to trust an international movie not in the English language with a wide release. All at a time when the biggest grossing film in the world in 2021 – outgrossing even Fast & Furious 9 – is a mainstream Chinese comedy called Hi, Mom. It’s a film that’s taken over $800m, follows a woman travelling back in time to see her mum, and there’s no chance of it popping up on a Friday night at your local Odeon (other multiplexes are, of course, available).

Maybe though, with a sizeable helping hand from videogames, what we’ve actually got is a generation of viewers who’ve grown up with subtitles who wouldn’t mind giving it a try. It may need the multiplexes to do some of the lifting here, but sticking a subtitled film in screen 12 for a few nights and seeing what happens. It might just be that the reticence might now be more on the part of older viewers than young to sit through a subtitled story. And there might just be a much bigger audience out there, crossing a far wider demographic than thought, just waiting for the chance to prove it. Idealistic sure, but the long game could be cinema complexes using their screen space to show ten or 12 films in a week, rather than five or six, with a single blockbuster hogging half of them.

Just imagine that…

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