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Foreign Films Face Apathetic US Audiences

AFTER years of struggling against the odds, and remembering painfully the early post-war period when times were very different, foreign-language filmmakers complain that their products still languish in a cinematic and television twilight zone in the United States. Many European producers, and particularly the French, maintain that this is an artificially created situation, which could be remedied by a dose of practical good will on the part of the American movie industry, particularly the theater-owning major companies.

The Americans reply that it has nothing to do with them; that it's largely up to the Europeans to deliver the kind of movies the US public wants to see.

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They argue that the American public is too lazy to read subtitles, and that it outright rejects dubbing. It's not easy for the Europeans to accept this since most European audiences welcome Hollywood pictures dubbed into European languages.

European producers maintain that, if sufficiently exposed to quality dubbing, the American public would quite happily drop its objections to the lip-sync process, though this line of reasoning has never been tested.

The German film ``Das Boot,'' for instance, was first released in the US in subtitled form and later dubbed into English at considerable expense. It turned out that the subtitled version did far better at the box office than the dubbed one.

Meanwhile, because of French eagerness to boost local industry, French concern over having their TV channels ``swamped'' by American movies and shows, and frustrations over their limited ability to break into the American market - has led to TV quotas that limit the amount of air-time allowed for American programs on French stations.

Restrictions on Hollywood movies are also being discussed in Italy, where recent statistics showed that, during the period of September 1989 to May 1990, of 95 million movie tickets sold, only 22 million applied to Italian films.

The remaining 73 million were collected mostly by American releases. The figures dramatize not only a downturn in the popularity of the local product, but also the dominance of the Hollywood output.

At a recent film festival in Sarasota, Fla., the French industry and government afforded a glimpse of the new French films and, at the same time, left no doubt about their frustration over the inability to get their pictures shown widely in this country.

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The French brought over a planeload of their producers, directors, and stars. Leading the delegation was Jack Lang, the socialist minister of culture, a persistent critic of what he perceives as Hollywood's reluctance - he actually terms it ``refusal'' - to give the French film business a significant hand in widening its exposure in the US.

On the American side, the festival was attended by the distributors of specialized films. Conspicuously absent were the major movie companies and industry leaders like Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The official French position is that the American industry earns huge sums in the French market in movie houses and on television, while French movies obtain less than 1 percent of the US box office, and that this imbalance is unfair and should be remedied.

The Americans violently object to the French television quota, of which Mr. Lang is an ardent supporter. It limits American movies and other programs on French TV to 50 percent (though in actuality, the US share of French television programming comes to no more than about 40 percent).

The French argue that Hollywood shouldn't complain since, in Lang's accusatory words, ``You don't have a quota of 50 percent or 75 percent, but one of close to 100 percent working against our movies. You simply keep us out of your market.''

There are 22,000 theaters in the US. A good French movie will play in only between 200 and 400 theaters and often no more than 40 to 60. Television hardly ever offers a French film, and cable only looms as a faint possibility.

``It's never been any different,'' holds Ralph Donnelly, the executive vice president of City Cinemas, who runs some of the best art-house movie theaters in New York. ``It's strange, because at Sarasota we were looking at French films that had been quite thoroughly `Americanized' in their treatment, and yet nobody wants to buy them. Perhaps the French prices are set too high.''

Mr. Donnelly and his colleagues are stung by the French charge that they deliberately shy away from booking French movies. They point out that their alternatives are limited.

``You either subtitle a French picture, or you dub it into English,'' notes Ted Goldberg, who runs Capitol Entertainment in Washington. ``Neither is satisfactory.''

``We do it in Europe, and nobody objects to dubbed versions of Hollywood movies,'' replies Gabriel Desdoits, a veteran French film agent.

The reaction to the French films selected for Sarasota was mixed. Among the hits of the festival were ``La Fracture Du Myocarde'' (Cross My Heart), a moving story about a group of French school children, whose director, Jacques Fansten, won a rare standing ovation from the audience. The other was ``Lacenaire,'' directed by Francis Girod, based on the true story of a murderer during the early part of this century.

What encourages the French producers is that some of their films do occasionally break out and earn a lot of money in the US. ``Cinema Paradiso,'' for instance, a French-Italian coproduction, is expected to bring in a very respectable $10 million at the box office.

But these pictures are rare.

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