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The term World cinema is not the sum-total of all films made around the world. Rather, it is analogous to the use of the term "World literature". Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used the concept Weltliteratur in the early 19th century, to describe the international circulation and reception of literary works across Europe. His definition also included works of non-European authorship. Similarly, an interest in "world cinema" suggests an awareness of cinematic production, apart from the Hollywood Studio System which dominates international viewership.
The term is oft used to refer the film and film industries of both English-Speaking and the Non-English-Speaking world. Therefore, equating a dominant form of cinema with its dominant language (E.g. Labeling Hollywood Film Production as English Cinema), is inaccurate and misleading. Furthermore, English films are produced across a varied geography, representing a diverse range of countries and cultures, across all continents; E.g. Canada in North America, England in Europe, South Africa in Africa, India in Asia and Australia. Yet, due to their marginal status in terms of access or viewership, they are included under the umbrella of "world cinema". Arguably, the understanding of "world cinema" as a complement of Hollywood cinema maybe a Eurocentric interpretation. Alternatively, the term foreign film is used as a synonym. "Foreign" is also a relative term, suggestive of a Western viewpoint. One person's national cinema can be another's foreign film. In fact, American independent cinema may be considered part of "world cinema" as it does not have the global, dominate or even adequate access, available to the American Hollywood cinema.
Technically, foreign film does not mean the same as foreign language film, but the implication is that a foreign film is not only foreign in terms of the country of production, but also in terms of the language used. Thus, the use of the term foreign film for films produced in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or other English-speaking countries would be uncommon within other English-speaking countries.
World cinema has an unofficial implication of films with "artistic value" as opposed to "Hollywood commercialism." Foreign language films are often grouped with "art house films" and other independent films in DVD stores, cinema listings etc. Unless dubbed into one's native language, foreign language films played in English-speaking regions usually have English subtitles. Few films of this kind receive more than a limited release and many are never played in major cinemas. As such the marketing, popularity and gross takings for these films are usually markedly less than for typical Hollywood blockbusters. The combination of subtitles and minimal exposure adds to the notion that "World Cinema" has an inferred artistic prestige or intelligence, which may discourage less sophisticated viewers. Additionally, differences in cultural style and tone between foreign and domestic films affects attendance at cinemas and DVD sales.
Foreign language films can be commercial, low brow or B-movies. Furthermore, foreign language films can cross cultural boundaries, particularly when the visual spectacle and style is sufficient to overcome people's misgivings. Films of this type became more common in the early 2000s, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Amélie, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Talk to Her enjoyed great successes in United States cinemas and home video sales. The first foreign and foreign language film to top the North American box office was Hero in August 2004. "The rule for foreign-language films is that if you've done $5 million or better (in United States cinemas), you've had a very nice success; if you do $10 (million) or better (in United States cinemas), you're in blockbuster category," Warner Independent Pictures ex-president Mark Gill said.
On the other hand, English-dubbed foreign films rarely did well in United States box office (except Anime films). The 1982 United States theatrical release of Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boot was the last major release to go out in both original and English-dubbed versions, and the film's original version actually grossed much higher than the English-dubbed version. Later on, English-dubbed versions of international hits like Un indien dans la ville, Godzilla 2000, Anatomy, Pinocchio and High Tension flopped at United States box office. When Miramax planned to release the English-dubbed versions of Shaolin Soccer and Hero in the United States cinemas, their English-dubbed versions scored badly in test screenings in the United States, so Miramax finally released the films in United States cinemas with their original language.
Foreign language films that are particularly successful in international markets may be taken on by the large film distribution companies for DVD releases. At the other end of the scale, many foreign language films are never given a DVD release outside of their home markets. The majority of those DVDs that are given an international release, come out on specialist labels. These labels include:
- Arrow Films (UK) - Label specialising in foreign language and cult English language films
- Artificial Eye (US and UK)
- Axiom Films (UK)
- British Film Institute (UK)
- Contender Entertainment Group - Label distributing East Asian films. They bought out Medusa Communications in 2005, and own the sub-labels Hong Kong Legends (specialising in films from Hong Kong) and Premier Asia (specialising in films from the rest of East Asia, particularly Japan, South Korea and Thailand). CEG bought out the label.
- The Criterion Collection (US)
- Dragon Dynasty (US) - Label specialising in films from East Asia.
- Eastern Eye (Australia)
- Facets Multimedia (US)
- Film Movement (US)
- Fortissimo Films (Netherlands / international)
- ImaginAsian Pictures (US)
- Janus Films (US)
- Kino International (US) - Label distributing foreign language, arthouse and silent films.
- Manga Entertainment (US and UK) - Label specialising in anime.
- Masters of Cinema (UK)
- Mongrel Media (Canada)
- Optimum Releasing (UK) - Distributor of foreign and English language films in the UK. East Asian films released through their Optimum Asia sub-label.
- Palador Pictures (India) - Distributors of highly awarded foreign language films from across the world.
- Palisades Tartan (US and UK) - Palisades bought out the back catalogue of Tartan Films when they folded.
- Soda Pictures (UK)
- Studio Canal (France)
- Tartan Films (US and UK) - Label distributing a variety of foreign and English language films, though primarily East Asian films. The company consists of Tartan Video in the UK and Tartan Films USA, as well as the Tartan Asia Extreme and Tartan Terror horror labels. The company folded in 2008 and were taken over by Palisades.
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- Xu, Gary G. (2007). Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 44. ISBN 0742554503.