Foreign Films, English Titles and the Dilemma Distributors Face

Two years ago, international film releases in the United States reached a new pinnacle with the crowning of Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” as best picture at the Academy Awards. But before “Parasite” or any other non-English-language film even hits theaters, a basic question has to be settled: the title.

Distributors say the title can be the first impression a movie makes on prospective audiences, and so they give it a great deal of thought. How do you translate the original title? Do you add a word or two to clarify? Or do you leave the Spanish or Korean or French as is?

Titles have been a consideration at least since the influx of foreign films in the 1950s and ’60s. When a title sticks, it has a way of enduring: it’s hard to imagine Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” being translated as simply “The Adventure.” The cryptic title “The 400 Blows” didn’t prevent people enjoying that film’s riches. (It’s a reference to a French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups,” commonly rendered as “to raise hell.”)

The Korean title for “Parasite” was essentially the same word, and more often than not, a straightforward translation makes sense, said Richard Lorber, the president of Kino Lorber, a major distributor of international films.

But occasionally a title is changed for clarity. The French coming-of-age drama “Water Lilies” (2008) had a completely different French title for its romantic story centered on three teenage girls who swim at the same pool.

The original name translated as “Birth of the Octopuses.” “It’s a tricky title,” Lorber said.

The Korean title for “Parasite” was essentially the same word.Credit…Neon

“Water Lilies” was proposed as an alternative by the film’s sales agent, the professional who sells the rights to distribute films in specific territories like the U.S. The new title (still evocative but a little more straightforward) stuck for the release, which was the debut feature of the director Céline Sciamma (whose latest, “Petite Maman,” opened in the spring).

Sometimes a translation or alteration of any sort is unnecessary. The 2020 Brazilian thriller “Bacurau,” another Kino Lorber release, is named after the fictional town where the action takes place.

And an English translation may not capture the full meaning of the more evocative original. The title of Pedro Almodóvar’s 2006 “Volver” (“to come back” in Spanish) was not translated for its U.S. release by Sony Pictures Classics, unlike, say, his 1999 drama “All About My Mother.” (Almodóvar’s name recognition no doubt aided the profiles of both films.)

Whatever the reasoning, distributors agreed that they didn’t assume a non-English title was an obstacle for audiences.

“I think the resistance to foreign titles and foreign-language films has certainly been eroded for the better, along with the resistance to subtitles,” said Ryan Krivoshey, who runs Grasshopper Film. He pointed to the success of the Oscar-winning “Drive My Car” and the prevalence of foreign series on Netflix. Grasshopper Film recently distributed “Il Buco” (literally, “The Hole” in Italian) and even has a forthcoming release with a Latin title (“De Humani Corporis Fabrica”).

On a wider platform like Netflix, foreign films and series can vary as to whether they are translated, left alone or rephrased.

The five-season hit series “Money Heist” received a makeover from the original Spanish, which translated as “The House of Paper,” while the dystopian thriller “The Platform” was originally “El Hoyo” (“The Hole”). But for a number of foreign features it has acquired, Netflix leaves their lyrical titles more or less intact: “Happy as Lazzaro,” “Atlantics” (tweaked from the French, “Atlantique”), “I Lost My Body.” (A Netflix representative declined to comment.)

Carlos Gutiérrez of Cinema Tropical, a nonprofit that specializes in presenting Spanish-language cinema, saw a shift in titles at the turn of the millennium.

“I think ‘Amores Perros’ opened up the door that it was cool to leave a title in Spanish,” Gutiérrez said of the 2000 film from the future Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman”). Shortly thereafter, “Y Tu Mamá También” was released to widespread acclaim, opening up more doors.

The French coming-of-age drama “Water Lilies” (2008) had a completely different French title, which translated as “Birth of the Octopuses.”Credit…Koch Lorber Films, via Photofest

Gutiérrez also saw a growing potential Spanish-speaking market for filmsgoing by their original titles.

“After the census of 2000, I think this country realized that there was a big consuming Latinx group that we were not tapping into,” Gutiérrez said, noting that the openness to original-language titles lasted even as the box office share of international features shrank.

The journey for many international releases begins at festivals. A sales agent might have already determined how a title is translated or marketed, anticipating the first wave of reviews and other coverage.

Last fall, two films directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi crossed over from festivals to open commercially in the U.S. “Drive My Car” shared its name with the Haruki Murakami source material (a story that also used the Beatles song as its title, but transliterated into Japanese); it went on to win the Academy Award for best international feature. But Hamaguchi’s second release in 2021, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” used an extension of the original Japanese title, roughly translated as “Coincidence and Imagination.”

The film had already received admiring reviews and recognition, even if some saw an echo of a long-running game show in the title.

“Often your feelings about the title per se are secondary to its awareness out in the market, and that’s fine,” Maxwell Wolkin of Film Movement, the movie’s distributor, said. The extended title stayed.

The right to change a title might not even be contractually granted to a distributor when it acquires a film, or the approval of the director or producer may be required. But distributors offered up examples of the delicate calculus involved in connecting films with potential audiences: punching up the recent Norwegian oil-rig thriller “North Sea” to the more vivid “Burning Sea” or retaining the Spanish title for the 2019 family drama “Temblores,” partly to avoid referencing a 1980s horror film about underground worms (“Tremors”).

Once in a while, a film openly adopts an established title but puts its appeal to entirely fresh uses. Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (2019) is a mind-expanding riff on film noir that features an hourlong sequence shot in a single take and rendered in 3D.

Despite the name, it’s not an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play. Adding to the mystique, the film’s Mandarin-language title echoes that of a Roberto Bolaño story.

“Everybody sort of scratched their head,” Lorber said of the O’Neill reference. “But Bi Gan just liked that play, and he liked the name, and he just wanted to go with it. And the film stood out on its own.”

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