Last month, when Bong Joon Ho, the South Korean director of the film “Parasite,” accepted the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, he teased American moviegoers that a whole world of wonderful cinema awaited them beyond Hollywood.
“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong said during his acceptance speech.
In the United States, foreign language films with subtitles rarely gain the traction that “Parasite” has. It won over both audiences and critics and raked in more than $35 million on its way to winning four Academy Awards on Sunday, capping a glittering awards season with a best picture Oscar. It was the first film not in English to take home the top prize in the Academy’s 92-year history.
It was a seismic night for fans of foreign films in the United States, where moviegoers have historically preferred their popular films in English. And it left some wondering: Are those 1-inch-tall subtitles still a barrier?
Even before “Parasite,” a thriller about the class divide in South Korea, took off, there were signs that things had begun to shift for subtitled entertainment in the United States. The film joined a small group of subtitled films that have broken through to mainstream success in Hollywood over the last two decades, like “Roma” (2018), “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), “Amelie” (2001) and “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (2000), a Chinese drama that earned $128 million, making it the highest grossing foreign language film in the United States.
Over the same period, as streaming services have replaced network and cable television, subtitles have also gained a stronger toehold on smaller screens, from cellphones to TV sets.
Researchers credit the shift in part to two factors. The first is a 2016 rule from the Federal Communications Commission that made it mandatory for a TV show that has been captioned for broadcast to also be captioned when it is posted online or on a streaming service such at Netflix or Hulu. The second factor, they say, is Netflix itself. It is the most popular streaming platform in the United States, with more than 60 million paid subscribers, and much of its original content is in languages other than English.
More than 50% of the audiences for the Netflix shows “Dark,” which is in German, and “3%”, which is in Portuguese, are international.
A Netflix spokeswoman pointed to “Narcos,” a series about drug dealers in Mexico and Colombia. It has scenes in both Spanish and English, and uses subtitles for the Spanish dialogue, but that hasn’t kept the show from being popular, she said.
What’s happening in your brain
For people who dislike subtitles, common complaints have been that they distract from the action onscreen, are hard to focus on, or that reading them can feel like work if a plot is complicated. Dubbing, in which speech in the target audience’s language replaces the original dialogue, is an easier alternative, some say.
And it’s true that watching a movie with subtitles is cognitively different from watching one without, experts say.
“Whenever you are watching a movie there is a whole orchestra’s worth of things happening in your brain,” said Jeffrey Zacks, a professor of psychology and brain science at Washington University.
“That information includes what the words are and how they are ordered but also information about pitch and amplitude, which tells you a lot about emotional expression,” he added.
The need to read to understand what is going on means you have to use other parts of your brain, according to Tim Smith, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at Birkbeck, University of London.
But there is no scientific proof that the extra cognitive load is what keeps people from plopping down in front of a screen to read and watch a subtitled movie, Smith said.
Rather, the extra work does not necessarily detract from the experience the movie has to offer, he said.
“When you’re watching a subtitled movie, you have to be engaged with the screen and be more attached, but once you engage with that, you can have as rich an experience as if it were your language,” he said.
Have audience tastes changed?
When it comes to subtitled films, there’s what happens in your brain, and there’s what happens in the entertainment business.
Through the 1950s, subtitled foreign language films were marketable in the United States, according to Carol O’Sullivan, a historian of film translation at the University of Bristol in England.
“There were two big audiences for subtitled films,” she said. “You were either really well-read or were from an immigrant community that knew the language,” she said.
About a decade ago, the national theater chain AMC decided it wanted to show more subtitled films — and make money doing it. It hired Nikkole Denson-Randolph to be the vice president of content strategy and inclusive programming, who brought more subtitled foreign language movies to American screens, some from China and some from India’s Bollywood.
“We are opening dozens of subtitled foreign language films a month, some on one screen, some on 10, as we learn what our guests are looking to watch,” Denson-Randolph said, adding that AMC has not yet been able to crack the code.
“We have seen a lot of distributors attempt to produce the same magic as ‘Parasite,’” she said. “But if you don’t know who the audience is, it’s hard to make them work.”