One of my favorite films of 2016, Shin Godzilla, played only four days in town. The Japanese film opened on a Monday, as I discovered at the last minute.
And, despite what you might expect, Shin Godzilla played at Marcus Point, not Sundance, where a lot of people expect to see foreign films.
Madison is currently enjoying a boom in global popular cinema, which is great for moviegoers who want Bollywood romances, Mandarin swordplay films or access to popular films in their native languages.
But the films are not playing when or where you’d expect to find them, and changes in the way they are distributed and marketed mean many films remain hidden in plain sight.
Here’s one of the biggest surprises: Marcus Point, home of trademarked recliners, played more foreign-language films in 2016 than any commercial theater in Madison. Sundance Madison came in third.
Asian popular cinema, especially from India and China, now dominates Madison’s foreign-language film market. AMC Fitchburg 18 has featured Indian films regularly since 2012. Marcus Point has joined AMC in showcasing Bollywood (Hindi language), Tollywood (Telugu) and Kollywood (Tamil) films.
Some Indian titles have opened at both Point and Fitchburg 18, like the actioner 24, sports drama M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story and romance Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
"I Am Not Madame Bovary"
Chinese popular titles have increased at AMC Fitchburg since October, with genres including romance (I Belonged to You, Soulmate), comedy (I Am Not Madame Bovary) and action (Operation Mekong, Sword Master).
None of the Asian films were reviewed in local print media, which results in a skewed impression of our film culture. Obviously, many people are finding the films they want to see by using apps for showtimes and aggregates for reviews. But the absence of local reviews obscures the films and the local diasporic communities that support them.
Digital distribution, which allows chains more flexibility to experiment with international genre films and reach new audiences, has increased the number of flexible special events like Shin Godzilla in Madison. But it also allows theaters to make very late confirmations about what will actually play in a given week. That makes editorial decisions about reviews challenging, and accurate movie listings a near-futile endeavor. It also affects which films get reviewed.
In 2016, more than 75 percent of Sundance’s foreign films were reviewed in either The Capital Times or Isthmus — which is great. But Sundance represented about 25 percent of foreign-language theatrical engagements. Sundance justifiably dominates local foreign film reviews because it best addresses deadline issues with advance publicity materials.
Bollywood blockbusters, promoted by cardboard standees at AMC Fitchburg, often are not available for preview. In a Twitter exchange, New York Times critic Andy Webster confirmed he “paid like everyone else” to see Dear Zindagi after its global release date. When similar films play only for a week in Madison, a print review would be yesterday’s news at weekly publications like The Capital Times and Isthmus.
The Wisconsin State Journal published a helpful introduction to Indian cinema in August, focusing on the audience’s enthusiastic response to screenings of Kabali at Point and Market Square. But Kabali’s run ended by the time the piece was published.
I used movie listings and theater websites to compile a list of all of Madison’s foreign-language offerings in 2016. And the results reinforce an important lesson: Theater chains do pursue viable niche markets. Marcus Point led the foreign-language race with 32 films, followed by AMC Fitchburg with 20 and Sundance Madison with 18. Sundance did not have any weeklong foreign bookings between Margueritte in May and Our Little Sister in September.
The most frequent languages were Telugu (15), Hindi (11), Tamil (8) and Mandarin and Japanese (each 7). The most frequent European languages were French (5) and Spanish (2).
Future growth depends on continued commitments from the theater chains. Despite leading the pack due to Indian programming, Marcus Theatres has not updated its “Bollywood Showcase” website page since August 2015. But Point has devoted separate screens to Telugu and Tamil versions of some films, signaling the chain understands its target audience.
AMC Theaters, which runs AMC Fitchburg 18 and is owned by Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin’s Dalian Wanda Group, also seems to get it and has broadened its influence on the international market. Improving the global impact of Asian film industries makes sense for its corporate strategy. AMC confirmed its purchase of Carmike Cinemas in November, making AMC the largest theater chain in the United States.
Carmike acquired Sundance Cinemas last year. My prediction: After AMC completes the Carmike transition, Sundance Madison will show its first Bollywood film.
Along with a number of mainstream American films, Sundance screened many challenging films this year, including Son of Saul, Aferim! and Francofonia. The Lobster (Greek director, English language) opened wide after a week at Sundance, and ranked second on Box-Office Mojo’s list of limited-release films of 2016.
But Sundance might be missing out on key audiences: The next film on that list to play in Madison was Bollywood star Salman Khan’s Sultan, which nationally outearned Sundance selections like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Captain Fantastic.
Unlocking the puzzle of Madison’s international cinema scene means continuing to be diligent. I’ll need to continue checking on Fridays to confirm what actually has opened, and double-checking for special engagements through the week, hunting for my next Shin Godzilla.