This past weekend, Indonesian action movie The Raid 2 expanded nationwide in to 954 theaters. It was arriving two years after its predecessor earned $4.1 million total, so box office expectations weren't particularly high for this outing.
Still, there was some hope that the sequel could at least top the first movie. After all, The Raid: Redemption has surely built up some kind of fan base through two years of home video viewing. The Raid 2 promised more of the same kind of brutal action, but on a much bigger scale: instead of being set exclusively in one building, The Raid 2 is a sprawling crime epic.
Also, the reviews were generally enthusiastic (79 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), and there were very loud and very enthusiastic proponents of the movie (the poster dubbed it "one of the greatest action movies ever made.")
Therefore, it came as a bit of a surprise when The Raid 2 opened to just $956,672, which was slightly lower than the first movie's expansion (at fewer locations). Because of the poor theater average, the first movie lost screens quickly, and a similar fate is likely for The Raid 2.
Ultimately, it would be surprising if the movie earns more than $4 million total. This means that both Raid movies will combine for less than the individual grosses of recent action movie duds Dead Man Down, Sabotage and The Last Stand (among others).
It's easy to put the blame on marketing, and it's true that Sony Classics didn't make the kind of primetime ad buys required for a successful nationwide debut. Still, the failure of both of The Raid movies reinforces the notion that domestic audiences just aren't that in to foreign language movies.
The year 2000 was the last time that foreign language movies accounted for more than 1.5 percent of total domestic box office, and that was mainly due to the phenomenal success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (because it was produced in the U.S., The Passion of the Christ is typically excluded from foreign language analyses).
Other comparatively strong years included 2006 (1.47%), 2004 (1.44%), 2001 (1.19%) and 2002 (1.06%). [Note: This is based on release year, not what year the money was earned.] Most of those years had at least one breakout title, though: Pan's Labyrinth, Jet Li's Fearless, Hero, Amelie, etc.
Last year was also decent: the $112 million earned by foreign language movies was the largest total since 2006. That was driven in large part by Instructions Not Included, though, and it still represents a paltry sum: its less than the individual totals of Grown Ups 2 ($133.7 million) and Now You See Me ($117.7 million), and about on par with The Hangover Part III ($112.2 million).
That's right—the combined ticket sales for every single foreign language movie released in 2013 is roughly on par with The Hangover Part III.
Last year was actually a major improvement over the 2007 to 2012 period: while the trend isn't definitive, there's data that suggests U.S. audiences have become less interested in foreign cinema over the past seven years or so. Among the Top 25 all-time foreign language movies, only five have been released since 2007. In comparison, the all-time domestic chart has 11 new entries from that time, while the all-time worldwide chart has a whopping 18.
Some of these movies are admittedly hard to connect with for a U.S. audience: for example, recent Best Picture nominee Amour was a particularly challenging movie. For other movies, though, it seems to be exclusively a language issue.
In the midst of a phenomenal worldwide box office run, French comedy The Intouchables reached U.S. theaters in Summer 2012. It was already one of the highest-grossing movies ever in France, and was one of the biggests hits of the year in neighboring Germany (#3 in 2012) and Spain (#5 in 2012). It also cracked the yearly Top 50 in other major markets like South Korea (#32), Brazil (#34), Italy (#34) and Japan (#40). The Intouchables clearly had the kind of appeal that crossed cultural barriers, though that didn't help much in the U.S. By the end of its run, The Intouchables had earned just over $10 million here, which put it in 136th place in 2012. [Note: unlike most titles, that gross does not include sales from Canada.] The difference between the U.S. and these other markets is simple: they're used to and comfortable with watching movies produced in another language.
Of course, foreign movies aren't advertised much, nor do they receive the kind of nationwide releases typical of Hollywood fare (only 16 foreign movies have ever played at more than 600 theaters on a single weekend). That's a supply/demand issue: studios aren't going to market them, and theaters aren't going to book them, unless they think there's an audience. And that just doesn't seem to be the case here.
Knowing all of this, why did Sony Classics push both Raid movies in to so many locations? The specifics in this case are unclear, though release patterns are often dictated by contractual agreements (i.e. the filmmakers may have required such a release in the acquisition agreement), or by home video considerations (i.e. the "long-tail" of a movie is worth more if it received a "nationwide" theatrical release).
Don't despair, Raid fans: general audiences will eventually see the story play out on the big screen. Unfortunately, it will be in the form of the inevitable English-language remake.