Attack the Block needs subtitles for an American release. That’s the divisive concept that has caused me to lose hours of time to Twitter this morning. Everyone with an emotional stake in the matter — from the purists who say that a movie should be released unaltered to those who love the movie so dearly that they’d accept (almost) any solution that would get it out there in front of American audiences — has an opinion about the matter. And the truth is that Attack the Block doesn’t need subtitles. But distributors think it might. Traditional distributors. Which is part of the reason why this film deserves a home at Drafthouse Films. That and as Brian Salisbury explained in his review, the film is excellent. So excellent that it’s rallied passion behind its cause — people who saw it premiere in Austin at SXSW this week want one thing: for the rest of you to be able to see it.
This morning’s discussion over the subtitle issue arose from a week-old article over at Heat Vision, in which Borys Kit posits that distributors are nervous about Attack the Block. After a buyer’s screening in Berlin last month, the word was that the accents in the South London-set thriller were too thick for Ma and Pa America, and subtitles might be a solution that would lessen the risk of the buyer’s investment. Because as we know, the goal of film distribution is to make money. It’s a business like any other, and someone who is about to buy a film and distribute it wants to be confident that they will see a return on that investment. And even though the slang in the movie didn’t bother audiences in Austin, it may still make distributors nervous. And that’s a problem.
So what is the solution? Subtitles. This is where the conversation has become contentious. Is it okay for a distributor to come in and subtitle a movie made in English in order to sell it to the linguistically lazy American mainstream audience? My initial reaction: whatever gets the film in front of audiences. Subtitles don’t bother me, nor do I feel that subtitling Attack the Block would change the film. It would still be a lot of fun. The suggestion that adding subtitles to the film would drastically impact an audience’s potential enjoyment of the film is nonsense. But I understand the stance of purists. I myself have a secondary purist angle on it: I want you to be able to enjoy Attack the Block in a theater. It’s a film that should be seen on a very large screen, in an auditorium where the sound has been turned up a little too loud to get the full effect of that brilliant Basement Jaxx score.
But there’s another problem with the subtitles discussion: will it even matter? As Devin Faraci of Badass Digest pointed out to me on Twitter this morning, “90% of our readers will never see it theatrically because most of cast is black & unknown.” While I wouldn’t get behind the entire assertion, I would go a step further and say that most of the moviegoing audience in America won’t be driven to Attack the Block during a theatrical release. It’s not a wide-release event film. But there is a smaller, passionate audience that will eat this film up. The same audience that will eventually make it successful on home video formats. The same audience that comprises a good deal of our readership.
Which is where Drafthouse Films comes in. If we think about some of the release strategies being employed these days, one of the most talked about is four-walling. It’s the same way that Kevin Smith is currently releasing Red State. Take the movie on the road and take it directly to fans. In a sense, that’s what Drafthouse Films did last year with Four Lions. And while it didn’t exactly do gangbusters at the box office, there’s no doubt that they learned a few things along the way. Why not take Attack the Block on the road, directly to the audience that will receive it and love it. And if all goes well, you can spin that into a platform release. At the very least, you’ve minimized risk, because you’re not trying to sell it to the mainstream, only to the audience that will go wild for it, and it keeps the cost of distribution low. There’s no need to strike 1,000 prints of the film. Just a road show with director Joe Cornish and (in an ideal situation) producer Edgar Wright taking the stage for Q&As across America.
This solution brings the film to the audience that won’t need the subtitles. Because if there’s a point that distributors who balked at it in Berlin may be missing, it’s that mainstream America probably won’t go see this movie anyway. But there are people that will — and you can get to them by going on the road, and by letting the blogosphere buzz do most of the marketing for you. And in the end, you’ll satisfy those fans and they’ll reward you when it comes time to buy the film on Blu-ray. This is the ideal release for a great film such as Attack the Block.
Of course, it might not be feasible. There’s no indication yet as to what kind of money Studio Canal and Film 4 are seeking for American distribution rights. Drafthouse Films is a great label, but they aren’t playing with particularly cavernous pockets. As a secondary solution, I’d love to see a studio like Magnolia Pictures pick this up and give it a modest theatrical run coupled with a big VOD push.
The major point is that you should be able to see Attack the Block. The buzz out of SXSW isn’t manufactured, nor is it a situation of festival hype that won’t hold up out in the real world. It’s a damn fine film. Subtitled or not, distributed by a smart company or not, you should give it your support. However, as I’ve just explained (for anyone of those businessy-type folks in the audience), there is a way to do it right. And it doesn’t have to include subtitles.
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