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 , 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.