Film festivals such as Locarno, which starts on August 7, are some of the last dubbing-free places to watch films in Europe. swissinfo.ch examines fears that original versions and subtitles are facing extinction.
“Two years ago, I thought that if things carried on as they were, we wouldn’t have subtitles anymore in five years. But now I’m more optimistic,” Leo Baumgartner, head of Warner Bros Switzerland, told swissinfo.ch.
“Now with digitalisation, even in smaller out-of-town places we have one evening a week in the original version, which gives us back a bit of hope. With expensive 35mm prints that would have been impossible.”
While the total number of bums on Swiss cinema seats has stayed roughly the same over the past decade (16,962,996 in 2003 compared with 15,888,585 in 2012), figures from ProCinema, the national association of cinema owners and film distributors, show that the proportion of original, subtitled versions has dropped from 55 per cent of the total to 42 per cent over the same period.
Why? No one really knows. Distributors and cinema owners usually point the finger at, in their opinion, lazy and/or illiterate teenagers, but Frank Braun, manager of two art-house cinemas, Riffraff in Zurich and Bourbaki in Lucerne, reckons this argument is “a bit flimsy”.
He says people generally bet on what makes more money – “that’s the real reason behind this development”.
Given that more than two-thirds of admissions to Swiss cinemas in 2012 were for English-language blockbusters (see box), distributors appear to have given in to teenagers who say that if they pay up to CHF20 ($21.50) to watch a film, they want to be able to understand it.
Baumgartner doesn’t deny that financial considerations play a role. “If we spend a lot of money on subtitles but then only ten per cent – or even less – of the audience watch them, we then start questioning our decision.”
However, not all young people are subtitle-phobic. Many insist on the original version for a range of reasons, including practising their foreign languages and not having to endure humour which is often lost in translation (see video).
Country market share, 2012
(Countries with more than 1% of the admissions market share in Switzerland)
United States 129 new releases – 8,979,655 admissions – 56.52% market share
France 110 – 2,659,527 – 16.74%
Britain 26 – 1,718,517 – 10.82%
Switzerland 80 – 796,410 – 5.01%
Germany 38 – 526,491 – 3.31%
New Zealand 1 – 415,357 – 2.61%
Films from 60 other countries were shown
(Source: ProCinema)end of infobox
Art house vs blockbusters
"Switzerland is an exception! It has been for a long time,” says Xavier Pattaroni, film programmer for Cinemotion, a group of three cinemas in the French-speaking part of the country.
“If you look at film programming in Germany or France and compare it with similarly sized cinemas in Switzerland – whether in Bern, Zurich, Lausanne or Geneva – in Germany for mainstream films you’ll only get the dubbed version.”
Whether this is due to Switzerland’s three linguistic regions – and a population used to reading other languages – Pattaroni said it was hard to say.
“Previously it might have been cool or fashionable to watch the original version – I’m not sure that’s still the case. But there has certainly been a tradition in Switzerland of favouring original versions that’s much stronger than in other European countries.”
However, dubbing has gradually been gaining a foothold in German-speaking Switzerland, with 2007 being the turning point when more tickets were sold for dubbed films than subtitled ones.
Titanic, for example, the most successful film ever in Swiss cinemas, was released here in January 1998 and could be seen only in English with subtitles. The 3D re-release in 2012, on the other hand, was shown in both versions but, according to Philippe Täschler, head of Switzerland’s biggest cinema operator Kitag, “almost no one wanted to watch the English version”.
Pattaroni hypothesises that the Facebook and Twitter generation spends so much time online that when they go to the cinema they can’t be bothered to read any more. He jokingly suggests that films should be subtitled in SMS speak. “Maybe they’d find that really cool!”
But don’t young people today speak better English than 20 or 30 years ago? Leo Baumgartner says that’s what was thought for a long time “but apparently it’s not the case”.
“They know a lot of English words and like to use them, but when it comes to really understanding the language or even speaking it, it seems to be different. Too bad – they miss the opportunity of watching English versions and learning the language at the same time.”
Cinema in multilingual Switzerland
In German-speaking Switzerland: Independent films: original version with German and French subtitles, sometimes just German subtitles. Blockbusters: usually both dubbed and subtitled versions are available (in cities anyway), although the subtitled version usually has a shorter run. Some 3D children’s animations are only available dubbed. Smaller cinemas not in cities often show only dubbed versions.
In French-speaking Switzerland: Independent films: original version with German and French subtitles, sometimes just French subtitles. Blockbusters: dubbed into French.
In Italian-speaking Switzerland: Independent films: original version with German and French subtitles. Blockbusters: dubbed into Italian.end of infobox
So while voice actors in Germany, France and Italy are rubbing their hands – distributors in Switzerland’s three linguistic regions simply import dubbed versions of the latest mainstream hits from their respective neighbours – Swiss subtitlers are feeling the pinch.
“A company like ours lived from subtitling 35mm films [using the costly process of laser engraving on physical film strips], but that’s almost disappeared,” Ronald Ducrest, head of Geneva-based subtitling company Titra, told swissinfo.ch.
“Since the introduction of digital, putting [German or French] subtitles onto a hard disc can be done in India or Poland! A text file is sent via email and added with a software programme. That means many companies no longer come to us.”
Titra’s turnover has been dwindling for the past three years; Ducrest says that six years ago they employed seven people for subtitling, today there is only one – who uses hard discs. The laser engravers have gone.
Despite the challenging market conditions, Ducrest says he’s “actually relatively optimistic” because he sees how many distributors turned to companies abroad “who are very cheap but who do really poor work”.
“We also tried to collaborate with a foreign company but the quality of work wasn’t suitable for Switzerland: it was badly translated, badly positioned – simply not good enough. I think many distributors prefer to pay a bit more and have subtitles that stand up.”
All the industry experts consulted by swissinfo.ch preferred original versions – for Baumgartner “that’s not even a question!”
“No one in the movie industry ever looks at dubbed films, without exception,” he said.
Pattaroni said an original voice is a “different experience” from a dubbed voice. “Then there is humour. Some jokes can be translated into other languages and work well, others are simply untranslatable,” he said, citing Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, which in 2008 broke nearly every box office record in France but whose wordplay humour and comedy pronunciations failed abroad, despite valiant efforts by subtitlers and dubbers.
“Other cases include a recent film which took place in Israel and addresses the Israel-Palestine problem. In the original version you can hear when someone is speaking Arabic, even if you can’t understand it. If everything’s dubbed into French, how do you get across the subtleties? For me, original versions are clearly better.”
The organisers of the Locarno Film Festival agree, and cinephiles will be able to watch more than 250 films from all around the world – all as their directors intended them to be seen (and heard).