To dub or not to dub? - a hot question on the Czech film market

To dub or not to dub?

The film Shrek 2 that has just been released in the Czech Republic. But in Czech cinemas Shrek does not speak in the voice of Mike Myers, the donkey is not Eddie Murphy and you won't hear Antonio Banderas, Cameron Diaz or John Cleese. The characters have all been dubbed by Czech actors. It is usual practice in the case of children's or family movies but recently some voices started calling for the dubbing of all films regardless of the target group.

To dub or not to dub?
But what do Czech audiences really want? We asked a few movie-goers outside a multiplex in the centre of Prague.

"Subtitles, for sure. Because dubbing very often spoils everything. I absolutely prefer subtitles because it keeps the copyright of the movie and it happens very often that the dubbing is very low quality. I know really rare cases when dubbing is really good."

"Subtitled. I understand the case of Shrek 2 - it's a children's film."

"I prefer dubbed films because I don't speak good English, so dubbing for me is much better."

"It keeps the original soundtrack, it has the original touch to it. Otherwise it diminishes the quality of the film in a way."

"Subtitles. It's better always."

A small sample of Prague cinema-goers there.

One of the vocal advocates of dubbing is Palace Cinemas - a chain of shiny new multiplex movie theatres. David Horacek is the general manager of operations. He describes the situation on the Czech movie market.

"In the Czech Republic some 250 movies are released every year and out of them about 15 are Czech movies but they represent a higher proportion of admissions. For the rest it means that 75 percent of the admissions behind the non-Czech movies I would say some 80 percent of them are films with subtitles, mostly coming from Hollywood. And the movies which are dubbed are movies for children or family movies. Some of them would not normally be dubbed but these days some distributors thanks to a long term discussion on that decided to dub them."

In Czech cinemas Shrek does not speak in the voice of Mike Myers.
So to dub or not to dub? David Horacek of Palace Cinemas.

"My opinion is clear. I would dub almost everything. We have a sister company in Hungary. Hungary has 10 million inhabitants and they represent some 15-16 million admissions per year. We have the same number of inhabitants in the Czech Republic. We had a record year last year when we had 12 million. I would say the difference between the two countries and those two situations is caused by the fact almost every movie is dubbed in Hungary."

That's the voice of a cinema operator. Another important group of players in the film game are film distributors. Martin Malik is the head of theatrical distribution at Warner Brothers Czech Republic.

"We are convinced that only films for children and family movies should be dubbed - obviously, because of the segment of viewers. Then there are conversational films where the spoken word is more important than the image where we can imagine that we could offer to some Czech viewers a chance to see the movie in their mother tongue without having to read the subtitles, especially if they don't speak much English. And there is a third category where we cannot imagine releasing dubbed copies - as an example I can mention the Lord of the Rings trilogy."

One argument often cited against dubbing is that the films lose some of their original value. But as David Horacek of Palace Cinemas says, artistic value is one thing and the box-office is another.

"Of course, to see the movie in the original has a certain value. We can say that if it is dubbed it could lose a bit of the performance of that actor or actress or a little bit of the spirit. If I led that example to the end, it might lose a certain number of the admissions, of the customers. But I would say that the number of the customers who will come instead of that is much higher than the loss."

Some nations have a long tradition of film dubbing, for example our neighbours, the Germans. In this country it is the case with television films but most movies in cinemas have traditionally been subtitled. Would Czech cinema goers accept the new trend?

"I would say yes. They are, shortly said, used to that. All the movies on TV, whether it is public TV or whether it is commercial TVs, everything is dubbed. Everything that is on video, VHS or to a large extent also on DVD, is dubbed. So I would say, the normal, ordinary viewer, or customer, is generally used to dubbing, so I would say he would appreciate the same in the cinema. I would say that the fact that just a small part of the movies in the cinemas is dubbed builds a certain border, certain problem, certain wall, for a certain number of people who would normally go to the cinema but they can't because they do not understand it or they can't read so quickly."

Martin Malik of Warner Brothers Czech Republic has a different view. He told me that originally a different company was supposed to distribute the Lord of the Rings and was going to dub the whole trilogy. When Warner Bros took over, they received a flood of e-mails demanding that the films be shown with the original sound.

"To some extent we think it is a tradition in this country and also knowing how the market works here, we don't think that that many more people would come to watch a dubbed copy than a subtitled one. Another reason are expenses. To dub a film is so expensive that it doesn't pay off - with the exception of films like Harry Potter - to dub all films."

For David Horacek of Palace Cinemas the cost of dubbing is money well spent.

"Of course, dubbing is more expensive. It depends, there are many ways to do it. The cost could be sometimes 20-30 percent higher [than subtitles]. It depends very much on the technology and the sound formats and the cast - how good actors you want to have. Sometimes it could be up to 50-60 percent more."

How could the standpoints of a cinema operator and a film distributor differ so sharply when they both aim for the same - more tickets sold to satisfied viewers?

"I don't think we are in direct conflict with cinema operators. We can imagine there could be a category of films where the viewer could choose between dubbing or Czech subtitles, apart from children's and family films. On the other hand, with the current costs of dubbing, we cannot imagine all films could be dubbed. If cinema operators say that could attract a certain number of viewers, they might be right, but the question is how many more viewers would come and whether it would cover the increased expenses. This is where we disagree with individual cinema operators."

To be able to choose between a dubbed and a subtitled copy would solve the quandary. But of course that would be the most expensive option of all, although in the case of a few films it is actually possible.

"In Prague there are a lot of foreigners, a lot of expatriates, and there are a large number of them with entire families. So there is a certain number of people who like to see the film in the original but the number of the people who appreciate it in the dubbed form is much bigger, so I would say in the case of such a movie as Harry Potter it definitely makes sense to have both."

Which trend will prevail in the end is difficult to predict now. Whether the current practice will continue or whether the original voices of famous actors will become just a memory for Czech audiences...