With the budgets of major films soaring and movie attendance stagnant in the United States, Hollywood is using 3D technology and premium theaters like IMAX to bolster the sizzling foreign box office even in the midst of a worldwide economic downturn.
The special-effects driven and animated films that movie studios are so busy exporting have the advantage of being heavy on spectacle and light on dialogue, allowing them to overcome culture barriers to be enjoyed by a wide and remote audience, studio executives and analysts tell TheWrap.
“If you look at the stories that we’re telling, like ‘The Amazing Spider-Man,’ these pictures are meant for every person on the planet,” Rory Bruer, worldwide president of distribution at Sony Pictures, told TheWrap. “They’re not U.S.-centric. They’re relatable for everyone.”
So far, it seems to be working. A survey of the top 10 global box office hits so far this year shows that some films are actually playing better in translation than they are with U.S. audiences.
Take “Ice Age: Continental Drift”: The animated sequel debuted in North America to mediocre reviews and has so far racked up a decent $143.7 million domestically. But abroad it’s been a different picture entirely. The fourth film in Twentieth Century Fox’s Pleistocene era franchise has drawn a massive $620.5 million at the foreign box office, making it ones of the year’s biggest, albeit unheralded, hits.
“[Ice Age] has a broad, universal character base that is beloved on a worldwide basis,” Chris Aronson, head of distribution at Fox, told TheWrap. “In certain territories, like Latin America, this is one of the biggest films of all time.”
And it’s not the only film that has found foreign audiences more hospitable. “Men in Black 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” for instance, were outperformed domestically by their predecessors, earning $176.6 million and $255.5 million respectively. Yet overseas audiences seemed to find the films fresher, propelling the latest “Men in Black” to $445.3 million at the foreign box office and helping to justify more “Spider-Man” sequels by pushing the latest wall-crawler film to $435.1 million at the foreign box office.
“Some of these older franchises don’t play as well when they’re rebooted here, but if you think about it from the perspective of an Indian audience, when the first 'Spiderman' or the first 'Men in Black' came out, they didn’t have the same cinema-going experience that they do now,” Bruce Nash, founder of the box office statistics site The Numbers, told TheWrap. “Now they can see it as it is meant to be seen in a fancy theater with bunch of friends and a great sound system.”
Even films that have been unequivocal smashes with U.S. audiences, like "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises," have racked up more than half of their total grosses at the foreign box office. The rare exception is "The Hunger Games," which relied on domestic ticket buyers for nearly two-thirds of its $684.4 million worldwide take.
There’s another advantage to the increasingly global nature of the movie business, as well. The expanding marketplace for U.S. films is alleviating the pain of costly flops.
This year’s two most notorious turkeys, “Battleship” and “John Carter," both drowned in red ink. But the situation would have been much more dire were not for foreign audiences.
“John Carter” eked out only $73 million domestically, but overseas’ ticket buyers were far more amenable to the fantasy film’s charms, pushing it to a $282.7 million gross globally. Likewise, “Battleship” sank with $65.2 million gross at the domestic box office, but overseas its explosions and aliens played better, racking up an additional $237.6 million in foreign territories.
From 2007 to 2011, the box office in Europe, the Middle East and Africa underwent a 24 percent increase, a 38 percent jump in Asia Pacific and an 86 percent leap in Latin America, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. In 2011, the total international box office was up 35 percent in U.S. dollars from five years ago. In the U.S. and Canada, however, the box office over that same period rose a mere 6 percent.
Helping to fuel this growth has been the expansion of 3D screens, which from 2007 to 2011, jumped by 61 percent in Europe, increased by 58 percent in Asia and grew by 97 percent in Latin America, according to IHS Screen Digest.
With China loosening its restrictions on the number of films it imports and countries like Brazil and Russia dramatically increasing the number of modern movie theaters within their borders, studio executives expect the good times to keep rolling.
American movies are even venturing into places they haven’t been in decades; witness Twentieth Century Fox’s announcement this week that “Titanic 3D” will sail into Myanmar, a part of the world that’s been closed to Hollywood for a generation.
With an eye toward broadening that appeal, studios are peppering their films with actors who have a significant fan base in foreign countries, but are largely unknown on these shores.
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Take, for example, Japanese megastar Tadanobu Asano’s key role as a heroic navy captain in “Battleship” or Irrfan Khan’s supporting performance as a morally questionable scientist in “The Amazing Spider-Man” -- both men may be fine actors, but their appearances helped broaden the film’s appeal to foreign audiences.
There are still limits to what works overseas, however. It’s the rare comedy, like “The Hangover,” that is able to play well abroad, meaning that punch-line driven films like “21 Jump Street” will have to content themselves with making the bulk of their profits in English-speaking countries. Yet, as other countries grow more attuned to the American idiom, that could change too, as evidenced by the more than $100 million brought in by "Ted" at the foreign box office.
“It varies from film to film,” Aronson said. “It has to do with the types of comedies and the types of humor, but there are some that play well on a territorial basis.”
Another trend that may accelerate, is the practice of debuting films like “Battleship” and “Prometheus” overseas before they premiere domestically, allowing them to hit the American market having racked up a sizable financial cushion.
“The studios are less shy about releasing a movie internationally first than they were a few years ago,” Nash said. “There’s no longer a feeling that American moviegoers are going to feel snubbed if ‘Spider-Man’ opens 24 hours earlier in France.”