I bellied up to the bar at a Caesar’s Palace nightclub in Las Vegas to drink some unremarkable red wine and talk about the movie previews we’d been watching all day at the CinemaCon annual convention. A couple of Europeans loitered nearby, speaking in animated tones in a language I did not.
What movies were they excited about, I asked? The two gentlemen were with Publicitas Cinecom, which sells advertising in movie theaters across the Continent. They’ve been doing it a long time and have a strong sense of what sells and what doesn’t.
“Fast and Furious” looked good, said Christian Wittmer, who according to his business card is a Geschaftsfuhrer, which as "managing director" is definitely less scary than it sounds.
But he and his colleague David Noth said the superhero movies would not do well, in their opinion. Most specifically, “Pacific Rim” the Guillermo del Toro blockbuster with a huge budget and a story of giant monsters fighting giant robots fighting humans (something like that; the plot isn’t all that clear) will not work, they say.
“Superheroes are not big in Europe, not like they are in China or Japan or the United States,” said Wittmer. “The only thing that worked in Europe was 'The Dark Knight.'”
Noth agreed. He saw the trailer for “Man of Steel,” a beautifully composed reimagining of the Superman story by director Zack Snyder — but nonetheless a quintessentially American fairy tale.
“Superman is a copy of Batman,” he theorized. “It’s darker, deeper, and it has a development of the characters. You don’t have that with 'The Avengers' or ‘Captain America.'”
“The Avengers” made $888 million overseas, but European breakout figures were not immediately available. That compared to $623 million domestically, not a typical split given the lead position that international takes in the box office. “Captain America” was a lot worse, taking in $191 million overseas, compared to $176 million domestically.
Noth laughed at invoking “Captain America,” whose international marketing problem is embedded in its name. European audiences don’t buy into the patriotic American mythmaking via comic-book heroes, he said. He mocked the “Oblivion” posters that used the Golden Gate bridge as a symbol.
Their views are not to be scoffed at at a time when the foreign box office constitutes nearly 70 percent of all ticket receipts. China may have become the second largest market in the world, but if you aggregate all the European countries, that continent would certainly be the largest market outside the United States. And unlike China, Europe represents a 100-year-old history of moviegoing and a cultural sophistication familiar to American moviemakers.
While there is a great effort by Hollywood to diversify its cast and storylines to be more inclusive of global elements — including Asian characters and other actors of color — both Wittmer and Noth said Hollywood does not do this nearly enough.
Why the Mexican-born del Toro, the director of “Pacific Rim,” may not bridge the cultural divide to Europe is anyone’s guess. “Guillermo is like a child,” said Noth. “In a good way. He’s like a 12-year-old. But the story of ‘Pacific Rim’ is flat. The robots don’t work. It’s a very one-dimensional, good-versus-evil story.”
As for the Rock, the star of “Pain and Gain”? “He’s a movie star who comes out of wrestling,” said Wittmer. “In Europe, wrestling is nothing.”
Either way, we don’t have long to see if they’re right. Summer is just around the corner.