Hollywood Caters to a Ravenous Global Appetite

"Ice Age: The Meltdown" is the highest grossing film in Poland, part of a trend in which U.S. films are earning more overseas than domestically. (Blue Sky Studios)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 27, 2006

CANNES, France -- While the Hollywood eye candy with the dark sunglasses is paraded before the paparazzi , the real and serious business of the Cannes Film Festival actually takes place in a cavernous basement next door to the grand movie palace. It is called, brutally, The Market.

Though it has been spruced up in recent years, The Market retains the vibe of a vast and chaotic bazaar, where sleep-deprived Bulgarian distributors wrestle over percentage points with chatty Italian producers, where the Turkish showmen sell their films to the Koreans, and where Hollywood's polyglot sales agents are busy selling "the product" and its potential "ancillary exploitation" (DVDs, TV rights, etc.): everything from the biggest blockbusters to the littlest art house flick.

The reason you should care is that Hollywood studios now sell more of their product overseas than they do at home. Which means that the movies you are offered at the local multiplex -- the action-adventure thriller with Tom Cruise set in showy European capitals, and historical swords-and-sandals epics with Brad Pitt in a tunic -- are as likely to be made with an audience in Australia or Germany or Japan in mind.

"The decision to greenlight a film is now often based on the potential for international sales," says Nicolas Meyer, president of Lionsgate International. "The bigger the movie, the more it costs to make, the more important that decision."

And he adds, "Everything about the movie business today is about the global market."

The numbers tell the story. A decade ago, Hollywood considered international box office receipts as gravy. Today it is often the beef.

The domestic box office last year was $9 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America and internal estimates by movie studios.

Foreign ticket sales totaled $12 billion. Of that amount, Hollywood is the big cultural imperialist gorilla, representing at least 80 percent of the total, with the rest made by increasingly sophisticated, locally produced films.

Still, the highest-grossing film in Taiwan last week? "Mission: Impossible III."

In Poland? "Ice Age: The Meltdown."

In France? Robin Williams's "RV" -- renamed for French consumption as "Camping Car." (Recall that the Gallic taste for comedy often includes Jerry Lewis.)

Most American films do not begin to show a profit (the average studio release now costs $100 million to make and market) until they debut overseas -- a phenomenon that is changing the very nature of the business and the art of film, as studio executives increasingly try to predict how well a film will "travel."

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