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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)

The Harry Potters, the Hobbits, the Narnians, the latest "Star Wars" installment (and most of the animated fare: "Shrek," "Toy Story" et al.) all made more overseas.

Peter Bart, the editor of Variety who was also an executive at Paramount Pictures, says, "Back in the old days, nobody would even discuss whether a picture would do well overseas. Nobody cared. Now? Now nobody in their right mind running a studio would make one of these incredibly expensive films" -- think "Spider-Man" or "King Kong" -- "until they had convinced themselves that it would play well overseas."

Studio executives generally trace the beginning of the global age of cinema to 1997's "Titanic." There is a reason why, upon accepting one of the film's 11 Academy Awards, director James Cameron bellowed, "I'm king of the world!" The film took in $1.2 billion internationally.

It is generally assumed that certain genres and stars do better overseas -- but Hollywood keeps getting surprised.

"Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio -- open any movie starring them in Japan, and it will open huge. They love them. They love them a lot," says Brandon Gray, founder of the numbers-tracking Web site

The thinking goes that black actors might not bust out across the oceans. But Denzel Washington does, and so too Will Smith. His romantic comedy "Hitch" last year did $179 million domestically and $188 million overseas. And Martin Lawrence's "Big Momma's House 2" made $61 million internationally and is still in theaters overseas.

The conventional wisdom used to be that swashbucklers were no-brainers internationally. That was the case with movies like "Troy" and "Alexander," which received middling reviews in the United States and did so-so business domestically but absolutely killed overseas.

Consider also "Kingdom of Heaven," last year's movie about the Crusades, starring Orlando Bloom. It floundered in the United States ($47 million) but went on to make $164 million internationally.

So historical epics often do boffo business overseas -- though the historical period cannot be too America-centric. For example, Mel Gibson as the Scots rebel in "Braveheart" did $134 million internationally. Mel Gibson as the American rebel in "The Patriot" did $101 million overseas.

Billy Bob Thornton in "The Alamo"? Forget it. (Just $3.4 million.)

And what drives foreign patrons to theaters varies by local market, which presents challenges.

According to Gray of Boxofficemojo, "Germany is a great place to open a raunchy sex comedy," such as "American Pie." In Spain, "they're known as a good market for horror films," he says, "and the Australians like our comedy." The low-brow spoof "Scary Movie 4" was a bona-fide hit Down Under. Then there's "The Island," a sci-fi action movie about cloning with Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor, which tanked domestically ($35 million) but exploded overseas ($124 million), taking in $22 million in South Korea alone. (One possible explanation? The Korean peninsula was consumed at the time by its own scandal about a real-life genetic engineer who faked his data.)

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