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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)

This year at The Market, there are 8,694 players from 86 countries. There are 4,471 films for sale, vying for the attention of 1,600 buyers from the major markets of North America, Europe and Japan as well as the fast-growing film scenes of China and India and Russia, and all the niche and barely tapped markets such as Vietnam, Egypt, Brazil and Eastern Europe. A popular American movie might be sold to 50 or 60 different markets. Sales used to be limited by the small number of screens in many countries, but rapid construction of U.S.-style multiplexes is changing that.

A lot of countries are making their own movies, what Hollywood executives call "local product." Half the movies shown in Korea now are made there. India (known as Bollywood) and China have thriving film industries (a source of tension for Hollywood is the Chinese government's cap of accepting only 20 U.S. films to screen each year).

Paul Hanneman, co-president of 20th Century Fox International, acknowledges locally produced films as competition, but he notes that they also prime the pump. "They're building a lot of screens; they have a desire to see local product, and that raises the awareness of cinema," he says. A country whose population gets into the movie-going habit will see more films, including Hollywood fare.

"The whole scene is maturing," Hanneman says. It might evolve to the point where many countries produce their own unique, culturally attuned dramas and comedies but will continue to rely on Hollywood for the blockbuster special-effects films it does so well, he says.

So for better or worse, the global audience might be in this all together, the studio executives say.

For example, digital piracy (in which, say, a movie opens in Times Square on Friday and bootleg DVDs hit Bangkok and Moscow streets on Sunday) is making it more popular for Hollywood to release "day and date," the way "The Da Vinci Code" opened simultaneously worldwide.

This has Hollywood studios scoping out the world calendar. Do they open a big summer blockbuster during the World Cup soccer matches beginning next month (when many audiences, especially Europeans, are glued to their TV sets)? Or hold off?

And then there is the question of exporting American fare: Is all this just more cultural imperialism? Will bigger foreign markets just lead to more blockbusters?

Some say the influence is two-fold. Alison Thompson, president of international sales and distribution for Focus Features, says that while the foreign box office is sometimes blamed for the dominance of blockbusters, the reverse is also true.

"We wouldn't be able to afford to make many of the well-crafted, more artistic films unless we felt that they would sell overseas," she says.

Consider: "Brokeback Mountain" made $83 million in the United States. And then it went on to do $95 million overseas. "It's a big world," Thompson says.

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