Hollywood Caters to a Ravenous Global Appetite

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."

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 Boxofficemojo.com.

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.)

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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