Monday, May 2, 2011

Foreign Box Office Takeover

Hollywood is currently celebrating the performance of "Fast Five," which had the year's biggest opening weekend box office take with an estimated $83.6 million. It's been a slow year so far, with no big hits on the level of last year's "Avatar" or "Alice in Wonderland," but the success of "Fast Five" may signal that we're in for a stronger summer. What's really interesting about "Fast Five," though, is that it made $35 million dollars in various markets overseas before it opened in the US on Friday, and the international total has since gone up to over $80 million. "Thor" is already up to over $90 million in international box office, and the US will actually be one of the last countries where it will open in theaters, on May 6th. Major Hollywood films opening overseas before or even roughly simultaneously to their premieres in the U.S. used to be very rare. However, for various reasons, we may see more release patterns like this in the future.

The growth of the global box office and piracy concerns have pushed the studios to decrease the delay between release dates in different markets. The US is still the most lucrative market for filmgoing in the world, but for many films the domestic box office now makes up a smaller percentage of the overall gross receipts than it used to. 67% of the billion dollar "Alice and Wonderland" box office came from foreign audiences. Several of the holiday season's underperformers, like "Gulliver's Travels" and "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," were hits overseas, with a whopping 80% of "Gulliver's" gross coming from outside the US. There are even some rumors that we'll be getting a fourth "Narnia" film, based on the foreign performance of "Dawn Treader," which was triple its domestic take. More and more often, we hear studio executives defending their expensive domestic flops with impressive foreign box office numbers.

This may signal a further shift in the focus of Hollywood moviemaking towards the tastes of the global market. For years, we've been seeing studios favor more action and fantasy films that are easier sells overseas, though dramas like "The Black Swan" and "The King's Speech" have also made the bulk of their profits in foreign markets. Recently Dreamworks Animation announced that they would move away from their more satirical films, like "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "Megamind," because that brand of humor doesn't translate so well in other countries. Should we be worried that American comedies are going to take a hit? Probably not, since most comedies cost far less than big CGI-heavy action extravaganzas, and they're usually profitable no matter what the foreign markets do. Ditto the romance and horror films that generate less interest overseas. However, animation, action, fantasy, and science-fiction films will continue to get more attention and see their budgets expand.

I doubt the earlier foreign premiere dates will have much impact on most US audiences, who rarely pay attention to what's going on in the film world outside Hollywood, but I can see some additional benefits for the studios to this approach. They can test out and refine their ad campaigns in other markets, and build up buzz from early successes. "Fast Five" came out on top in a head to head with "Thor" in Australia over Easter weekend, which generated a lot of press and a lot of attention. Being at the end of a big film's release schedule might also be helpful to pickier American moviegoers, because we might get to hear some actual audience reaction along with all the hype. Early reviews for "Fast Five" and "Thor" were pretty strong, but the real test will be what happens when a film garners tepid or negative responses in other countries. Traditionally the different international film markets don't have much impact on each other, but in the age of the internet that's no longer a certainty.

In the end, the biggest impact may be on the entertainment reporters and number crunchers, who are always looking for something new to write about, and love being the first to declare a new film a hit or a flop. "Rio" did especially well in Russia and China the week before it premiered in the US, leading to early prognostications that it would be a hit here as well. It was, but not to nearly the extent that it was in the rest of the world. To date, "Rio" has made about $100 million domestic, and about $250 million foreign. But still, those foreign numbers might be what get "Rio" a sequel, where titles with similar domestic numbers like "Hop" and "Rango" probably won't. "Hop," that cuddly Easter bunny film, notably tanked in most other countries because, of course, most of the rest of the world doesn't celebrate Easter.

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