America’s pics find foreign B.O. hit, miss puzzle

O'seas box office doesn't always follow U.S. money-makers

SYDNEY — The formula is etched in Palm Pilots all over Hollywood: Earn at least $100 million on a pic domestically and you’ll do at least as much, if not more, overseas.

But before studio execs and producers turn the formula into a mantra, they ought to examine the spoils of this year’s international marketplace. Indeed, for nearly every pic that transcends its domestic results overseas, another will underperform significantly, according to a Daily Variety analysis of 1999 studio releases.

Every major studio publicly testifies to the importance of the international theatrical market — where revenues for U.S. films exceeded domestic for the first time in 1993, dipped just below in 1995, regained the lead in 1996 and have stayed on top ever since.

“Titanic,” “Armageddon” and “Meet Joe Black” are among the recent films whose foreign receipts towered over their North American results.

Travel limitations

Nonetheless, Hollywood continues to pump out domestically oriented films with parochial subjects or stars who don’t sell tickets abroad. In fact, studios are aware of these limitations even as they make such films.

Often problematic for overseas audiences are Yank films that have sports settings (think “The Waterboy,” “Varsity Blues,”), black themes (“Life”), courtroom dramas (“A Civil Action”) or movies that rely on stars whose luminosity abroad is nowhere near as strong as at home.

Hence, Steve Martin is struggling to sell tickets in “Bowfinger” and the lowly figures for “The General’s Daughter” demonstrate again that John Travolta vehicles are no sure bet overseas.

Similarly, Robin Williams and the U.S. health system in “Patch Adams” were a dicey combo for many territories and Adam Sandler’s “Big Daddy” didn’t reach blockbuster levels.

Some international mavens predict the gap between U.S. and international receipts for middle-ground pictures will continue to widen. “We’re seeing a resurgence of local films in many markets which are taking a bigger share of the box office,” United Intl. Pictures chairman/CEO Paul Oneile tells Daily Variety. “So while the breakout films from the U.S. will continue to be breakouts, films of certain genres will continue to find it fairly difficult to outgross their domestic results.”

Conversely, Buena Vista Intl. president Mark Zoradi contends the proliferation of new screens is increasing the B.O. cake abroad, and he doubts the success of local films will squeeze out medium and small U.S. titles.

Limited aud base

Despite the continued growth of offshore theatrical markets, Oneile believes there is little or no increase in cinema going by older age groups beyond the core under-25 demographic.

“The mature age group will always turn out for a ‘Titanic’ or a James Bond, but it’s very difficult to get them to come to see other films,” he says.

That could be one reason why “The Thomas Crown Affair,” featuring mature leads Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, hasn’t matched its domestic perf.

Still, auds around the world and across the age spectrum flocked to “The Mummy,” “Notting Hill,” “The Matrix” and “Shakespeare in Love,” resulting in much bigger paydays for those blockbusters.

Cause and effect?

Opinions among distribs on why those films outshone their domestic achievements are varied. And reasons for any particular film’s success are as disparate as the pics’ subjects and handlers.

New Line Intl. president Rolf Mittweg is bemused by “The Mummy,” calling it a “fluke.” But Oneile, whose firm distributed the Universal film, believes the subject struck a chord internationally, boosted by extensive publicity tours by helmer Steve Sommers and topliner Brendan Fraser.

“Notting Hill” was sold as a kind of sequel to “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (itself a far bigger hit in foreign than domestic), Hugh Grant is much more popular outside the U.S. and Julia Roberts is a global megastar.

“Shakespeare in Love” benefited from its Academy Award noms and awards, Gwyneth Paltrow’s cachet in the U.K. and Australia after break-out hit “Sliding Doors,” and the enduring appeal of costumers in Europe, Oneile opines.

Warner Bros. Intl. president Edward Frumkes isn’t sure why “The Matrix” was so huge abroad. Mittweg credits its originality and Keanu Reeves’ B.O. clout.

“Eyes Wide Shut” proved to be more potent overseas, helped by the absence of any censorship furor, which the pic encountered in the U.S., as well as Stanley Kubrick’s auteur status in Europe and Tom Cruise’s starpower. Frumkes believes international audiences understood and appreciated the subject more than those in the U.S.

New Line’s “Austin Powers” sequel has cracked $100 million overseas — a credible result but only about half its domestic tally. Mittweg notes English-speaking markets generated more than 50% of the film’s international B.O., indicating the spoof did not translate as effectively in dubbed and subtitled territories.

“Some markets were not charmed by the character, and Mr. Myers (topliner Mike Myers) decided not to travel to support the film. Had he done so, particularly in France, Germany and Spain, it would have done better,” Mittweg asserts.

Specialized distinction

In the more specialized field, the New Line exec was buoyed by “American History X,” which has grossed $16 million in foreign (and has yet to play in Japan) — a respectable figure compared with domestic’s paltry $6.7 million. “It was a slice of Americana that audiences could appreciate for its entertainment value and excellent acting,” he says.

“Cruel Intentions” has bettered its $38 million domestic gross, ponying up $45 million in the territories handled by Columbia TriStar Intl., which excludes Germany, Spain and Italy.

“That wasn’t an obvious outcome, given the genre,” Col TriStar Intl. president Duncan Clark says.

High expectations

No international exec is keen to talk about the pressures being exerted by studio brass on foreign theatrical divisions to deliver ever-bigger paydays to cushion the effects of spiraling production budgets and release costs.

But a few privately admit there’s a mindset among some Hollywood producers and execs that expects just about every $100 million U.S. grosser to do as well or better abroad.

“There is a degree of naivete (in Hollywood) about the chances of replicating numbers overseas,” one maven confides. “We are not dealing with one market, but 50 different markets. You can’t find a common denominator in every movie that means it will succeed in each market.”

Another foreign guru says he’s sometimes given unreasonable targets by producers or Hollywood execs — but he takes it with a grain of salt.

“It’s something of a game, just a way of putting pressure on the (overseas) distributor,” he says.

Still another international exec claims success in educating the studios’ producers in being realistic about their films’ chances abroad.

“We sit down with them, explain the realities of the marketplace, how we’re approaching each movie and what its potential is,” he says. “The more involved they are in the process, the better.”

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