Horror hits have higher hopes

With pumped-up marketing, scarefare makes B.O. inroads in several territories

There are a few places around the world where it’s become cool to be scared.

Although the Japanese seem to have finally had their fill of ghost stories, in the U.K., Australia, Spain and other territories, horror seems to be working just fine.

Since the demise of the straight-to-video boom, horror pics haven’t sold well overseas. Usually, that’s not such a big problem, since the low-budget titles tend to recoup their costs domestically.

But in the last two years, it’s started to look like distribs can see significant upside for scare fare overseas as well as at home. Pics such as “Saw,” “The Ring 2” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” have narrowed the generally wide gap between the domestic and foreign B.O.

The Oz-spawned indie “Saw,” for example” grossed $55 Stateside, just slightly higher than the $47 million it made overseas. “Wolf Creek” is already racking up grosses in its native Australia (it opens in the U.S. this weekend), and “Saw 2” is on its way to outgross its predecessor in the hot horror markets.

B.O. performance like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which in 2003 grossed $80 million domestically vs. $26 million overseas, used to be typical.

Tightly controlled overseas ratings, which cut into the genre’s core teen aud and in some cases preclude any TV sales, are one reason horror can be tricky abroad.

The recent balancing of the scales, however, is causing a shift in the way distributors view the overseas market. Suddenly, they’re becoming more actively involved not just in the international marketing campaigns of horror pics, but in booking their release dates — both of which have typically been addressed only once a film proved it had legs in the U.S. market. Their pro-active stance also is an attempt to stand out in a cluttered horror market.

In the case of “Hostel,” a co-production between Lionsgate and Screen Gems, with Sony International handling the pic’s foreign release, the domestic and international campaigns have been developed simultaneously in the hopes of turning the pic’s release in January into a global event.

“We’ve screened ‘Hostel’ for all the territories, done posters, trailers, TV spots and booked dates — and the movie hasn’t even come out yet,” says Screen Gems prexy Clint Culpepper. “Normally on international, they wait to see what happens in the domestic market first.”

In October, “Hostel” was screened at Spain’s Sitges Film Fest, where pic’s director Eli Roth and exec producer Quentin Tarantino were on hand. The filmmakers are about to go on tour to promote the pic — another anomaly when it comes to horror pics, which usually don’t have sexy names to tout.

But even films without the Tarantino brand are getting the full monty when it comes to publicity. Lionsgate Intl. prexy Nick Meyer refers to the “Saw” campaign as a “media extravaganza,” which included the film’s writer, director and stars touring around the world.

“Traditionally, in R-rated horror pictures, you don’t tour the talent, but we’ve toured and junketed on our horror films just like every other picture,” Meyer says. “For us, this is our core business, it’s not a fad.”

Although Lionsgate supplied foreign distribs with art materials for “Hostel,” some foreign one-sheets are far more shocking than the American poster because the MPAA doesn’t have jurisdiction overseas. The main U.S. version (there are a few variations) is an arty shot of a torture device by photographer Mark Kessell. In contrast, the German one-sheet for “Hostel” shows a drill being submerged in a man’s open mouth. And the Italian image is of a man in blue jeans holding a bloody head.

“We’re really restricted by how much gore we can show by the MPAA and theater chains and network broadcasters,” says Tim Palen, exec VP of worldwide marketing for Lionsgate.

Blood and guts doesn’t always travel, however, and in some cases campaigns are toned down. For example, the Australian and Japanese promos for “Saw” “were much more of a thriller campaign, from the print materials to the spots,” says Meyer. “It had a more high-end, sophisticated thriller look to it.”

Despite recent successes, the foreign market can still be a challenge for horror pics due to ratings, and there’s also the overdose factor, especially in countries such as Japan, which may have burned out on local and imported fright pics.

“Japan has gotten soft on horror and is being vocal about it,” says Mandate Pictures prexy Joe Drake, who, in partnership with Ghost House Pictures, produced Columbia Pictures’ “The Grudge.” (The pic grossed $110 million domestically and $76 million overseas last year.) “I was having conversations (with Japanese distributors) yesterday and every time I asked why that was, I got answers that didn’t make sense. It could be that the mythologies are different in Asia.” (Japanese auds tend to prefer ghost and spirit stories as opposed to Americans’ love of blood-and-guts slasher pics.) But then again, Japanese horror is doing just as badly. I don’t know — maybe they’ve moved on to something else.”

“At the end of a long cycle there has been a saturation,” says UIP chief operating officer and prexy Andrew Cripps. “I don’t believe the genre has sloughed off entirely, but when you subject an audience to a whole series of things in a row, box office becomes more difficult.”

But rather than deter marketers, this fact is only driving them more. Brace yourselves for “Saw 3.”

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