Serious works sell abroad

In the wake of a bristling U.S. midterm election campaign, the 2007 awards race will see complex and somewhat introspective political stories including “Babel,” “World Trade Center” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Each film possesses the kind of high-minded themes and high-profile director that automatically merit awards consideration. And that kind of heft can help goose box office performance, both inside and outside the United States — even if the subjects are nontentpole and America-centric.

Foreign grosses usually exceed the domestic take of most prominent films — especially award winners. Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” took in $100 million domestically and $116 million overseas; Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” grossed $83 million Stateside and $95 million abroad.

In the case of Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” a positive verdict is already in from overseas, with the final foreign gross heading toward $90 million — $20 million better than Paramount’s domestic total — on a film that clearly represented a serious marketing challenge for UIP in overcoming audience reluctance to revisit 9/11.

“The performance was solid in every market and not just because it’s a good film,” producer Michael Shamberg said at an October reception for Stone at Mortons, hosted by Paramount. “Oliver did a great job of promoting the picture.”

UIP president Andrew Cripps notes the film, which still hasn’t opened in China, required deft handling.

“In marketing the film internationally, we focused on a more emotional sell, especially in markets like Japan ($17 million box office),” he says. “We had tremendous support from Oliver Stone, who is … a very well-respected director internationally, the cast, and the real-life survivors. We premiered the film internationally at the Venice Film Festival and were also in Deauville (and) San Sebastian, and the director also came to the U.K., Germany, Japan and Korea.”

“Babel” and “Flags” also were accorded special handling via a film festival launch — “Babel” at Cannes and “Flags” at Tokyo — in order to build critical buzz.

“With a movie like ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ that’s going to skew older, it’s important to get the critical support first,” notes Sue Kroll, prexy of marketing for Warner Bros. Intl. “So it’s important to get the work done long before it opens.”

Kroll adds the foreign marketing for “Flags” relied more heavily on emphasizing the film’s portrayal of war’s impact, rather than the iconic image from Joe Rosenthal’s photograph.

Though Paramount is handling all three pics domestically, UIP — which is about to be split into separate Paramount and Universal international operations — handles “WTC” overseas, while Warners is on “Flags” outside the United States. And “Babel” is being marketed in Latin America by UIP and elsewhere through foreign sales specialist Summit Entertainment.

Both “Flags” and “Babel” had launched in only a few foreign markets as of mid-November. Rollout for both is gradual, with neither opening in the U.K. or Germany until late December.

Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, distribution prexy for Warner Bros. Intl., notes the studio is aiming for prolonged runs in the fall and early winter for “Flags” rather than waiting for awards noms.

“This is a great autumn-type movie from a director with a lot of commercial appeal,” she says.

Early results led to $16.5 million overseas for “Flags” as of Nov. 19. The best traction by far came in Japan, where pre-release awareness was highest of any market, with $8.9 million after four weeks.

For “Babel,” the best launch came in director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s home turf of Mexico, opening in first with $1.65 million in what represented the sixth-biggest debut ever for a drama in that market. Through Nov. 19, overall foreign cume was $12.8 million.

As studios look for every conceivable edge in mounting award campaigns, box office performance can’t be overlooked — even if it’s outside the United States.

One of the first key measures of how well “WTC,” “Babel” and “Flags” will perform during the kudos season should come Dec. 14, the date the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. announces nominations for its Jan. 15 Golden Globes kudofest.

“I don’t know that the HFPA members pay that much attention to how films perform in their own home territories since many of them are really acculturated to being in the United States,” notes one veteran awards consultant. “But anything that adds to the general luster of the film is a help, especially with no clear favorite having yet emerged this year.”

What “WTC,” “Flags” and “Babel” offer in addition to their sociopolitical musings are well-respected directors — Stone, Eastwood and Gonzalez Inarritu.

Brian O’Shea, exec VP with Oddlot Entertainment, notes it’s not surprising a Stone movie would be received well overseas, pointing out that Stone is a proven draw outside the United States even on such films as “Alexander.”

“Directors do have followings in Europe and Japan,” O’Shea adds. “That’s something that’s part of our consideration.”

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