O’seas markets trust tentpoles

Half dozen films account for 30% of studios' int'l grosses

Much more so than in the United States, Hollywood’s tentpole films have been hitting the sweet spot overseas.

One of the most striking of the year-end statistics for 2006 shows just how successful the biggest films can be for the six major Hollywood studios: Half a dozen films account for nearly 30% of all their international grosses in 2006, led by the mega-budget “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

By comparison, the top six films accounted for only 19% of the total domestic take for the six majors last year.

And three of the top four overseas performers — “The Da Vinci Code,” “Casino Royale” and “Ice Age: The Meltdown” — share a singular characteristic: More than 70% of their worldwide gross came from outside the United States, a major change from the traditional 50-50 split between domestic and foreign performance.

“Tentpoles are what we depend on internationally, even though we’ve done very well with films that weren’t tentpoles like ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and ‘Borat,’ ” notes Joe Ortiz, Fox Intl.’s exec director of sales administration.

Even high-priced underperformers like “Poseidon,” “Miami Vice” and “Eragon” managed to generate enough traction overseas to earn respectable foreign grosses and partially salvage disappointing domestic runs.

Along with the usual formula of bringing together big stars, special effects and easy-to-understand storylines, international settings are becoming more prominent. “It’s no accident that you’re seeing a lot of tentpoles set outside the United States,” notes Jay Sands, senior VP at Sony Pictures Releasing Intl.

In four years, the six majors have seen their foreign grosses improve by 25% from $6.4 billion in 2002 to $8.6 billion last year. And every year, tentpoles have delivered around half of that total.

And it’s this proven ability of foreign markets to support tentpoles that’s driving the majors to place still bigger bets on their showiest properties. That’s why 2007 is chock-a-block with high-priced sequels to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Spider-Man,” “Shrek,” “Harry Potter,” “Die Hard,” “The Fantastic Four,” “The Bourne Identity,” “National Treasure” and “Bruce Almighty” along with such instantly recognizable properties as “Transformers” and “The Simpsons.”

“It’s going to be all tentpoles all the time this year,” Sands notes. “So 2007 is going to be a true test of the strategy.”

Why do tentpoles matter so much overseas? Because, execs assert, they have the best shot at connecting with customers in markets where loyalty to the multiplex isn’t nearly as high as the United States, where the average moviegoing rate is more than five times a year. In many major markets like the U.K., Germany and Japan, that rate’s under three a year.

The strategy is in full swing at Disney, which has cut back on the total number of pictures to emphasize Disney-branded properties like the “Pirates” trilogy. Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures, points out that the strategy came into sharp focus with the first “Pirates” in 2003.

“What we’ve been doing since then, particularly overseas, is expanding in the consumer’s mind what a Disney movie is — that it’s for everyone and not just aimed at parents and kids,” he notes.

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