Smith finds success at foreign box office

When Paramount and DreamWorks were preparing the overseas launch of “Dreamgirls,” rival distribs and members of the media raised the decades-old question of whether movies about African-Americans can succeed overseas.

Given the fact that Will Smith’s films alone have a cumulative $2 billion, it seems surprising that anyone is still raising the issue.

But the misperception has persisted, thanks to the blurring of the definition of black films.

International distribs cite comedies like “Barbershop” and “Big Momma’s House,” as well as dramas like “Ali” and “Ray,” to back up their claims that black films have trouble finding traction with international audiences. But “The Pursuit of Happyness” — headed to an impressive $140 million in international grosses — is just the latest piece of proof that African-American leads have resonance overseas.

Movies that are primarily about the black experience in America are, in fact, a tough sell. Distribs think the experiences may be too specific for overseas auds. One international maven says it’s no different than a film about Britain’s upper-class — a little too specific for audiences around the world to identify with.

But when Will Smith, Denzel Washington or Halle Berry play characters who just happen to be black, overseas audiences seem color-blind, despite Hollywood’s “conventional wisdom.”

Smith’s “Independence Day,” “Men in Black” and “Happyness” have been huge hits (see chart). The same holds true for Washington in “Inside Man” and “Deja vu,” which have done a combined $200 million internationally.

Jamie Foxx’s “Miami Vice,” a disappointment in the U.S., posted a foreign gross of more than $100 million. Eddie Murphy’s high-concept comedy “Dr. Dolittle” and “Nutty Professor” scored in foreign territories, as did Smith’s comedy “Hitch.”

Smith’s overseas record can be traced to star power, his knack for choosing the right vehicles, and the old-fashioned effectiveness of promotion.

“Will talks with other black actors about the importance of promoting internationally,” says James Lassiter, Smith’s longtime producing partner at Overbrook Entertainment. “He says that if you go, they will come.”

Smith is a tireless promoter. At one point during the marketing of “Hitch,” he attended three premieres in a single day. For “Pursuit,” he spent three weeks on the road, jetting to France, Germany, Japan, U.K. and Italy.

“Smith is the black actor who has registered most in Spanish households,” notes Fernando Evole, CEO of Yelmo cinema loop in Spain. “His popularity goes back to ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ which was a huge and long-running hit for years on Spanish TV.”

In each movie, Smith targets a new territory to go to, such as South Africa for “Ali,” South Korea for “Men in Black 2,” Brazil for “Hitch” and Russia for “I, Robot.”

Lassiter says Smith’s ability to generate grosses overseas isn’t a fluke.

When Smith got his first major film role in 1995 with “Bad Boys” with Martin Lawrence,. projections for foreign box office were so mild that very little promotion in overseas territories was even planned. But producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson persuaded Sony to send the stars to Cannes and Euro locales to tubthump for the pic.

The result was that “Bad Boys’ ” foreign grosses of $75 million topped domestic numbers. That set the stage for Smith’s casting in “Independence Day,” which grossed more than a half billion dollars outside the U.S.

The only disappointments have been “Ali” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

“Hitch” not only bucked the trend of romantic comedies doing poorly overseas, but it is the third-highest grossing romantic comedy overseas after “Pretty Women” and “What Women Want.”

Aya Goto, who is handling publicity for “Pursuit,” says Smith did many media interviews in Japan, and says it helped that the title, “Shiawase no chikara” (The Power of Happiness) “clearly communicated what it was about.”

His track record could carry over with his upcoming films, which include the sci-fi “I Am Legend,” in which he battles vampires in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, and “Tonight He Comes,” in which he plays a tortured superhero.

And as for “Dreamgirls”: The pic is headed for $60 million overseas, which is about 38% of its total. Those aren’t exactly record-breaking numbers, but the biggest challenge overseas is arguably not the all-black cast. It’s the fact that it’s a musical.

Mark Schilling in Tokyo, Adam Dawtrey and Archie Thomas in London, Darcy Paquet in Seoul and John Hopewell in Madrid contributed to this report.

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