Foreign fare evolving with audiences

Hollywood takes note of 'Mamma' success

With an expected haul of $16 billion this year, foreign box office is crucial to Hollywood — but the studios are noticing the makeup of those audiences is evolving.

The shifts could mean changes for studios’ distribution strategies — as well as their production priorities.

Dropping birthrates are just one of the factors affecting who goes to the movies overseas, how often they go and what they choose to see.

• Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan and South Korea have seen a serious drop in birthrates. Eastern Europe and Russia are also seeing declines. Each year in these countries, fewer moviegoers enter the core teen/young adult audience — though increasing income levels prop up the box office in most of these territories. And teens and young adults are also increasingly downloading films instead of going to theaters.

• Countering those trends is the fact that adults are becoming more frequent moviegoers. People ages 40 and over are going to movies more often as their children grow up, becoming increasingly important in territories ranging from Australia to France.

• Female filmgoers have more influence than ever in territories such as the U.K., as evidenced by the success of “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!”

• Hollywood has realized the need to offer up younger stars to make a stronger play for young auds. In Asia and elsewhere, young audiences are embracing local films, partly because they feature stars their own age.

Most of Hollywood’s biggest stars are over 40: Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise. (Japanese teens were traumatized to discover heartthrob Johnny Depp is 45.) And the studios haven’t come up with a young international star since Leonardo DiCaprio toplined “Titanic” more than a decade ago.

• In Japan, females have traditionally constituted as much as 80% of film audiences. But the success of Hollywood movies is increasingly driven by single men, from their 20s through 60s. Males ages 50-plus accounted for 12% of the “Transformers” B.O. in Japan. Adult males are embracing familiar titles such as “Indiana Jones” and “Die Hard” but were less enthusiastic about “Dark Knight” and “Iron Man.”

• Despite falling birthrates in Latin America, modern multiplexes are drawing more moneyed filmgoers to toons and family-friendly pics, as many in that region prefer attending in groups.

In contrast, expanding markets such as Lithuania, China, Malaysia, Russia and Singapore are luring mostly the typical teenager and young men demos, who for the first time have more opportunities to see films in theaters.

Two years ago, Paramount and Universal split up their two-decade-old overseas distribution partnership UIP, so that each could focus more sharply on the changing demographics of various territories. It worked, as each is chalking up record B.O. overseas this year.

“Nobody’s recession-proof,” admits Universal Pictures Intl. prez David Kosse. “The last couple of months have seen a major decline in the value of foreign currencies. But we’ve also continued to see strong performance in emerging markets.”

Eleven films released in 2008 took in more than a quarter billion dollars outside the United States in this order: “Indiana Jones 4,” “The Dark Knight,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Hancock,” “Quantum of Solace,” “The Mummy 3,” “The Chronicles of Narnia 2,” “Wall-E,” “Iron Man” and “Sex and the City.”

The demographic strength of the foreign markets was particularly apparent with a seemingly disparate pair of titles — “Kung Fu Panda” and “Mamma Mia!”— taking in well over $400 million. “Panda” showed the ability of a new franchise to reach the family demos with impressive performances everywhere, particularly in emerging markets, with $28 million in South Korea, $26 million in China and $20 million in Russia

“Mamma” has been a testament to the strength of the female demo with a stunning $132 million in the U.K., topping the all-time record set by “Titanic.” The strength in secondary markets has been eye-popping: Sweden with $24 million, Norway with $13 million, Switzerland, Poland, Austria and Holland all with more than $7 million, Portugal and Denmark with $5 million each, and the Czech Republic with $3.5 million.

And “The Golden Compass” represents the ability of foreign markets to salvage an underperforming family film — in this case, a tentpole that flopped domestically with $70 million and succeeded overseas with $302 million.

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