Local nuances reshape day-and-date visions

More than ever before, studios are releasing movies day-and-date worldwide, but when it comes to marketing, the global effort is far from unified. And studios that fail to grasp the nuances of the local scene do so at their peril.

Streamlined, one-size-fits-all campaigns are out. Anxious to tap into lucrative foreign territories as other revenue streams dry up, the studios’ international arms have become savvier about custom-tailoring their fare to local tastes, customs and beliefs.

The July 3 global launch of 20th Century Fox’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” shows the big payoff when global variations work: The pic opened to a stunning $151.7 million at the foreign box office, more than double its domestic debut — strongly assisted by its variations in marketing and its unprecedented 200 promotional partners, tailored for various territories.

Sequels are generally easier, but even “presold” titles may need work. Paramount’s “Star Trek,” for instance, was sold as a disaster movie in some territories that don’t dig science fiction. Similarly, the “Spider-Man” pics were sold as love stories in Japan, targeting the female aud.

Titles sometimes have to be changed: “Terminator Salvation” was too religious for some audiences, and “Inglourious Basterds” likely won’t pass muster in conservative countries.

Numbers themselves mean different things in different cultures: In China, for instance, the number 4 is associated with death, which means savvy distribs won’t open a pic on the 4th of the month. For the same reason, Warner Bros. changed the title of “Lethal Weapon 4″ there.

Another quirk of the Chinese market: Studios risk making a major blunder if they release any images of a character wearing a green hat — a symbol of marital infidelity.

Three of this summer’s movies — “Star Trek,” “The Hangover” (Warner Bros.) and “Inglourious Basterds” (Weinstein Co. domestically, and UPI overseas) serve as case studies of the changes needed to make a promo campaign palatable and effective abroad.

“Star Trek”: In the U.S., a one-sheet featuring the U.S.S. Enterprise was enough. But Paramount also had to interest overseas auds that haven’t warmed to the franchise in the past. So the studio circumnavigated the globe with splashy premieres, some before the movie’s U.S. debut, including the worldwide preem in Australia.

And while the film is a reboot of a popular sci-fi franchise, that isn’t the way it was sold in other territories.

In Mexico and Russia, for example, the pic’s poster features a huge column of fire coming down from the sky near the Golden Gate Bridge. In other territories where human drama is the appeal, the character of Captain Kirk was featured front and center, flanked by the characters of Spock and Uhura.

In Japan, the romance in a film is always played up, even when it’s a big tentpole like “Star Trek, since the demo known as “office ladies” is considered crucial to a film’s performance. (That’s why Sony’s campaigns for “Spider-Man” always featured the characters of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.)

“These women in Japan are between 20 and 40 years old, and they go to the movies by themselves, after work. That’s why a movie like ‘Titanic’ goes bananas. These office ladies are the holy grail,” one international marketing exec says.

The Japanese campaign for Disney-Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” focused on the emotional relationship between Sully, one of the two monsters, and Boo, the little girl, rather than the comic interplay between beasties Sully and Mike Wazowski, which was the main selling point everywhere else around the world. The pic was a huge hit in Japan.

Par’s international approach for “Star Trek” seems to have worked. “Star Trek” has grossed $125.2 million at the international B.O., by far the biggest gross of any film in the franchise.

The flurry of global premieres worked for “Trek,” but there are risks involved. While Paramount’s “Transformers: Revenge” has grossed north of $310 million at the international B.O. to date, the press junket didn’t click with some local media.

South Korean reporters walked out on helmer Michael Bay’s Q&A session, offended that he’d arrived late for both the Seoul preem and the junket. Bay later apologized for “traveling from another country and not allowing enough time for airport delays, city traffic and hotel check-in.”

The Hangover: Comedies can be the toughest pics to translate to foreign moviegoers, and that’s especially true of dialogue-driven laffers like “The Hangover.”

Sarcasm in particular doesn’t work well outside of the U.S. — and especially in Asia — so studios sometimes change the dialogue to more relevant local references.

Warner Bros. Intl. aggressively promoted “Hangover” overseas through a series of screenings to build word of mouth. The pic is doing remarkably well for a comedy, grossing north of $61 million far. It’s even showing strength outside of English-speaking territories.

In France, the movie carries a different title, “Very Bad Trip ” — motivated by the fact that Todd Phillips’ earlier “Road Trip” proved a hit with Gauls.

When it comes to comedy, physical humor translates more easily, which may be a reason why “Mr. Bean” and the “Night at the Museum” pics have done well.

Sacha Baron Cohen starrer “Bruno” poses its own challenges, given its taboo-busting gallery of full-frontal exhibitionism. In the U.K., the pic has been tagged with the commercially difficult 18 certificate after censors demanded wholesale cuts to key scenes. In freewheeling Holland, however, the same cut of the film received a mild 12 certificate.

Inglourious Basterds: The pic’s domestic poster (under Weinstein Co.) features a closeup of Brad Pitt, but Universal is playing up the film’s pan-European cast overseas. The international poster features German star Til Schweiger in the foreground closely behind Pitt, with fellow German thesps Diane Kruger and Christoph Walz and Gallic actress Melanie Laurent also depicted prominently.

“We don’t want people to think the film is just Brad Pitt kicking ass,” says David Kosse, president of Universal Pictures Intl. “We want to show off the whole cast. It’s the kind of film where the French people speak French and the German people speak German. That hasn’t really happened before in this kind of film and we’re confident audiences are ready to read subtitles.”

The Quentin Tarantino pic features an array of languages, dialects and settings. That made it challenging to dub the pic into local languages, which is commonly done in continental Europe.

And while a multi-lingo film could pose obstacles for marketers, U execs are considering that attribute an asset, counting on that fact to connect with auds in the U.K., France and Germany, releasing the pic in its original version with subtitles.

Universal posted an international trailer on July 2 that will play across multiple territories, but the studio is still devising its TV spots. Given that Germany figures so prominently in both the film’s setting and talent, Universal marketers will likely cut at least one TV spot specifically tailored to Teuton auds.

German auds aren’t likely to take offense, given that they’re used to being portrayed as the bad guys in World War II pics; plus, much of the fun comes at the expense of Hitler, rather than the German people. The film even got a big chunk of money from the German government.

“Basterds” does have a tricky title, though it’s not alone. Distinctly English idioms and slang expressions can post translation dilemmas: Witness the title change of DreamWorks and Paramount’s thriller “Eagle Eye.”

“It becomes the ‘Eye of the Bird,’ or something like that,” says another international marketing executive. “Any title that is based on an American or English expression gets mangled. You try to make it as close as you can, but sometimes there’s not even a word in that language.”

In many territories, “Eagle Eye” became “Total Control” or some derivation of that. This summer, Sony’s “Terminator Salvation” be
came “Terminator: Renaissance” in France and other territories, thereby skirting the religious reference.

When a movie clicks, the rewards are huge. The people behind “Basterds,” “Hangover” and “Trek” are aiming at the high 2009 bar set by Sony’s “Angels & Demons,” which is so far the top foreign earner of 2009, with a gross of roughly $350 million overseas. “Transformers 2″ is fast approaching that mark, but both could be surpassed by Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” which opens day-and-date on July 15.

And “Ice Age” has set the bar for tie-ins, including everything from “Ice Age” beach towels to candy to clothing to toys. It’s unlikely you’ll find “Basterds” candy, or “Hangover” toys, and not many pics can aim for the Finnish-Swedish ferry line Tallink Silja, which decorated five of its cruise ships with an “Ice Age” theme.

In Russia, X5 is launching a line of “Ice Age” household products. So maybe the Paramount folks can think about a line of “Transformers 3″ kitchenware. Or a line of white women’s slacks that, like Megan Fox’s in the film, never get a smudge, even when rolling around in the sand and dirt for hours.

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