Hollywood weighs cost vs. benefit in foreign production game

Lately, Hollywood majors have been shaking up their foreign production and acquisition arms, setting off alarms among some in the biz, especially given the overwhelming importance of foreign territories to the box office bottom line. But most industry observers doubt they’ll turn in their passports.

The moves shed light on the successes, growing pains and possible reconfigurations coming in the international arena.

Studios didn’t begin seriously exploring local-language production until the late 1990s, when Warners’ Richard Fox and Sony’s late Gareth Wigan spearheaded initiatives, and Disney joined in with its own foreign co-productions and acquisitions. Today Warners leads the pack, with its vertically integrated “country manager” fare comprising a good portion of its $2.93 billion overseas box office last year, an all-time record.

But many industry eyes are now focusing on relative newcomer Fox Intl. Prods. After some foreign territory acquisitions, Fox Filmed Entertainment formed FIP in 2008, with prexy Sanford Panitch emphasizing production over pickups. The arm, which has already generated several remake properties, backs about 25 films a year, helping Fox reach a close second ($2.90 billion) to Warner in international B.O. with such hits as Bollywood’s “My Name Is Khan” and South Korea’s “The Yellow Sea.” But its true potential comes from smaller screens.

NYU Stern’s Entertainment, Media and Technology Program head Al Lieberman says News Corp. is clearly the most global among studio parent companies, citing its expansive ownership stakes in the U.K.’s BSkyB, Star India, Star China, Fox Italia and elsewhere. One top sales agent says Fox is stronger internationally than any of the other studios, in that huge parts of its business are in international TV networks it owns.

As Panitch puts it, “being local is part of the DNA of this company.” He plans to continue building strategic partnerships with Fox’s overseas siblings, as he did with Star India to create Fox Star Studios. “That’s certainly part of the reason for us not stumbling, as some others have,” he says. “It’s a very challenging market for outsiders.”

One looming threat, however, is just how far News Corp.’s U.K. newspaper scandal will spread and possibly affect those holdings, having already delayed its attempted BSkyB takeover.

Local-language production has few cheerleaders as enthusiastic as Panitch, who attributes the biggest breakthroughs to the growing middle classes in India, China, Brazil, Russia and elsewhere; worldwide hits like “Avatar”; and digital technology that enables multiplexes to flourish overseas.

“An extraordinary thing happened last year,” he says. “For the first time, all 10 of the biggest markets in the world crossed or approached a billion dollars.”

“The priority, obviously, is the studio films,” says Warners’ executive VP of international, Richard Fox. “We don’t want to overproduce or over-acquire locally at the risk of hurting their marketing and distribution.” He notes that Warners studies how that local content or film will affect the theatrical, video and TV side of business there.

Warners seemed to move away from the foreign territory acquisition biz when it shuttered its one-year-old Intl. Film Acquisitions arm at the end of last year, but the situation wasn’t quite as it appeared. “We took it over from New Line and tried to move it into acquiring films for international,” Fox explains. “Then we couldn’t find a film we could acquire for (most or all of) Europe. Invariably we found a film that worked great in Germany, but the Italians or British didn’t like it, or it didn’t fit into a TV deal we had, or maybe there wasn’t a U.S. release for the film. It just got to be too complicated for the returns we saw there.”

The move speaks to a larger stumbling block to the majors making foreign territory acquisitions, be they English- or foreign-language titles. “Acquiring all the international (territories for a film) has a lot of risk if it’s not a blockbluster,” Fox says. “You really get stiffed on some films.”

Still, foreign Warners outposts continue making selective — and successful — local acquisitions alongside their productions.

Established as a stand-alone arm in 2007, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group has done well with such pickups for foreign markets as “Terminator Salvation and “The Book of Eli,” and while it’s open to similar buys in the future, SPWA hasn’t made a big overseas multi-territory purchase since nabbing “Hanna” at Cannes last year.

Cultural differences can limit many films’ appeal, which raises other questions: Are piecemeal territory purchases ultimately worth the time of a big studio apparatus? Are there enough non-tentpole films out there with the potential to become hits in multi-territory buys?

“One of the things you won’t see us doing is a lot of individual territory purchasing,” says SPWAG prexy Steve Bersch. “We don’t tend to veer toward buying a lot of pictures for one or two territories, because you can’t turn on the home office and the power of the studio machine and bring to bear the benefits of the studio in that way.”

Under Wigan, Sony made a big splash with such intl. production blockbusters as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But when he pulled back from his duties in 2008, output slowed down, and his successor Deborah Schindler is now a consultant for the arm. Sony exec Brian Burkin is overseeing one Russian and five German titles due over the next few years, a relative trickle compared with Wigan’s heyday.

“(Studio international arms are) very susceptible to being cut,” says William Morris Endeavor’s international division co-head Elia Infascelli, “whether that’s because of corporate agendas, a regime change or if studio financing (is reduced) for a year.”

The biggest question mark among studio international arms at the moment is at Walt Disney Studios Intl. Prods., where overseas local-language production — geared to create foreign tales that fit with Disney’s brand and led by Jason Reed — appears to have slowed down. Disney has been aggressive in paring down its domestic slate in recent years.

In May, plans for the new Disney World Cinema ancillary banner were unveiled to capitalize on such overseas projects as “The Secret of the Magic Gourd” in China, “Roadside Romeo” in India and “The Book of Masters” in Russia, similar to the Fox World Cinema ancillary label announced that month. This initiative doesn’t sync with talk of possible changes in the division, which may come as soon as this summer. (Disney would not comment for this story.)

Given the majors’ conflicting corporate mandates to reduce their production slates, yet take advantage of new opportunities overseas, some wonder if they’re all ideal matches for the local-language production business. Companies like EuropaCorp and Studio Canal are taking on fare similar to these studio arms, and the possibility is open for new outfits to step in with the kind of commercial foreign-language films that Paramount has the bandwidth to distribute for growing audiences, but no longer seems as interested in producing.

While some studios may wonder if they can afford to make local-language films, others note that 70% of the global box office is now generated overseas, and wonder whether they can afford not to.

“Last year the Chinese market grew 60% , and on an average it’s been growing about 40% a year over the last few years,” notes FIP’s Panitch. “Even if it continues at 40%, in six years it will be bigger than the U.S. market. You’re seeing companies adapting to a new reality of a world marketplace that’s going to inform the kind of movies that are made and who we make them for.”

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