Global Impact: International emphasis redefines studio filmmaking

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When “Titanic” first sailed the world in 1997, perhaps its most astonishing box office feat was taking 67% of its $1.8 billion worldwide tally from overseas, a phenomenon that would stand as a unique achievement for … a few short years.

Nowadays, the international share has soared so high — 80% or more for many pics — that Hollywood is chasing increasingly hard after every yen, yuan, euro and real. It’s a fundamental shift that is impacting nearly every decision in town, from marketing and co-production deals to script development, casting, location selection and 3D.

This week’s issue of Variety explores those themes through the prism of Hollywood’s tilt toward globalization.

As the U.S. market faces maturity, with theatrical grosses increasing just 6% over five years, and actually dropping 4% in 2011, total international box office has grown steadily over that span. In 2011, global totals reached an all-time high of $22.4 billion — 35% ahead of 2007 returns. And there’s been no stronger showing of that shift than during 2012, a year characterized by extremes: with mega-hits like “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” and Stateside flops like “John Carter” and “Wrath of the Titans,” heavily weighted offshore box office either sent Hollywood’s tentpoles to new heights, or saved them from total catastrophe.

This year, overseas grosses are tracking slightly ahead of last year’s record total, at around $20 billion through Nov. 26. China alone has contributed $1.9 billion through September — 28% ahead of 2011 grosses.

There’s no better example of the ever-increasing stakes in the international marketplace than Fox’s “Ice Age” franchise. This year’s fourth installment, “Continental Drift,” grossed a franchise-best $718 million internationally, which represents 83% of the global take, and $160 million Stateside, the franchise’s lowest domestic take to date.

Compare that with the second installment, “The Meltdown,” which in 2006 earned 70% of its global tally from overseas markets ; in 2002, the original scored 54% of its box office total overseas.

Toons like “Ice Age” tend to travel easily, while other genres (ahem, comedies) have long struggled for overseas success. But even that’s beginning to change — and studios are eager to join the action (see story, page 16). Comedies began traveling abroad in earnest when Warner Bros.’ “Hangover” pair became the highest-grossing comedy series in the world. Universal scored with two hit laffers this year internationally: “American Reunion” drew a shocking 76% of its $235 million global gross from overseas B.O.; “Ted” followed, becoming the all-time highest-grossing original comedy globally, with more than $500 million, and counting.

Growth in the international marketplace is expected to continue apace for years to come. Chinese box office, for example, is projected to reach $4.5 billion by 2015, which would put it behind only the U.S. as the world’s second-largest movie market. Ernst & Young recently predicted that China could be No. 1 — bigger than the U.S. — as soon as 2020.

But even as China’s box office explodes, bizzers are looking elsewhere in the world to the newest growth markets, such as Vietnam and Argentina, the latter of which is riding the financial boom in neighboring BRIC country Brazil (see story, page 10).

As they blossom, expect to see worldwide tastes creeping into everything from the locations at which it shoots (see story, page 12) to the stories Hollywood chooses to tell and the stars in every summer tentpole (see story, page 14). And studios are paying closer attention to the needs of their overseas arms: Paramount, for instance, recently hosted an international summit on the lot to invite input from overseas division leaders. One consensus that came from the confab was that Par needed to release more romantic comedies.

Just this year, the studio moved most of its international operations to Los Angeles in an attempt to decrease overhead, but also to make consultations with overseas execs easier.

One aspect of the business that needs no consultation is the importance of 3D overseas. Studios have begun converting pics now solely for the benefit of international markets, as 3D popularity wanes at home.

As for “Titanic,” that film got another run this year, re-issued in 3D 15 years after its groundbreaking trip across the world. This time, it netted $349.8 million worldwide, with $291.9 million (or 83%) coming in from overseas — no longer just the tip of the iceberg, or anywhere near.

The takeaway: Due to factors that include everything from the international growth in cinemas to a worldwide embrace of comedies, Hollywood’s foreign accent is increasing. And this global emphasis is changing every aspect of U.S. filmmaking.

Global Impact Report
Movie posters get territorial | Hollywood takes global view | Hollywood eyes new emerging markets | Stars, scripts help films go global | U.S. comedies succeeding globally

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