The old rubric that Hollywood comedies don’t travel well overseas used to be a handy excuse to not even bother trying. But in today’s globalized movie marketplace, with Web-connected foreign consumers becoming more attuned to American humor, and international box office carrying studios’ bottom lines, that adage just doesn’t fly anymore.
With the surprising global success of U.S. comedies like the “Hangover” franchise, “Ted” and even “American Reunion,” filmmakers are becoming more mindful of how laffers play outside the U.S., often selecting cast and location based on overseas appeal.
These days, some comedies are even purpose-built for worldwide appeal.
” ‘Movie 43’ probably wouldn’t have been made without the international market,” says Peter Farrelly, producer/director of Relativity Media’s upcoming R-rated comedy, which boasts international stars such as Hugh Jackman, Gerard Butler and Naomi Watts.
“Hard-R plays into European sensibilities, because they’re not as bashful as we are,” Farrelly says. “However, because of the outrageous tone, we knew nobody would give us $40 million to make it. Our budget was $6 million, and with all those stars (who worked for cheap), foreign rights sold in about 20 minutes, and they covered everything. The movie’s already in the black, and it hasn’t even come out.”
Sources tell Variety that some of the film’s actors took back-ends deals.
Another way to turn a comedy into an overseas hit: Make it work in the U.S., a phenomenon that can create “event” status worldwide, says David Kosse, prexy of international at Universal Pictures.
“Obviously, ‘Ted’ stands out as the biggest example from this year ($282 million overseas), but ‘American Reunion’ also performed well overseas ($178 million) because it got the original gang back together.”
Indeed, “American Reunion” and Paramount’s “The Dictator” both stalled out around $60 million Stateside, but went on to triple those grosses overseas (“The Dictator” grossed $117 million at foreign wickets). Meanwhile, Farrelly, who has been directing studio comedies for nearly 20 years, says he now counts on international grosses to put his movies in the black.
One of the easiest ways to make that happen is through starry casting.
“Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller tend to do well overseas; they’ve developed significant international fanbases, and they usually star in high-concept movies,” Kosse says. “Everyone around the world can relate to something like ‘Meet the Parents.’ ”
Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote and directed Relativity’s upcoming R-rated comedy “21 and Over,” note that three of the comedies they wrote — “The Hangover,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “The Change-Up” — did just as well overseas as at home. While “The Hangover” was a global phenomenon, the success of the Las Vegas-set caper was driven by story, not stars.
“I just think it was a nice, big fat universal experience, because the world knows what Vegas is,” Moore says. “Jon and I don’t really think about the foreign or domestic markets, we just try to write movies that have a big universal concept that most people can relate to, whether it’s being married and wanting to be single or vice versa, like in ‘The Change-Up.’ ”
In some cases, tweaks are in order to help a film appeal to international auds. For “21 and Over,” first-time directors Lucas and Moore added a sequence set in China featuring one of the pic’s three leads, who happens to be Chinese. The scene was in the shooting script, but did not appear in the script Relativity originally purchased.
“It’s my understanding that in order to get additional financing, we needed to shoot a piece of it in China,” Moore says. “We took department heads over there and used a Chinese crew to shoot a dream sequence and bookends to the movie, which gave our Chinese character more backstory.” The dream sequence likely won’t be included in the U.S. version, Moore adds.
Relativity Media prexy Tucker Tooley says the company’s partnership with Chinese production company Skyland was a big part of its decision to shoot in China — but certainly was not the only factor. “When a comedy is shot in one place, it’s nice to open it up, and it was organic to the story, so it made sense,” Tooley says.
While most filmmakers are excited by the idea of success overseas, not all will go to extreme lengths to ensure it.
“We’ve never had a movie in China, and I’d shoot over there in a heartbeat,” Farrelly says. “But to make the movie take place in China just so it could come out there, I don’t know (if) I’d do that unless it made total sense to the story.”
With so many of today’s biggest hits in any genre earning as much as 80% of their box office from international, thinking about foreign auds has become de rigueur — and is taking place very early in the filmmaking process.
“The way we approach comedy is similar to the way we approach all our films — by asking ‘Is there domestic and international appeal?,’ ” Tooley says. “We’re very conscious about budgets with comedies, so if there is more limited international appeal, we closely manage the cost of the film. With regard to our movies, we’re generally in communication and talking to our foreign partners very early, even during the script process, about what their expectations are beforehand.”
Tooley notes that Relativity’s international associates have long track records in their respective territories, and are often approached to see what kinds of adjustments can be made to make a movie work in their backyard.
“Our distribution partners around the world help advise us from script stage to production, and we do what we can to help (them) maximize profitability,” Tooley says.
Kosse notes that while Universal’s comedic output hasn’t changed much, fewer American comedies are being made in general — and those tend to get marginalized in foreign markets where local-language comedies are doing well. He also wonders what’s happened to Brit comedies, which in the past were repped by such global players as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary.”
Farrelly laments what he sees as some of the brothers’ missed opportunities regarding international: “I don’t know if ‘Kingpin’ even opened overseas, and Fox barely released ‘The Three Stooges’ overseas,” he says. “They had this vision that the ‘Stooges’ were purely an American thing, and I will go to my grave believing they made a mistake on that. It’s physical comedy, and that’s what travels best.”
Kosse notes that while it’s difficult to identify trends, he agrees with the assessment that physical laffers work best overseas. “Although,” he adds, “it’s easier to tell what doesn’t work — comedy that requires a certain sense of knowledge or understanding about the actor or the character. They’re typically highly verbal, and feature a certain type of delivery that requires a specific play on words. Dialogue-heavy films are more difficult, because the dubbing process overseas isn’t a direct translation of the movie. They have to change some of the words to match the actors’ mouths.”
Universal will get a taste of that challenge, releasing Judd Apatow’s dialogue-heavy “This Is 40” on Dec. 21.
“Judd’s movies do quite well, but not as well as they do domestically,” Kosse says. “His biggest international markets are English-speaking territories, such as the U.K., Australia and northern Europe, though his movies also have strong universal concepts, such as ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ and ‘Knocked Up.’ ”
On the opposite end of the international spectrum is Will Ferrell, with a rival studio executive telling Variety they “weren’t surprised that WB’s political comedy “The Campaign” didn’t do a lot of business overseas, because his movies haven’t traveled well. While the subject matter of American politics likely didn’t hold much appeal abroad, a deeper look at Ferrell’s track record overseas proves his disproportionate domestic success. Ferrell has toplined five comedies that grossed more than $100 million Stateside — “Elf” ($173 million), “Talladega Nights” ($148 million), “Blades of Glory” ($118 million), “Step Brothers” ($100 million) and “The Other Guys” ($119 million) — though none grossed more than $52 million abroad.
The same studio exec contrasted Ferrell with Sacha Baron Cohen, whose TV show, “Da Ali G Show,” was popular in the U.K. and Australia. “He has had an international following from the very beginning,” says the exec, citing the worldwide appeal of Baron Cohen’s signature characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno.
Speaking of Baron Cohen’s movies, one exec cited Pamela Anderson’s well-publicized cameo in “Borat” as an example of a studio hoping to cater to overseas auds by employing stunt casting the former “Baywatch” babe, which certainly never hurts at the international box office.
“The adage seems to be that comedies don’t work overseas,” Kosse says, “until they do.” What: More U.S. comedies hit with foreign auds.
The takeaway: Hollywood is retooling laffers to play to a young, Internet-savvy and international base.
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