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Stars, scripts help films go global

Global Impact: Studios eye foreign play early in a project's development

When FilmDistrict picked up remake rights to “Red Dawn” from MGM, the distrib knew it had to make some uniform changes — specifically, it saw the need to change the antagonists’ Chinese army uniforms to North Korean so the pic wouldn’t be banned from the world’s fastest-growing movie market.

While an extreme example, it’s not the first time — and certainly not the last — that a story and casting decision was influenced by the booming international market.

“With DVD being a lost art form, it’s all about global filmmaking now,” says a creative exec at one production banner. “Almost every studio is basing a good portion of its greenlight decisionmaking on how a film will appeal internationally.”

While some genres are simply too difficult to purpose-build for overseas auds (sports pics in particular), most Hollywood execs agree that casting international stars in supporting roles, writing in story elements that appeal to foreign tastes and shooting in key overseas markets are critical parts of a successful global formula. Particularly with studio tentpoles, the rising importance of foreign B.O. has Hollywood priming pics to ensure overseas play as early as the script stage.

Still, once a script is in motion, studios tend not to change the setting: “Writers are rarely asked to shoulder responsibility for a film’s global appeal,” one lit agent says. “You can look at something from 800 feet, which involves how a film is developed and where most of these international elements are being discussed, and you can look at something from 80 feet, which is how the writer works.”

While studios are far from passing over a Will Smith or a Matt Damon for an international star who plays well in Japan or India, local talent is frequently cast in supporting roles. Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” included Simon Pegg (U.K.), Anil Kapoor (India), Michael Nyqvist (Sweden), Vladimir Mashkov and Ivan Shvedoff (Russia), Lea Seydoux (France) and Samuli Edelmann (Finland), and the pic saw almost 70% of its nearly $700 million B.O. at foreign wickets.

Paramount’s “Star Trek Into Darkness,” meanwhile, is being coy about the villainous role Benedict Cumberbatch will play in the pic, using the Brit star to tubthump aud interest in Europe. And Universal’s “47 Ronin” has hitched its wagon to Keanu Reeves’ star, the studio decided to cast the remaining ensemble with Japanese thesps, who may not be familiar to domestic auds, but have huge appeal in the Japanese and Asian markets.

Even U’s “Couples Retreat,” which co-starred Spanish thesp Carlos Ponce, managed $2.6 million in Spain, a territory where U.S. comedies don’t tend to resonate.

Casting has become particularly important for the Chinese market, both to draw audiences and as a critical part of securing co-production status. Sony’s “Looper,” features Chinese actress Summer Qing as the wife of Bruce Willis’ character, has earned more than $20 million in the territory. And Chinese actress Nan Yu, who is fluent in English, landed the female lead in Lionsgate sequel “The Expendables 2,” despite her being virtually unknown to U.S. auds; the pic went on to make $53 million in China.

Several years ago, “Memoirs of Geisha” came under fire when it cast a couple of non-Japanese actors to play Japanese characters. One studio exec says that in today’s market, if you have a movie set in China with Chinese characters, you’d better get the casting right — or you might as well kick that market to the curb.

Certain genres of films tend to play better overseas, too: Thrillers, fantasy and animation tend to do well, while comedies and sports movies tend not to translate. And while execs aren’t complaining about the boost from international play, some creatives worry that the hunt for foreign coin will skew films away from favorite domestic themes.

“The studios want big concept ideas that include aliens and vampires,” says one industry insider. “But when you use these elements too frequently, it begins to have a negative effect on the final product.”

And ultimately, Disney’s “Order of the Seven” proves that international casting is no guarantee a film will succeed, or even be made. The plan was to cast the seven monks who followed the main character around with people from various regions of the world in hopes of covering each major market. But global talent couldn’t overcome the Mouse’s budget concerns. The takeaway: The global launch of a U.S. pic is no longer just about marketing. It starts with the script, then continues on to the casting.

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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