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America - You Really Don't Matter All That Much To Hollywood Studios Anymore...

by Tambay A. Obenson
August 26, 2013 1:10 PM
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Hollywood Sign

Especially when it comes to summer tent-pole movies.

Emphasis on the importance of the international marketplace, when it comes to Hollywood's distribution of its films, should be old news by now. We've heard it all before - including the "black films don't sell overseas" nonsense that seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Veteran Hollywood producer and author, Lynda Obst discusses the current state of affairs, in which tent-pole movies rule the industry, with overseas markets really being the primary target, not USA audiences. As she notes, currently, a whopping 80% of box office comes from outside the USA. That's hefty. And as she suggests, the USA has quickly become somewhat irrelevant in measuring a movie's success, because a film could be a box office failure in the USA, but dominate box offices in the international marketplace, and be very profitable. We've seen that happen a few times.

A recent movie like Pacific Rim, which cost $190 million to make, hasn't cracked $100 million yet in domestic box office (it just wasn't a good movie); but it's made $300 million overseas, for about a 25%/75% ratio. 

The figures for The Lone Ranger, another summer tentpole movie that really underperformed in the USA, has a similar split between Stateside box office and foreign.

But is this a bubble that might be soon to burst? 

Obst discusses that and more, including how major international markets like China only allow Hollywood's bloated action movie extravaganzas to show on their screens, while dramas and romantic comedies are of no interest because, as Obst says, it's partly to protect smaller-scale films made locally in China, and partly to prevent “the infiltration of our ideas.

Interesting because I'd say that these Hollywood tentpole movies aren't completely empty and free of the "ideas" that the Chinese government may be worried about.

Obst's new book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, recently hit book-stands, for those interested in checking it out.

Listen to her short conversation on Public Radio International:

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  • Adam Scott Thompson | September 2, 2013 5:09 PMReply

    That's what they tell you to keep in mind now when choosing what kinds of scripts to write. Action, thriller, horror and certain types of sci-fi (simple, preferably w/ monsters and robots) sell big worldwide. Comedy doesn't translate. Rom-coms? Please.

    Studios are less concerned with domestic tastes than with those of the "international market" which basically consists of four countries: China, Russia, India and Brazil. Think about how many films you've seen -- action, in particular -- with parts or all of it set in these countries, or with characters of these nationalities.

  • Donella | August 27, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    China's pretty hardcore when it comes to all aspects of business and trade [energy, manufacturing, etc]. Very protectionist and will not hesitate to throttle any foreign threat to their own economy, including foreign (U.S.) films.

  • Johnnie MD | August 26, 2013 11:14 PMReply

    I wonder how the U.S. rates with the indie film market? Do indie films make more here than overseas? Does it depend on the country in which the film was produced?

  • AccidentalVisitor | August 27, 2013 12:16 PM

    It would depend on the subject, but overall independent American films make more money in America than they do overseas. According to "experts" foreign audiences love the American films with the less amount of dialogue and with the bigger number of explosions. No one really cares about "Mud" in Brazil. They prefer Fast and Furious sequels. Then again the same can be said of America too.

  • Len | August 26, 2013 9:32 PMReply

    Would very much disagree with Tambay on Pacific Rim... it's actually quite a good movie, and I think we can all agree that Guillermo del Toro is a masterful director.

    Would be more accurate for Tambay to say "well, it wasn't to my taste."

    But the implication is still troubling, which is, "Oh yes, American audiences love good movies, only the crappy ones do great overseas, films like Pacific Rim." Which is absolutely ludicrous, considering that Pacific Rim got edged out on its opening weekend by Grown Ups 2, the latest in a long line of unfunny Adam Sandler atrocities.

  • Miles Ellison | September 2, 2013 6:39 PM

    Hot cars, explosions, and ass don't need subtitles.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | September 2, 2013 5:02 PM

    American comedies don't translate as well internationally -- and vice-versa, typically. A lot of the non-physical jokes depend upon pop culture references and social mores particular to the culture in which it was made.

    Movies about monsters or transforming robots or badass action heroes, on the other hand, do better because they're culturally transferrable. What does the U.S. have in common with China, Russia, India and Brazil? We all like to watch shit blow up. We all like gratuitous eye candy. We all like a good brawl. Hence the continuous win that is the "Fast & Furious" franchise.

  • Green Eagle | August 26, 2013 7:09 PMReply

    "It's been like that for a couple of years now, but the problem with this concept is that the bubble will soon burst as other countries develope their films more and more and be able to make those same films starring their own people"

    And thank you very much, Hollywood producers, who have spent the last couple of decades chasing the cheapest workers they can find, thereby teaching every country on earth what it took people here a hundred years to figure out. Funny, they don't care that foreign countries can now replace cinematographers, art directors, costumers etc. but it never occurs to them that they themselves are just as vulnerable.

  • Daryl | August 26, 2013 6:08 PMReply

    It's been like that for a couple of years now, but the problem with this concept is that the bubble will soon burst as other countries develope their films more and more and be able to make those same films starring their own people, so you are not going to have those type of grosses like it is now for a lot films, it will just be for a couple of films , a much smaller number than it is now and that alone will not be enough to support hollywood bloated production and advertising budgets.

  • AccidentalVisitor | August 26, 2013 6:05 PMReply

    "A recent movie like Pacific Rim, which cost $190 million to make, hasn't cracked $100 million yet in domestic box office (it just wasn't a good movie); "

    So "Grown Ups 2" which beat "Pacific Rim" the week they made their box office debuts and has taken in over $100 million is a good movie? Because that would be the logical conclusion based on what you wrote.

    Box office results have never been a representation of quality, not even in most cases. There are so many other factors in play. I sensed a tent-pole, 3-D, CGI-fest fatigue by the time "Pacific Rim" hit the theaters. Because since that moment (maybe starting the week before when Lone Ranger made its debut) virtually every following big budget flick has been a huge disappointment(including Wolverine). I personally liked Pacific Rim. Of the three big summer flicks I saw in 2013 it was the best and most enjoyable (is this damnantion by faint praise?). My opinion is no more legit than yours, Tambay, but let us not forget Pacific Rim garnered a 72% score on Rotten Tomatoes which is pretty respectable for a popcorn film of its ilk. It got a A- rating from viewers I believe. It got better responses than "Man of Steel" which did far better at the box office. To sum it up, the majority of people who saw Pacific Rim seemed to like it; the issue was getting people interested in the first place. Therefore I think it is a little too easy to dimiss its so-so US box office take as an indicator of its quality.

    As for your overall writeup, I've read the same things about the smaller films in China making good money amonst Chinese moviegoers and that as a result more American films were being squeezed out of the market in that country. Good! Serves American studios right to get hit in their pockets as they more and more limit the movies they greenlight to those films that they believe can generate a bilion dollars gross worldwide (Avengeers money).

  • LeonRaymond | August 26, 2013 1:46 PMReply

    Met her way way back in the day when I just got into the industry at a conference and she signed my copy of her book "HELLO HE LIED, Stories from the trenches of Hollywood"
    That book was awesome as I know this one will be. She tells it like it is and never Sugar coats how life is for those in the industry.

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