The conventional wisdom in Hollywood long held that the foreign market had an insatiable appetite for American-made genre flicks — actioners, shoot-em-ups, special-effects spectacles, etc. Give the U.S. ticketbuyers what they want and global will fall in line. But with so many domestic releases getting yawns at the local box office, Hollywood has begun feeding the foreign maw first — with consequences we’re only just beginning to understand.
And so the question arises: Do American moviegoers matter to the studios anymore?
Take Transcendence. April’s $100 million Johnny Depp sci-fi opus couldn’t invade the American consciousness, mustering just $24 million. But overseas, where U.S.A.-listers still have clout at the turnstiles, the movie rang up $80 million, accounting for nearly 80% of the movie’s worldwide cume. That didn’t make it a hit, but at least it kept the flick out of red ink.
These days, the once all-important U.S. moviegoer is taking a backseat to moviegoers across the globe — particularly in the exploding Asian markets. Just two decades ago, overseas box office routinely accounted for less than half of a movie’s total haul. Today, studios expect a 60-40 split favoring international box office. These days, as American viewers drift in ever-greater number from traditional film and television to their smartphones and tablets for content, the foreign take for movies is often 75% or better.
As go dollars, so go premieres. Global markets have come to expect U.S. juggernauts to launch from foreign soil. The Avengers, for instance, irked some fans who learned that the Marvel all-star lineup would debut locally on May 4, 2012 — a week after it premiered in 39 other countries. The strategy paid off, as Avengers collected $895 million internationally, compared to a domestic take of $623 million. Marvel and Disney are planning to use the same template for next summer’s sequel, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, which will hit American screens May 1, at least a week behind territories including Hong Kong, Italy and Denmark.
While studios argue the move is critical to stemming piracy, the coin of the Realms is hard to ignore. Over the four years ending in 2012, international box office surged an astonishing 25%, from $27.7 billion to $34.7 billion, the MPAA reports. U.S. revenues, meanwhile, are seeing incremental increases at best, and this year will see a likely drop in box office income.
The result may not be good news for fans of art-house fare — or art-house owners. The studios are shrinking their marketing payrolls while expand their reach, prompting a mad rush for anything that seems likely to strike a global chord. Expect a larger diet of the fare that’s hot internationally, if not as much here: Namely, special effects bonanzas and 3D.
That doesn’t mean we’re obsolete. While promoting White House Down (which struggled to $73.1 million here but managed $132.2 million overseas), Roland Emmerich assured me that we still matter. For now, that is. “You are the tastemakers,” he said. “At least until the Chinese take that over, too.”
If the foreign market has become an insurance policy of sorts for the industry’s most expensive films, American cinephiles, including exhibitors, could still benefit from that policy, in a back-handed sort of way. Already, NATO is pushing exhibitors to program alternatives from concerts to sporting events. And opening trade can go both ways: As long as the business can remain as flexible as its patrons, there’s no reason the U.S. should lose the most important title in filmdom, as tastemakers.