When France hosted – and ultimately won — the 1998 World Cup, Parisians were encouraged by the mayor’s office to be nice to our guests. Billboards went up all over town reminding us to smile and heartily say “Bonjour!” Many were skeptical, but that feeling changed quickly. This year, Brazilians, not known for the same frosty exterior as the French, are gearing up for their own World Cup as hosts (and favorites), but the atmosphere is not looking quite so warm. With preparations woefully behind, some stadiums not at completion and a general sense that too much money has been spent on the event, many locals are exasperated with the whole thing before it’s even begun. A crime wave has broken out in Rio and strikes have started with the threat of more looming. Despite all of this, it would be foolhardy to think the country won’t get behind its team and focus on the 12 pitches where the beautiful game will be played over the next month. Indeed, all over the world, fans will start planning their days around kickoff times come Thursday with a projected 1 billion people tuning in to the opening Brazil vs Croatia match. That’s a lot of butts on couches and bar stools — and not in movie theater seats. With that in mind, here’s a look at how the studios strategize around the world where some countries embrace the sport as though it were a matter of life and death, and others don’t get so worked up.
It’s fair to say the U.S. falls into the latter category. Yet, there has been some movement in recent years. ESPN, which aired the Euro Cup in 2012 and the 2010 World Cup from South Africa, has seen increased ratings, and execs this week all but guaranteed additional growth this year (see the full U.S. TV schedule below). When the Americans tied England in the Group C opening game of the 2010 World Cup, a studio exec tells me it did lead to some effect on cinema-going. Roundly, though, while the studios have put the mega sporting event into their international strategic plans over the past decade, industry insiders contend they don’t pay too much mind to the tournament’s domestic impact. Despite the preponderance of kids who play the sport, soccer has just never been massive in the States.
With the major European national teams like Germany, France and Spain, box office is usually down by about 50%-60% in those markets if the home team is playing, and about 20% if they’re not. And yet, Hollywood doesn’t see having a major soccer year as a pass. As one exec says, “You don’t go, ‘it’s the Euro Cup, therefore we get to have a bad year.’ In theory, you might say, ‘It’s World Cup next year, if you’re really expecting us to do $2 billion international, it’s unrealistic.’” However, “Everyone expects it to work itself out. There are losers that were going to be losers anyway, they’re not casualties of the World Cup.”
The films that tend to work during this period are ones that skew to female, family and older audiences. Despite the seeming indifference from U.S. moviegoers, as international box office has grown in importance, the studios have grown used to planning in advance. “Studios are always looking at what’s on deck that would be fantastic” to program during the World Cup. “If you had a Mamma Mia! or a Sex And The City, you would own exhibition,” an exec says. The first Sex And The City was rolled out during Euro Cup 2008 and the sequel ran during the 2010 World Cup. Despite the rotten reviews on the second film, it earned $193M overseas, dwarfing its domestic take by nearly $100M.
Paramount will surely rely on U.S. audiences when it bows the only male-skewing actioner to release domestically during the thick of the action. Transformers: Age Of Extinction opens June 27 – actually a rest day with no matches on the soccer schedule. It will also go day-and-date in China, but that country does not have a team in the mix and Asian audiences tend to follow the tournament less rabidly than in Europe or Latin America. China, regardless, is expected to be huge for Age Of Extinction, given the local elements it involves and what should be a high-profile world premiere in Hong Kong on June 19. Age Of Extinction is also opening June 26 in the major box office markets of Russia and Korea – where audiences love their action, but where both national teams have matches being played on the same day. Interest in the World Cup is high in both those territories, but I’m cautioned that it’s not a national obsession.
One exec says of the World Cup, “A lot of people want to stay away from it, but others can look at it as an opportunity.” Another counters flatly, “No film anyone expects to gross over $100 million” is scheduled during the tournament. “You can take a calculated bet on a smaller movie, but not on a tentpole.” And that’s very likely why Transformers won’t release in other major markets like France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, Brazil and Mexico until July as the Cup winds down, and through early August. Also going out in the waining days of the tourney is Fox’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes which starts beating its chest overseas on July 9, staggered in many places by about a week from Transformers. It opens domestically on July 11 and rolls out all through July and August, wrapping up in Japan on September 26.
On the flipside, studios have also tried to get out in front of, and during, the games. DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon 2 will breathe fire in 15 overseas markets including Russia and some Asian and European outlets next weekend, but it won’t hit the major Euro territories until after football fever has abated. Russia was a No. 2 market for the first episode, and this movie played like gangbusters in Cannes recently. It will look to grab the family audience – and is one of those that will play well in daytime. South America is a different story; Dragons swoops into Brazil on June 19 when the home team will still be playing in the Group Stages. Brazil aligned school holidays to be in step with the tournament, so Fox International SVP of Sales and Strategic Planning Craig Dehmel tells me the thinking was, “We can release during the World Cup and have no competition, or we can release after and have no school holidays — and competition as we get into July.” He allows that the film could get hit “really badly” on big game days. But at the same time, people may end up switching their routines around to go to the movies on another day, like they do with the Super Bowl. There is a dearth of animated movies this summer meaning HTTYD2 has a pretty clear path. My colleague David Lieberman reported yesterday that Wall Street expects the film to strongly outperform the 2010 original with a consensus view that it will hit $615M worldwide, with anywhere from 59% to 65% coming from overseas.
Also in the past few weeks, international rollouts have begun for such big-ticket items as Disney’s Maleficent ($210M+ overseas as of this weekend); X-Men: Days Of Future Past (at $421.2M) and Edge Of Tomorrow (at $110M). Those films are expected to continue to play for at least part of the Cup, while counterprogrammers like 22 Jump Street and The Fault In Our Stars staked out a chunk of real estate in their overseas bows last weekend. Sony‘s 21 Jump Street sequel debuted to a strong $8.2M in the UK and the Netherlands, and is one of the comedy offerings that’s going out boldly to act as an alternative to soccer. It’s important to remember as well that because the Cup is being played in Brazil, the games are airing in primetime and later into the evenings in Europe, meaning that the weekend days – when kids and families go to the movies — could still do solid business.
A great example of counterprogramming this year is The Fault In Our Stars. Fox released it in 17 markets this past weekend for an initial haul of $16.59M. What’s notable there is the film’s performance in Brazil where it grossed $5.8M on 684 runs. The country is so far the No. 1 ex-U.S. market — it’s also among one of the biggest for the book upon which the film is based. TFIOS opens in 19 new territories next weekend, including Germany (where the book is also huge) and Switzerland. In the same vein, Universal is releasing another teen romancer, Endless Love, in Brazil on Thursday. Still, one exec warns, Brazil will be “completely dead” and another opines, “Latin American audiences will stand still.”
Fox International’s Dehmel tells me TFIOS was initially programmed for August and September in Latin America “and all of a sudden there was chatter online in Mexico as to why they had to wait so long to see the movie.” The dates were pulled forward, putting it actively in the World Cup frame. The key demo is women under 25 who are less likely to be watching the matches, “so we’ve got a captive audience,” Dehmel says. “The key for us is not going too early in markets where we haven’t had the buzz.” In the U.S., the movie is also crossing over with couples and older audiences.
Playing to the older demo, Warner Bros has Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys which hits Europe in mid-June and rolls out over the summer. “Eastwood has a following in the same way as Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. People will seek out his movie even in the middle of a World Cup,” opines a watcher.
A selection of movies due for release in overseas territories with skin in the month-long tournament includes the aforementioned The Fault In Our Stars (Switerland, Chile, Germany, Belgium, UK/Ireland, Portugal, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, the Netherlands, Spain); Jersey Boys (Belgium, Switzerland, France, Italy, the Netherands, UK/Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Australia, Uruguay, Mexico); How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Greece, Portugal, Russia, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, UK/Ireland, Belgium, France, the Netherlands); Tammy (Germany, UK/Ireland); Belle (UK/Ireland); 3 Days To Kill (Chile, UK/Ireland, Japan, Brazil, Greece); Chef (UK/Ireland, Brazil); Endless Love (Belgium, France, Brazil, Spain); The Other Woman (Spain, France, Italy); The Two Faces Of January (Spain, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Belgium); Transcendence (Belgium, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Colombia, France, Japan, Russia); About Last Night (Germany); Best Man Holiday (Italy); And So It Goes (Italy); A Million Ways To Die In The West (Greece, Mexico, Portugal, Belgium, France); and Blended (Australia, Greece, Mexico, Croatia, Russia, Belgium, Spain).
Notably, Spain is the defending champions of both the World Cup and Euro Cup. “Football seems to be the one activity where there is no crisis” in the country, says Warner Bros Spain director general, Pablo Nogueroles. Box office can be expected to take a hit in this football-crazed nation. “It capitalizes people’s attention and the media attention, not just the games.” Nogueroles agrees with other execs, “We have historically dated films during the Euro Cup or World Cup mainly that play to a more female target and I still think there are opportunities for films that are more family oriented.” Kids are on holiday so they “have to do something, they can’t just be watching football all day.” Warner is releasing Adam Sandler comedy Blended as a counterprogramming alternative during the tournament. Fox’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past just opened this weekend and was No. 1 with $2.94M on 803 screens.
It’s worth noting that the sport is watched by millions of Hispanic viewers in the U.S. Latino teams playing this time include defending champs Spain along with host Brazil, and Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Portugal and Uruguay. That should give Univision, which also has the matches in the U.S., and ESPN and ESPN Deportes, a solid run. Also, Disney and Univision-owned Fusion is ramping up all of its platforms for soccer coverage and will air its weekly Soccer Gods magazine every night for a month. Geography is going to play a factor here as well with many matches falling into East Coast primetime.
Meanwhile, on television in Europe, networks are scheduling companion and counterprogramming. And some are doing it before the Cup gets going. In the UK, the BBC on Monday aired a feature-length documentary led by former England captain David Beckham. Into The Unknown followed Goldenballs on a motorcycle journey through Brazil (natch), and won the ratings race with 4.6M viewers. (Beckham’s also starring in a new ad for Sky Sports 5 that will launch during the first ad break of the first match on Thursday.) The BBC’s Director of Sport, Barbara Slater, recently told Televisual they were looking “to make this the first 24/7 World Cup for all audiences, on all platforms at any time of day or night.” Red Arrow International has been successfully selling documentary Mata Mata which chronicles a group of Brazilian boys over three years beginning at age 15 and in different stages of their careers. Some territories have already aired it and a deal was recently closed with Korea’s GreenNarae Media to begin roll out on VOD June 12. During the Cup, broadcasters can score upwards of 60% audience share per match in which a national team is playing and the ones that don’t have rights will aim for the same demo that the moviehouses are going after. France’s M6, for example, is showing repeats of Devious Maids and Scandal. TF1 will be the only free-to-air channel with the games and is eyeing 10M viewers per match in which Les Bleus are playing.
As with every event with such a high-profile and obsessive fan base — and built-in unpredictability — lessons will be learned by the time the post-mortems start around July 14. In the meantime, some are making predictions. Investment bank Goldman Sachs has called a Brazil-Argentina final on July 13 with the host country victorious. But perhaps we should keep an eye on Chengdu, China over the next month where a panda cub will reportedly be predicting the outcome of the games, taking over the spot that was previously reserved for the late, great Paul the octopus.