Hollywood’s success abroad is no accident. For starters, American studios are making more “tent pole” or “franchise” movies — large-scale films packed with action and special effects rather than dialogue, which often translates poorly to audiences across the world. “Animation also does better overseas — anything that is not language-bound,” says Bill Mechanic, former chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment.
Second, countries such as Russia and China are building state-of-the-art theaters at a staggering pace. Between 2007 and 2011, Chinese movie screens doubled to more than 6,200, and that number is projected to rise even further by 2015 to 16,500. This still leaves room for a massive increase, given that the United States, with its far smaller population, has almost 40,000 screens, per the National Association of Theatre Owners.
Third, China has started opening its doors for an increase in U.S. movie releases after years of restrictions. In February, the United States and China agreed to a deal allowing 14 Imax or 3-D films from the United States to be shown annually in China, on top of the previous quota of 20 American movies. Hollywood already has seen the benefits of this pact; China’s growing appetite for American films was evident in the re-release of James Cameron’s Titanic in 3-D, which raked in a record-breaking $67 million in just the first week it opened in China — nearly $10 million more than it earned over the entire course of its American release.
Unsurprisingly, Hollywood is doing everything to maximize its foreign revenue. Several studios have created operations to finance local-language or “indigenous” products. Legendary Pictures, which co-financed the Batman series, has even formed a venture solely to jointly fund Chinese movies, and 20th-Century Fox was one of the backers of John Woo’s Chinese-language epic Red Cliff. At the same time, leading talent agencies such as Creative Artists Agency have opened foreign offices, including one in Beijing, to scout local filmmakers and improve the potential for co-productions.
Many studios are also premiering their movies abroad for the first time, defying conventional wisdom that U.S.-based publicity drives a movie’s global performance. Steven Spielberg recognized this last year when he opened The Adventures of Tintin in Brussels and Paris almost a month before it opened in the United States.
Moviegoers may no longer be flocking to theaters in the United States, but as Hollywood is finally recognizing, foreign revenues remain a bright light for one of the great domestic industries. As film-industry reps love to point out, movies are one export the United States can still count on.
Stephen Galloway is executive editor of features for the Hollywood Reporter.