English Rules The Multiplex Abroad
May 21, 2008, 03:53 PM
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It`s a little frightening to contemplate how similar movie tastes are all over the world. It`s like some Tooby & Cosmides theory come to life. Aren`t there any cultural differences? Does Hollywood really have the formula for what people everywhere want to see? Or do they just want to see it because Hollywood makes it?

The extent of English-language dominance of the movie market is quite extraordinary. I looked up the top 150 movies in 2007 in terms of box office outside of North America, and 93% of the revenue came from English language movies. The top 30 grossers outside of the American/Canadian market were all English language films.

Not all of these Top 30 movies were American: "Mr. Bean`s Holiday," which only made $33 million on this side of the pond but earned $196 million in the rest of the world, is basically a British movie. And some of the others might be considered Anglospheric rather than American, such as the latest "Harry Potter." And lots of the talent involved, such as many cameramen, are from non-English-speaking countries. Still, all of the top 30 earners abroad were made in the English language.

The top of the overseas box office list (the top four were the latest sequels of "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Harry Potter," "Spider-Man," and "Shrek") is very similar to the top of the domestic rankings. "The Golden Compass" did much better overseas ($302 million) than in North America ($70 million), but there weren`t many exceptions like that.

Number 31 in overseas box office was the first non-English film, the South Korean horror flick "The Host," which took in $87 million abroad, but $65 million of that came from South Koreans, who must really, really like that film.

Next came the Oscar winning French musical drama "La Vie en Rose," the Spanish horror movie "The Orphanage," the German drama "The Lives of Others," and the Taiwanese (Chinese? Hong Kong?) arthouse sex film "Lust, Caution." There were a lot of Indian films farther down the list, but the highest ranking one was "Om Shanti Om" at #78.

Conversely, the top money-making foreign-language films in North America was the excellent German film about the East German secret police, The Lives of Others, with $11 million, followed by the French Edith Piaf biopic, "La Vie en Rose," whose star Marion Cotillard won a deserved Best Actress Oscar.

The English-language movies that do worst abroad relative to their North American performance tend to be comedies, especially African-American comedies, especially ones with the words "Tyler Perry`s" in the title—his two 2007 films took in over 98% of the worldwide revenue domestically.

On the other hand, while foreigners don`t like African-American movies, they like African-American actors fine, especially if they are named "Will Smith." His "I Am Legend," a remake of Charlton Heston`s "Omega Man" about the seeming last man on Earth and thus a Will Smith Actathon, took in $328 million overseas.

I was listening to an NPR story on how Bollywood producers often remake American blockbusters without paying royalties, such as a shot-for-shot ripoff of Will Smith`s "Hitch." The Hollywood studios don`t even bother suing. Their attitude appears to be:

Whatever happens we have got Mister Will Smith and they have not