Can a sophisticated movie with a fundamentally American theme that did poorly in the U.S. be a success overseas?
As a rule the answer to that question is almost certainly no. While the global marketplace seems able to cover a multitude of sins in filmmaking, particularly for movies with lots of loud explosions or special effects, rescuing dramas that fail in the U.S. is a transgression not easily covered.
But "Primary Colors," which opened in France this week and was the opening film of the Cannes International Film Festival on Wednesday, may prove an exception to that rule.
Nobody expects it to be an international blockbuster of course. But because of the unique financial structure of Mutual Film Co., which is distributing the movie internationally, "Primary Colors" is far more likely to make its backers money in the global arena than in the U.S. even though the film is steeped in the idiosyncrasies of American politics.
The film opened in France as the No. 1 film at the box office on its first day, but overall the numbers were small as people stayed outside in nice weather. Several executives with companies that buy and sell in global film markets said they expected "Primary Colors" to continue to do well.
It helped that Universal Pictures, the film's U.S. distributor, and Mutual arranged for the film to take a prestigious spot at the beginning of the world's most celebrated film festival, which happens to be in France. Though costly, the Cannes launch took advantage of the film's well-known director, Mike Nichols, and its stars, John Travolta and Emma Thompson, to get attention from media in the most lucrative markets in Europe.
At a news conference here Wednesday, Travolta, who plays a President Clinton look-alike in the film, said, "We're pretty happy with the [U.S.] box office. Forty million isn't bad for a political film. We're hoping for better internationally."
But at a cost of about $65 million, not counting marketing and distribution, "Primary Colors" was a minor disaster for Universal, which distributed the film in the U.S.
A common industry rule of thumb is that a film is a loser financially if its U.S. gross doesn't equal the film's cost. (This is based on a series of assumptions about what the film eventually will reap internationally and in television and video markets.)
Universal covered a significant portion of risk on the film by partnering with Mutual, which put up about 55% of the film's budget for rights outside the U.S. Even so, industry sources believe Universal lost money on the film.
Mutual, founded by Gary Levinsohn and Mark Gordon, is a 2-year-old partnership that offers a few twists on the convoluted world of international film finance. Its backers are four distributors representing most of the largest international territories--BBC in England, Tele-Munchen in Germany, Toho-Towa/Marubeni in Japan and UGCph in France. All are hungry for U.S. films for some combination of theatrical, video and television distribution in their own territories and together they represent a third to a half of the film market outside the U.S.
Such distributors are finding it increasingly difficult to fill their needs by buying rights to films in the marketplace in Cannes or at the American Film Market in Santa Monica. By pooling their resources and underwriting as much as 60% of a film's budget, the distributors get access to a slate of films that U.S. studios typically would handle themselves.
The Los Angeles-based company is headed by Levinsohn, whose background is in international film sales, and Gordon, the producer of "Speed" and other films.
Outside the countries represented in the partnership, Mutual sold the rights to distribute "Primary Colors," and sources say that based on those pre-sales and expectations from the partners, Mutual is virtually assured of making money on "Primary Colors."
Mutual has partnered in several pictures with Universal, including "The Jackal," starring Bruce Willis, which did tepid business in the U.S. but much better globally. Other Mutual films include "Paulie," distributed in the U.S. by DreamWorks, and the upcoming "Virus" (Universal) and "Saving Private Ryan" (DreamWorks and Paramount).
The company has overreached with some productions, most notably "Hard Rain," starring Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater, which cost more than $60 million and grossed less than half that at the U.S. box office.
But Los Angeles-based Mutual continues to have strong relationships with both Universal and Paramount, where the company has a first-look deal. Mutual's partners envision a company that gains in value as it accumulates a library of international rights, rather than simply being a provider of film output.
Interviewed this week on the terrace of the Majestic Hotel, Levinsohn, 38, drew an elaborate analogy between a film and a human. Conceived in a moment of passion, a film, he said, has a director for a mother and a producer for father. Mutual Films, with its distribution partners, is the school where the child is sent to be educated. Different children, he notes, do better in different educational environments.
In the case of "Primary Colors," Levinsohn concedes that it's a tough sell outside the U.S. but that the critically well-received film will "stand the test of time."
"Filmmakers are far more important in Europe," he said. "It means something here that Mike Nichols directed it."
He said the film's marketing campaigns overseas would de-emphasize the political aspects of the film and play up the relationships and the stars.
Levinsohn also underscored the value that being associated with a prestigious film can have for Mutual in terms of future filmmaking relationships.
At the official film festival press conference this week, Nichols suggested that "Primary Colors," based on the best-selling political novel of the same name, is about friendship and what happens to people during a stressful but invigorating period of their lives.
There was no getting around the essential frame of the picture, however. "I think of it as a story about the American process," Nichols said, noting that can be difficult to explain to European countries that don't hold primary elections.
For Mutual, one of the keys in marketing the film was the placement in the opening spot at the film festival. (While the film was shown on the opening night, it is not in competition for any prizes.)
With the world entertainment media in attendance, the visits of Travolta, Nichols and Thompson were amplified throughout the world.
Yet the cost of bringing such stars to Cannes is considerable. Sources said Mutual and its partners spent more than a half-million dollars related to the film's entry, most of it on Travolta, who is notoriously demanding about such appearances. Among other costs, according to sources, the company paid an estimated $130,000 to rent Travolta's private jet to fly the star here.
Levinsohn and others who specialize in global film markets generally like the odds they face. They'd rather pass on the mature U.S. market, with a population of about 250 million, and take a shot at the growing markets around the world with a population of 5 billion or so.