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A Few New Tricks to the Hollywood Trade

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Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

Roger Corman, the legendary director of Hollywood exploitation movies, leans forward on an office couch and suppresses a laugh as he recalls a foreign-made samurai movie his company once distributed that was so bloody, so chilling, that certain scenes had to be trimmed because they were considered too violent for American tastes.

Dubbed the “Baby Cart Series,” Corman said the movie opened with a feudal lord whose castle is sacked by rampaging invaders who slaughter his wife and subjects in a bloody battle.

“I don’t remember how many of these films they made,” Corman says, shaking his head, “but they were killing everything, and the baby would often be in the cart helping. It’s the bloodiest thing I ever saw. I was kind of looking away from the screen myself.”

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As the post-Columbine High School Sturm und Drang continues, politicians have pointed fingers of blame at American entertainment companies’ action movies. Known for their state-of-the-art pyrotechnics, cutting-edge special effects and high bullet and body counts, these Hollywood products make millions in the lucrative international market. In their defense, the studios have asserted they have to make them--there is a huge demand for them overseas, and the millions they bring in can account for half or more of a movie’s eventual grosses. Profits from those movies help finance the higher-brow films that please critics and win Oscars, and pay for some of the family-oriented films that mollify politicians.

But, as Corman points out, Hollywood films are hardly the only violent products out there, and can even look tame compared to action movies produced in the Far East. Furthermore, recent trends in the international box office demonstrate that the foreign audience is anything but monolithic in its tastes. Yes, “Blade” was a big hit in the international market. But not as big a hit as “Shakespeare in Love.”

With hair-raising explosions, spectacular car chases and savage gunfights, a generation of films from “Rambo” to “The Matrix” has enabled Hollywood to tap into a multibillion-dollar international market that until very recently has shown no sign of letting up.

“It’s a worldwide phenomenon that violent American movies become huge hits,” said Tokyo film critic Tadao Sato. “Audiences accept violence as a crucial part of American films.”

Yet, in recent years, Hollywood studios have struck pay dirt marketing high-quality dramas, romantic comedies and even movies made by some of America’s wackier comedians, such as Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler. Violent action movies still sell internationally--particularly on video--but they don’t dominate the markets the way they used to.

From Mexico City, where the computer-animated Disney/Pixar film “A Bug’s Life” was one of 1998’s biggest hits to Rome, where the last two Jean-Claude Van Damme movies have not fared well at the box office, to Warsaw, where the only American-made action film to reach blockbuster status in the past decade was Touchstone Pictures’ space thriller “Armageddon,” foreign moviegoers prefer a diversity of product.

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“Quite frankly, Poland is not so hungry for violent films,” says Levis Minford, general manager of Syrena Entertainment, a major film-distribution company in Warsaw. “We like to think that this country is more intellectual.”

Those who have heard the call the loudest are profiting handsomely. This year’s Academy Award-winning Miramax / Universal co-production “Shakespeare in Love” has grossed $180 million overseas, while the 1996 Miramax film, “The English Patient,” which won the Oscar for best film in 1996, generated $150 million in foreign box office.

Even American comedies, which have historically had trouble traveling beyond Europe and English-speaking lands, are starting to prosper in foreign markets.

“There’s Something About Mary,” a movie filled with crude sight gags like dogs flying out windows and groan-inducing hair gel, has taken in $188 million overseas. The Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romance “You’ve Got Mail” has amassed foreign box office of $135 million. Carrey’s black comedy “The Truman Show” also has taken in $135 million. “Notting Hill,” a romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, has raked in more than $92 million overseas so far.

Epics and dramas play well, too. The record-breaking “Titanic” took in $1.2 billion internationally; the Robin Williams tear-jerker “Patch Adams” generated $65 million overseas.

“I don’t think Hollywood is flooding the world with violence at all,” said Robert Little, whose Overseas Film Group distributes and packages many independent movies. “That’s a handy political thing to say right now.”

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Jason Jacobs, a lecturer in TV and film at Warwick University in England, is periodically asked about the effect of video violence and crime but says he has never found a connection.

“I find that there is a morbid appetite for films about death and dying and violence, but . . . there are more violent movies from Hong Kong than anything that comes out of Hollywood,” Jacobs said.

In 1986, the overseas market accounted for 40% of motion picture revenues. Today, studio executives say, it is about 50%.

Europe alone accounts for 59% of all sales of U.S.-made independent films to theatrical, video and television markets overseas, followed by 18% for Asia, according to the American Film Marketing Assn. (AFMA), which is composed of 140 independent film companies that primarily produce and distribute their films in the international market.

From a global perspective, Germany, Japan, Italy, Great Britain and France remain the dominant markets for Hollywood movies, as they have for at least the past 15 years. But the economic turmoil that roiled the Far East in recent years has caused a severe drop in film sales to countries like South Korea, where sales of independent films alone have dropped from $104 million in fiscal 1996 to $51 million two years later.

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To be sure, action movies are still the bread and butter of Hollywood releases in the international market.

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Last year, 20 Hollywood films--many of them action- or effects-driven sci-fi thrillers--exceeded the $100-million mark in overseas ticket sales, according to the entertainment industry trade publication the Hollywood Reporter. Among them were “Godzilla” ($239.7 million), “Deep Impact” ($207 million), “Lethal Weapon 4” ($155 million) and “The Mask of Zorro” ($122.9 million). The James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” has grossed more than $217 million internationally.

This year, “The Matrix,” a futuristic film starring Keanu Reeves that wraps its violence in dazzling sci-fi special effects, has already grossed $162 million overseas, while “Payback,” a graphically violent movie about a criminal (Mel Gibson) bent on revenge, has racked up $80 million in foreign release.

In former Eastern Bloc countries, such as Russia, the attraction of these films is strong but simple. In Soviet days, most Western-made films were forbidden. Eight years ago, the doors were flung open, causing an influx of every type of movie. The novelty hasn’t worn off, whether it’s pornographic films from Sweden or violent action films from the U.S.

The martial-arts thriller “Blade” and the over-the-top violent “8mm” may be the current favorites in Moscow, but to many, all that matters is that they’re foreign. “I don’t care whether it’s Swedish [breasts] or U.S. guns,” says 20-year-old Denis Ignatyev.

The success of action films abroad has had a seismic impact on Hollywood economics. Today’s action stars like Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and John Travolta now command $20 million a picture, their staggering paychecks driven up by their popularity at the foreign box office.

The resulting inflationary spiral has pushed up the salaries of many lower-tier stars as well. Last year, for example, actor Kurt Russell--who has yet to make it into the top tier of Hollywood action stars--was paid $15 million to star in “Soldier.” The futuristic action film grossed only $14.6 million for Warner Bros. in domestic theatrical release and about $10 million in limited release overseas.

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Stallone, meanwhile, hasn’t attracted the overseas audiences as much as he once did, and Willis, apart from “Armageddon,” hasn’t fared much better since the last “Die Hard” movie.

Put it all together, and Hollywood movies are so popular abroad that in 1998, major studios reaped an estimated $6.8 billion in international box office, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. That compares to roughly $4.2 billion in 1993, according to the entertainment trade publication Daily Variety.

Meanwhile, AFMA reports that in fiscal 1998, American-made independent films chalked up foreign sales of $2.3 billion, up from $1.3 billion in 1993.

Studio executives say the foreign market today nearly equals that of the domestic market in motion picture revenues. But they note that unlike the U.S., where $100 million has become a benchmark that denotes a film’s blockbuster status, the same benchmark does not apply overseas. Instead, studios look to see whether their films equal or surpass the domestic box office.

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But Hollywood is also finding that violent movies are not necessarily the most popular movies in foreign lands. Those who work in international film sales say that they have noticed a dramatic market shift in the past few years as movies filled with mindless carnage have become less and less in demand.

In the early 1980s, when the “video party” was just beginning, foreign buyers would scoop up whatever schlock picture the independents would throw their way. The boom was fueled by the video market, which spawned many small independent film companies.

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“The videos were driving the B-movies that Roger Corman used to make,” said Randolph Pitts, chief executive officer of Lumiere Films, the U.S. production arm of French-based Lumiere International, and producer of such films as “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Touch.”

It didn’t take long, however, for the major studios to flex their muscles. With bigger budgets, better stunts and high-profile actors, they feasted on the foreign demand for action films. But once consumers were given a choice between low-budget B-movies and films starring Schwarzenegger & Co., smaller independents began to feel the squeeze.

Today, while action films featuring top stars remain popular overseas, independents realize that making films with car chases and explosions isn’t enough anymore.

“There’s always going to be some of those super-violent films,” Pitts said, “but I think the aesthetics of the time have changed. Maybe it’s true that with the privatization of television and all the channels now available to them, it’s sort of raising the people’s tastes. People worldwide are looking for more sophisticated entertainment.”

At Overseas Film Group, for example, action movies account for only 25% to 30% of the company’s sales, said Little. “This is a corporate decision we made to have a broad range of films. None of our buyers ever come to us and say, ‘I’d like to buy a violent film.’ Each country is sensitive to what their own audience likes and responds to.”

But those who sell films overseas know that the global market is always changing. What was violent a generation ago seems tame by today’s standards.

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Corman, who has never released a movie rated stronger than R, recalled that on the opening night of the Venice Film Festival for his 1966 biker gang film “The Wild Angels,” the U.S. State Department protested the violence in the film.

When Corman returned to Italy many years later, an Italian journalist asked him how he could explain the State Department’s action when, viewed today, the film seems virtually free of violence.

“I said, ‘Changing times,’ ” Corman said. “That film today could play on television at 8 o’clock [in the evening].”

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Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Japan and researchers Patricia Daganskaia in Moscow, Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this story.

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