The Plots Thicken in Foreign Markets


Remember those steamy trailers for last year’s acclaimed movie “Moulin Rouge,” the ones with Nicole Kidman locked in a swirling, sensual dance with her smitten lover?

Now imagine the same slinky redhead taking her final breath, her body sprawled on a bed of blood-red rose petals, a heartsick young man sobbing at her side.

That’s the promo they saw in Japan, where “tragic love is considered most noble and honorable,” said the film’s director, Baz Luhrmann. No matter that the trailer gave away the ending, a strategy that would prompt most American moviegoers to chuck their popcorn at the screen.

The split personality of the “Moulin Rouge” ads reflects Hollywood’s continuing struggle to figure out how to extend its global reach. Although the overseas markets have been very good to the industry, they have not produced the riches once imagined, given the size of the potential audience.


Some blockbusters such as “Spider-Man” and the “Star Wars” movies virtually sell themselves because of the simplicity of their plots, their muscular action scenes and dazzling special effects. But most of Hollywood’s exports require the sensibilities of a cultural anthropologist to understand the nuances and norms of countries around the globe.

“It isn’t one world when it comes to laughing, crying or being frightened,” said industry veteran Warren Lieberfarb, president of Warner Home Video. “There is not one homogeneous appetite for American movies, and that is what poses this huge challenge for the U.S. studios.”

Universal Pictures had hoped that its sleeper hit “The Fast and the Furious” would rev up business abroad, but foreign audiences weren’t interested in its uniquely American backdrop of illegal street racing. Domestic comedies, meanwhile, rarely catch fire abroad--even when headlined by such major stars as Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. The jokes often don’t translate well.

New Line Cinema’s tear jerker “I Am Sam,” in which Sean Penn portrays a mentally challenged dad, hit big in Japan but flopped in England, Germany and France.


“It was too sappy for them,” explained Rolf Mittweg, head of international marketing and distribution at New Line.

On the flip side, high-profile movies that withered in the U.S. sometimes find audiences abroad. Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi drama “A.I.,” which grossed less than $80 million domestically, made that much in Japan alone, where audiences worship Spielberg and were wowed by the movie’s futuristic themes.

During the last decade, as the U.S. market has plateaued, foreign territories have become increasingly important to the studios. Roughly 50% of their annual theatrical revenue comes from overseas. Sometimes it can be far more. Last year’s blockbuster “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” earned more than twice as much on foreign soil--$651 million--as it did here. That’s the equivalent of six hits in the U.S.

Still, industry executives acknowledge that the vast majority of their offerings are not selling abroad as they once hoped.

Ten years ago, the studios were predicting that, by now, foreign ticket sales would constitute 70% of their business. They underestimated the difficulties of drawing people to theaters in countries with unique personalities. Here, people go to the movies an average of 5.2 times a year. In Europe, it’s 1.3. Compared with the relative predictability of the domestic landscape, “the international marketplace is the Wild West,” said Revolution Studios founder Joe Roth.

The foreign market has become so important that no studio boss today would “greenlight” a movie--particularly an expensive one--without factoring in its international potential. “It would be like crossing the street and not looking both ways,” said 20th Century Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman.

And to make sure they don’t get flattened, Hollywood marketers are increasingly tailoring their campaigns to indigenous tastes.

Rothman’s studio scored one of last year’s biggest--and most unexpected--triumphs in the U.S. with its animated feature “Ice Age,” starring TV comedian Ray Romano as the voice of a woolly mammoth named Manny. Romano, the star of CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond,” was the centerpiece of the “Ice Age” ad campaign.


So when the movie opened big overseas, Rothman immediately picked up the phone to share the good news with Romano.

“You’re knocking them dead in Germany,” Rothman gushed.

“I don’t speak German,” Romano wryly reminded him.

In his exuberance, Rothman had forgotten Otto Waalkes, who headlined the German campaign. One of the country’s hottest comics, he dubbed the voice of the film’s frenetic wise-cracking sloth, Sid.

Besides online chats, Waalkes went on radio and TV to stump for the film. He produced funny jingles. He showed the movie trailer on his comedy tours. At the premiere, he autographed posters.

“I am a German comedian, and to make the Germans laugh is not easy,” he said. “In dubbing, I used some specific German things like a yodel.... People stop me in the streets and ask me to do Sid now.”

Maybe, as Waalkes insists, Germans are a tough crowd, but at least they flock to U.S. films as no one else in Europe. The Italians are another matter. They spend the summer at the beach, when Hollywood wants them indoors, watching its most expensive offerings. The goal has been to get Italians into the country’s recently built air-conditioned multiplexes year round.

“I really respect local customs,” said Jeff Blake, head of worldwide marketing and distribution at Sony Pictures. “But it’s in our long-term interest to make it a 12-month-a-year business.”


Hoping to draw larger crowds this past summer, nearly every major studio released more big-ticket titles than ever, including Sony’s “Spider-Man,” Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode 2 Attack of the Clones,” Warner Bros.’ “Scooby-Do” and Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch.”

Still, the Italians proved stubborn.

Although “Spider-Man” soared on its opening weekend, ticket sales fell nearly 60% the next week when it was upstaged by gorgeous weather and World Cup soccer. “Lilo & Stitch” had an even tougher time. To build momentum, Disney built a giant outdoor screen in the seaside city of Ostia, near Rome, for the movie’s premiere. It didn’t work. In Italy, the film took in a disappointing $4 million.

“It’s going to take a few years to educate Italians to go to the movies in summer,” said Giampaolo Letta of Rome-based Medussa Film, which operates 42 screens in Italy. “People prefer to go outside with ice cream or take a walk.”

But Hollywood knows that there are many other countries where people will stand in line, rain or shine, to see an American movie--if the marketing works.

The plotting begins in studio conference rooms like the one at MGM in Santa Monica, where five executives recently gathered for a brainstorming session. The topic: how to sell James Bond overseas to a new generation that prefers edgier action heroes.

The international market is especially important for the Bond movies because, historically, two-thirds of their total box office has come from abroad.

Sitting around a conference table are five top marketing executives debating the ad campaigns for the upcoming “Die Another Day.” Their goal is to make actor Pierce Brosnan cooler and his new co-star, Halle Berry, sexy without being a sex object. No more leading ladies with names like Pussy Galore. Both actors have been photographed in various outfits to suit specific international tastes. “Halle, we shot in a gown, in a black leather dress, in her action outfit with swords and knives,” says Linda Goldin, vice president of creative advertising. “We did everything to try to cover what we might need in every market.”

“I think Halle in a bikini will be really great for older Bond fans too,” adds marketing strategist Megan Crawford.

Ian Sutherland, head of MGM’s international division, asks about Brosnan. “Do you have him in the button-down look? Or do you make him more accessible, a bit more cool, open-necked and looking suave?”

Along the walls of the conference room is a collection of international posters from past Bond campaigns, including a couple from “The World Is Not Enough.”

One, from France, gave the star treatment to a secondary character, who happened to be played by French actress Sophie Marceau.

Some of the Italian ads featured no 007 actors. Marketing executives said the Bond character is simply too uptight for Italian tastes. So in place of the perfectly coifed Brosnan is a shirtless, shaggy-haired, despondent-looking convict with his forearms pressed through prison bars. The copy line, translated from Italian, reads: “You better have a good reason to miss the next James Bond film.”

Savvy stars like Berry know that their own success also depends on filling seats outside the U.S.

“It’s about dollars and cents,” said Berry. “The more dollars and cents you generate, the more work you get as an actress.”

And the stars aren’t the only ones crucial to Hollywood’s marketing machine.

When Warner Bros.’ star-studded remake of “Ocean’s Eleven” was released in France last year, the media requested more interviews with director Steven Soderbergh than with Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts or George Clooney, according to the studio.

Movie directors with distinctive styles are regarded in France as the creators, or auteurs, of the films they make, a tradition dating to cinema’s earliest days.

In the case of the “Ocean’s Eleven” French campaign, Warner Bros. wanted to put Soderbergh’s name above the movie’s title. The director turned down the offer, insisting that it would detract from the ensemble cast, said Warner Bros. international marketing head, Sue Kroll.

In France, marquee directors reign supreme. “All other information,” she said, “is secondary.”

Although studio bosses know what sells in France, Japan is another story. It is Hollywood’s top-grossing territory--and its most confounding.

“You think that, if you have a film that is powerful, you can overcome cultural differences,” said Stephen Moore, head of Fox International. “But I give up when it comes to Japan. You have to accept that you’re always starting from scratch.”

It’s partly a matter of gender.

In the U.S., Hollywood’s most avid moviegoers are 18- to 24-year-old males. In Japan, the market is driven by young women known as “O.Ls"--Office Ladies. Typically reserved, they rarely express emotion in public but they feel comfortable letting loose in darkened theaters.

These women made winners of such weepies as the Winona Ryder/Richard Gere romantic drama “Autumn in New York” and “Sweet November,” with Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves. Both movies bombed in the U.S.

“Young males in Japan are finicky,” said Universal Pictures’ international marketing chief, Randy Greenberg. “You hope and pray that they go ... but they don’t necessarily show up en masse, as you need them to do on your opening weekend.”

Besides praying, the studios rely heavily on their own marketing and distribution teams in each country for guidance on how a movie might be received.

Sometimes, the feedback can be painful, as Disney learned when it screened the “Pearl Harbor” trailer for its Japanese staff in Tokyo.

The trailer’s themes of American patriotism and heroism earned high marks from U.S. test audiences. But in Japan, viewers did not respond well to a trailer that was filled with explosive footage of the surprise attack on unsuspecting Americans.

Mark Zoradi, who oversees Disney’s international film and home video division, described the audience reaction: “There was silence. Not a word. I looked at the guy I was with and said, ‘Man, do we have some work to do!’ ”

The studio neutralized the trailer’s war scenes by excising “all the flag-waving stuff,” Zoradi said.

Instead, Disney emphasized the story’s romance and added a scene in which a Japanese fighter pilot motions to some boys playing baseball to get out of harm’s way.

In the end, Japanese audiences embraced “Pearl Harbor’s” softer angle, helping to make Japan the film’s top-grossing foreign market.

Such was not the case for Fox’s “Moulin Rouge.”

Despite the best efforts of the studio and director, not even the tragic scene in the trailers could seduce Japanese audiences. Only a fraction of the movie’s $120-million overseas gross came from Japan.

Luhrmann was disappointed and dumbfounded.

“We never cracked Japan at the level we thought we could,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”


To view an example of foreign and U.S. movie marketing trailers, go to



A Different World

Hollywood is finding that marketing plays an important role in international box-office appeal. What plays in Peoria may not play in Paris. A look at which movies hit big abroad and which missed, and their box-office grosses, in millions:

Domestic Foreign

Film Distributor year gross gross

Harry Potter ... Warner Bros. 2001 $317.0 $651.1

Spider-Man Sony 2002 403.7 405.9

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Fox 2002 301.9 332.0

Ocean’s Eleven Warner Bros. 2001 183.4 263.3

Pearl Harbor Disney 2001 198.5 251.3

The World Is Not Enough MGM 2000 126.9 234.7

Tomorrow Never Dies MGM 1998 125.2 213.7

Ice Age Fox 2002 176.3 197.0

A.I. Warner Bros. 2000 78.6 156.4

Moulin Rouge Fox 2001 57.3 118.2

How the Grinch Stole Christmas Universal 2000 260.0 81.0

Big Daddy Sony 2001 163.0 71.3

Lilo & Stitch Disney 2002 143.5 69.6

The Fast and The Furious Universal 2001 145.0 65.0

Source: Times research