Box Office: Is ‘The Impossible’ a model for a new kind of hit?

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor flank the surviving family of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Belon family, featured in the new movie "The Impossible." From left: Tomas, Simon, Enrique, Maria and Lucas Belon.
(Carolyn Cole)

Unless you’re an especially plugged-in moviegoer, chances are you don’t know much about “The Impossible,” a drama about a real-life Spanish family that was caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami while on holiday in Thailand and suffered both tragedy and triumph in the process.

Despite the high-profile, heart-tugging subject matter, and stars including Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, the movie from Spanish genre auteur Juan Antonio Bayona has barely made a dent in the U.S. Widening from a niche release to nearly 600 theaters this weekend, only about 400,000 moviegoers turned out to see the film--a number that puts it cringingly behind such offerings as “The Guilt Trip” in that film’s third week of release.

But the “Impossible’s” principals have little reason to complain. Despite the disappointing numbers ($3.4 million) in the U.S., where it’s being released by Summit Entertainment, the movie is a major hit around the world, grossing more than $80 million to date and putting its backers in prime profit position.

That’s partly due to its pedigree: Bayona is Spanish, and the film has taken in a large chunk of its total there. But “The Impossible” (which was made by a collection of Spanish companies) has also done well in places such as Brazil, France and Mexico, and is likely to continue attracting audiences when it opens across Asia. In many places outside the U.S., moviegoers want to see what happens to the real-life family, known as the Belons, as they tenaciously try to survive.

No one would confuse “The Impossible” with some bombastic global tentpole. The movie is an exactingly serious work. The subject matter — of a family that struggles to reunite amid some pretty drastic carnage — is already some sober stuff. And as anyone who’s seen Bayona’s 2007 horror tale “The Orphanage” knows, he doesn’t go for cheap thrills, preferring instead the more complicated tapestry of human emotion and relationships. Yet the movie is raking it in.


For years we’ve been hearing about the new global Hollywood, one where movies — usually with established brand-name titles, almost always with genre or action elements — are being genetically engineered for maximum effect around the world. Studio executives admit privately they don’t always want to be in the spectacle business. But this is what the world wants, and if it is, who are they to tell it (or, for that matter, their shareholders and bosses) no?

“The Impossible” shows that the calculus may be more complicated. Sure, “The Avengers” and “The Twilight Saga” make the big bucks and top the charts; you can rarely go wrong with larger-than-life characters, especially if they come with larger-than-life marketing budgets. But it’s not the only option.

As Hollywood moves away from human drama in the name of satisfying global audiences, those global audiences are having their say. And their message is a surprising one: We also like human drama, especially if it’s of a global bent. (Why Americans don’t go for it is the subject of another post.)

“Impossible” isn’t alone. One of the most successful international releases of 2012 was “Intouchables,” a story by and about French people centering on a paraplegic and his male nurse. It’s as far away from vampires and wizards as you can get. Yet it has grossed more than $400 million around the world — including impressive sums in Japan and Venezuela, places not exactly known for consuming French drama.

Basically, a small character dramedy about a tender relationship did better business around the world than built-for-global-domination tentpoles “Battleship” and “Taken 2.”

In the name of globalization, Hollywood has pushed out its tentpole-style work to any country that will have it. But movies such as “Impossible” and “Intouchables” show that there’s another way to engineer overseas success. Universally known superheroes certainly work. But so can universally resonant stories.



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