LOST IN TRANSLATION: WRITING MOVIES FOR THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET
When writing movies for today’s market, it pays to think global.
Screenwriters have long struggled to balance their artistic visions with the mercenary and often soul-sucking demands of their bean-counting overlords. While we all remain free to write the stories we wish, to ignore the dictates of the international market in the 21st century is a financially risky proposition. Which is why appealing to foreign audiences — and the governments that act as their cultural gatekeepers — must always be at the forefront of our minds when crafting stories for the silver screen.
The Numbers Say It All
Foreign markets represent a huge slice of the modern box office pie. How huge? Combined, the top five movies released in 2015 grossed $7.628 billion worldwide, an all-time high.* Their foreign box office brought in $4.958 billion, another record high. That latter number represents 65 percent of total sales.
Today, it’s not uncommon for foreign revenues to significantly outpace those in the U.S. and Canada by as much as 2-to-1. For example, Universal’s Minions, which ranked #5 worldwide for 2015, made 71 percent of its $1.157 billion haul overseas. Furious 7, which ranked #3, made an even larger 76.7 percent of its $1.515 total outside North America.
In fact, all of 2015’s Top 20 grossing films, from Disney’s Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (#1 at $1.871 billion total, 54.1% foreign) to Fox’s Taken 3 (#20 at $326.15 million total, 72.7% foreign), grossed more money overseas than they did stateside. In fact, you have to go all the way down to #21, Paramount’s SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water ($323.4 million worldwide, 49.6% foreign) to find a film that didn’t make at least half its total gross in foreign markets. And even that was a squeaker.
Which makes the international market is the tail that wags the Hollywood dog. And with China expected to eclipse the United States/Canada as the world’s largest market for motion pictures by 2017, the importance of international sales should only increase.
The rush for foreign dollars (and euros, pesos, rubles, yen and yuan) has producers and studios scrambling for properties they can sell to foreign audiences. Screenwriters interested in selling to these buyers must pay heed and tailor their output to the demands of these increasingly important customers.
Crafting an International Strategy
So what do international audiences like? And what kind of subjects/themes should you avoid?
Here are some guidelines.
• Franchises. This is the elephant in the room that must first dealt with first. If box office performance tells us anything, it’s that audiences everywhere love remakes and sequels. Eight of last year’s 10 top-grossing films were part of an established franchise. These were:
o Star Wars: The Force Awakens
o Jurassic World
o Furious 7
o Avengers: Age of Ultron
o Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
o The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
Only two films in the Top 10, Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out and Fox’s The Martian, had no immediate cinematic antecedents.
Unfortunately, unless you are an established, A-List writer you aren’t likely to have an opportunity to write for the kind of branded franchise that guarantees strong foreign sales. The same goes for getting the rights to adapt a best-selling novel or write for an animation studio. (Virtually all animated features are developed in-house.)
So much for following the path of least resistance. Which brings us to our next subject:
• Genres. For decades, it’s been a virtual article of faith that foreign audiences love action films. It makes sense. Humor, drama and even romance tend to have distinct cultural biases, but everyone understands an explosion, be it an incendiary device or a human head. Looking again at the 20 top grossing films of 2015, we find that 13 of them fit into the “action” category. (Some combined with overt sci-fi or fantasy elements.) Beyond the Top 20, we find many other action films like Universal’s Everest (#32, $202.5 million worldwide), Warner Bros.’ Jupiter Ascending (#36, $183.9 million worldwide), Warner Bros.’ Pan (#45, $127.0 million worldwide), Lion’s Gate/Sony’s The Last Witchunter (#46, $124.0 million) doing more than 70 percent of their business beyond the borders of North America. Heck, Warner Bros.’ Point Break may have crashed and burned domestically, making only $28.1 million in the U.S. and Canada, but still managed to steal $79.2 million from venues offshore.
Add straight fantasy and horror titles to this list and you have a pretty clear map to overseas success.
What doesn’t sell? Comedies, for one. (Unless they have strong action or fantasy elements.) Last year’s top-grossing comedy, Universal’s Pitch Perfect 2 (#24) made only 35.8 percent of its $287.1 million total gross overseas. Paramount’s Daddy’s Home (#34) made only 27.9 percent of its $183.9 million worldwide gross outside North America. And while Amy Schumer got critical raves for her feature film debut, Universal’s Trainwreck (#41), its $29.3 million overseas haul represented a mere 21.0 percent of its $139.5 million total.
Finally, sports films and, sadly, films that feature African-American leads, have, to date, had a poor track record overseas. Last year we saw such well-reviewed films as Universal’s Straight Outta Compton(#33, $200.4 million worldwide), Warner Bros.’ Creed (#42, $137.9 million worldwide) and Sony’s Concussion (#102, $37.6 million worldwide) fail to crack even 20 percent in overseas sales.
• Diverse Characters. One long-proven way to crank up interest in international markets is to write supporting characters who can be played by “international stars.” As far back as the 1960s, producers started casting high profile European actors in featured roles to secure foreign sales and financing. Today, writing parts for Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Indian actors can significantly boost distribution in rapidly growing Asian markets and goose local box office. In fact, it’s become fairly common for major tentpole movies to shoot extra scenes featuring non-American actors to create “special editions” just for their respective countries.
• International Locations. Setting scenes in foreign locations is yet one way more to increase overseas ticket sales — and often help a production company receive valuable subsidies, tax credits or enter into co-production deals. 2012’s time-travel actioner Looper, for example, was a U.S./Chinese co-production and switched some key scenes from the originally scripted Paris, France to Shanghai to appease its production partners. And we can’t ignore the “eye candy” foreign settings provide, often giving otherwise mundane scripts a patina of exoticism.
• Political Sensitivities. When trying to appeal to international audiences, it’s increasing important to note the political sensitivities many national film boards have when it comes to how their countries are depicted. China, for example, is notoriously unforgiving of films that depict the Middle Kingdom in anything but positive terms. For example, the makers of 2013’s World War Z had to deviate from Max Brooks’ source novel and change the location of the zombie infection’s source from rural China to South Korea to secure distribution in that lucrative but still tightly controlled Communist state. The makers of Skyfall had to remove a scene in which James Bond killed a Chinese security guard because the Chinese would not tolerate the depiction of a Chinese citizen being killed by a foreigner. Mission Impossible 3 had to remove a scene showing, of all things, laundry in Shanghai hanging on a clothesline. Conversely, both 2013’s Gravity and 2015’s The Martian were particularly complementary of China’s space program, a factor that no doubt accounted for much of their warm reception in this increasing massive market.
It’ a Small World After All
Foreign sales are only going to become more important to the studio’s bottom lines, not less, and writers who can supply their need for scripts with international appeal will have a significant leg up on those whose perspectives remain more parochial.
Of course, if comedy, drama or minority-themed stories are still your thing, there’s always television.
– Allen B. Ury
* All figures from Box Office Mojo