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How to rule at the box office? Go global! Everybody's doing it

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In case you haven’t noticed, it’s getting a little harder to keep track of who’s ahead (or, at least, by how much) at the box office these days. That’s because certain movies are now competing on two different playing fields at once: the domestic box office…and the worldwide box office. In truth, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. American movies have been opening around the globe, and making a reasonably good percentage of their profits that way, for just about as long as they’ve existed. What is new is how much of the total tally is starting to come from places outside of the United States (for any number of big movies, it’s a lot more than half), and also the fact that it’s all happening simultaneously: 30 countries a pop. More than that, this information is starting to get treated as an intrinsic part of a movie’s Daily Media Infotainment Profile.

It’s not as if this stuff has never been reported before. In a strange way, though, the era of global-grosses-as-the-new-normal really kicked off just a few weeks ago, when Michael Jackson’s This Is It was released simultaneously on several zillion screens around the world on Wednesday, October 28. A handful of factors fed into the thinking behind this release. As a star, Michael Jackson was, of course, a singular global phenomenon, and the movie itself had a one-of-a-kind, scrapbook-from-beyond aura — a posthumously released concert doc that also loomed as the last chance any of us would have to see Jackson as he was (and to get a lighter-side-of-the-tabloids peek at, exactly, how he was). For those reasons, a decision was made to give the movie a kind of pan-planetary release.

But there was one other factor that made it a perfect storm. On that opening weekend, at least in America, This Is It did solid but less-than-spectacular business. The returns of roughly $23 million, for a total of $34.5 million over its first five days, were relatively modest, and therefore mildly disappointing. (To get some perspective, it made only $3 million more than the Hannah Montana concert film of 2008.)

Worldwide, however, This Is It was huge: the exploding supernova that every studio dreams of. Over those same five days, it took in a total of $101 million. And so, in part because the studio wanted to make the movie look as successful as possible, the global grosses became the news. And in that moment, you could feel the liftoff to a paradigm shift. All of a sudden, global was bigger, and therefore better, and therefore much more worth publicizing.

I assumed, at the time, that the avid reporting of This Is It‘s worldwide grosses would turn out to be an anomaly. But now, here we are, just about a month later, and I’ve since seen the studios, and the media, flirting with the very same sort of breathless one-world accounting for two major releases. 2012, a movie designed ( in its very earth-crust-splitting-open concept) to be a global phenomenon, made $65 million domestic its first weekend, but it was widely broadcast that it took in a whopping $160 million throughout the rest of the world, resulting in a grand tally of $225 million. Gee, which figure would you rather report — $65 million or $225 million? And New Moon, which according to the Los Angeles Times opened “big” in Australia, Brazil, Britain, France, Italy, Mexico, Russia, and Spain, made a mountainous $274.9 million worldwide last weekend.

My point is that global grosses, always vital to the economics of Hollywood, are fast becoming too good a PR strategy — and, in that sense, too addictive — to be anything less than pivotal. And that, inevitably, has the potential to change a lot of things: how movies are marketed; who, exactly, they’re expected to entertain; and how newly connected all the movie audiences across the globe have the potential to be.

When it comes to the box office, it’s a whole new world.

So what do you think? When you’re following the weekly box-office horse race, is it more fun — or less — to consider worldwide grosses? And do you think that we’ll ever get to the point where the global take is all that really counts?

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