As the domestic box office struggles, studios rely more than ever on international audiences

In Argentina, they went made for Piratas del Caribe: Navegando Aguas Misteriosas. In Lithuania, they lined up for Haris Poteris ir Mirties Relikvijos—2 Dalis. In Turkey, they flocked to Transformers: Ay’in Karanlik Yüzü. In the past month, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, —Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon have each crossed the $1 billion mark in worldwide grosses, making it the first time three movies have hit that milestone in a single summer. In every corner of the world, it seems, people want to see movies about eyeliner-wearing pirates and kid wizards — and when you’re talking about giant robots blowing things up, who needs a translation anyway, right?

Theater attendance in America has been declining in recent years — and domestic box office revenues are about 5 percent below where they were at this point last year — but movies are booming around the globe. In 2010, while American grosses remained flat, international receipts soared to a record $21.2 billion — and this year, driven by rapid growth in countries like China, Russia, and Brazil, and emerging markets like Ukraine and Vietnam, overseas box office is shaping up to be an even bigger piece of the total pie.

What accounts for this foreign box office bonanza? For starters, there’s been a major expansion in the construction of movie theaters around the world. (China alone now has more than 4,000 digital 3-D screens.) The middle class in many parts of Asia and Latin America has also been growing in recent years, creating a larger potential audience for Hollywood’s products. ”The culture of moviegoing is becoming more routine,” says Dave Hollis, exec VP of sales and distribution at Disney.

Still, wooing that international audience isn’t always easy. Big-budget tentpole films with global brand awareness often perform strongly abroad, but certain genres tend not to travel as well. Comedies — particularly ones with a colloquial flavor, like Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses — are a tougher sell abroad, as are some second-tier comic-book movies (sadly, Green Lantern has been struggling everywhere). ”Genres play different in different parts of the world,” says Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner Bros. president of international distribution. ”For example, older-female-targeted films tend to overperform in Germany and Australia. Family-targeted films outperform in Latin America.” It never hurts to set your movie in a foreign country, as Fast Five, the Kung Fu Panda franchise, and the latest Hangover movie have shown. Casting foreign-born actors — like Penélope Cruz in the latest Pirates movie and Freida Pinto in Rise of the Planet of the Apes — can also boost a movie’s international appeal.

In this changing global marketplace, perhaps the safest bet for a studio is a movie derived from something with a large built-in foreign audience. That’s the strategy director Steven Spielberg is using with this December’s The Adventures of Tintin, which is based on a European comic-book series. Then there’s The Smurfs, which Sony expects to perform extremely well as it rolls out overseas. ”In Spain, it did almost double what we expected, and the tracking in Asia and Latin America looks good,” says Sony’s president of worldwide distribution, Rory Bruer. Yes, Hollywood has its problems: piracy, plummeting DVD revenues, declining domestic ticket sales. But as long as it can make a major global box office hit out of a 50-year-old Belgian comic strip about tiny creatures who say the word smurf a lot, it has no reason to feel too blue.

(Additional reporting by John Young)

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