The snowballing international box office numbers for The Tourist, Narnia and Gulliver’s Travels are showing that audiences outside the US are deciding what is a hit and what is not.
Last week I touched on the fact that some of the biggest disappointments at the US box office over the holiday season were doing strong business in the international market, namely The Chronicles Of Narnia: Voyage Of The Dawn Treader,The Tourist and Gulliver’s Travels.
After this last weekend to Jan 9, the numbers continue to startle. The Tourist grossed $26.2m to cross the $100m barrier. Gulliver’s Travels added $20.9m to bring its international tally to $81.2m. Narnia took a further $17.8m to bring its total to date to $244.2m. As the films start to wind down in North America, their grosses are $61m, $34.4m and $94.5m respectively.
It’s ironic that each of the films is named with a word indicating journeys – Voyage, Tourist and Travels. Each of the three will end up grossing three times on their international journey than on their domestic one.
So what does their international success represent?
It means that the global distribution game is changing dramatically. With numbers like these, it’s clear that sooner or later, and I say sooner, the international market will become the primary deciding factor in what gets made at the studio level. And not the domestic market which has dictated studio movie production since the silent days.
In general, international markets – which, of course, are not a cohesive unit and cannot be judged as one monolithic audience – are more loyal to film stars (hence the draw of Jolie and Depp), respond to stories set in European locations like Venice or versions of England and are more attracted to classic literary properties like Narnia or Gulliver’s Travels, even though both stories have been souped up on screen for the new millennium.
The international factor is not news to some. Films like Australia ($49.5m domestic, $161 international) and The Golden Compass ($70m domestic, $302m international) have shown that titles considered domestic flops should be considered global hits. But this season has seen such a dichotomy between domestic and international tastes that Hollywood should, if common sense prevailed, start in earnest to make movies – big budget Hollywood movies – for international first.
The problem is perception in Los Angeles itself. The US media is so tuned into declaring movies hits or misses on the US opening weekend that The Tourist and Gulliver’s Travels have already been loudly deemed bombs, and Narnia a disappointment. Those judgments will pass into movie lore, regardless of what happens to the films internationally.
International grosses of course take longer to accrue. Whereas a US opening weekend success or failure is reported around the world by Sunday, the full extent of an international success takes at least a few weeks to be gauged. By the time Gulliver’s Travels hits $150m overseas, blinkered LA minds won’t care. They will have moved on to the next story.
This mindset has been a tough one to change in domestic-centric studio superstructures. The fact that Warner Bros didn’t go ahead with the two sequels to The Golden Compass shows that an enormous appetite for the franchise internationally was not enough to mitigate the relative US failure of the film.
Of course, sometimes international success alone isn’t enough to recoup the enormous costs of some blockbusters; the domestic release still needs to work as well to guarantee profitability or the possibility of sequels.
This year, however, that mindset could change. As audiences around the world continue to pack theatres to see these three films, the US industry and media will surely recognize – finally – that international audiences are calling the shots and North America is just another territory. The biggest, yes. Still the most influential, yes. But the deciding factor in whether a film should be made or seen? Definitely not.