The following glass half full/half empty debate has been going on for as long as I can remember. On the one hand is the argument that there's never been a worse time for independent and alternative film to get access to the North American marketplace. On the other hand, the market remains a vitally important one for international productions.
But here's where details get complicated, so pay close attention. The US majors and their affiliate labels (Focus, Searchlight, Vantage, and so on) represent approximately 89% of the North America box office. Together they have grossed $6.8bn this year to date.
Where it gets confusing is in the distinction between non-studio product and what we used to call arthouse movies. For example, 3:10 To Yuma is an independent production that competes on an equal basis with The Bourne Identity.
The other independents - the ones in their own separate orbit - embrace the likes of 2 Days In Paris, This Is England and 12:08 East Of Bucharest. The latter group has consistently accounted for 5%-6% of total North American theatrical revenues over the past four decades. That translates to around $450m to date in 2007.
While there are certainly films that got away, most acclaimed international films not only play in the US and Canada, but usually generate more money in North America than in any other country outside the producing nation. For example, the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose has grossed roughly $10m of its $35m theatrical gross outside France. It has also played well in Germany, the UK and Australia, where it has accumulated respective tallies of $4.6m, $3.1m and $2.3m.
The same is true for recent films such as The Lives Of Others, Volver, The Host and Arthur And The Invisibles. What's more, the North American box-office take of both Pan's Labyrinth and The Queen were considerably greater than in their host countries of Spain and the UK.
However, Perfume, Day Watch and The Death Of Mr Lazarescu were comparative disappointments in North America. But the bottom line is that North America is a significant, vital and active market for international productions, even if many end up playing in only a handful of cities.
And the box office is just the tip of the iceberg. The influence of North America is considerable via both its print and electronic media. The South Korean audience who would be interested in Paris Je T'Aime or Black Book is likely to be made aware of these films as a result of their North American exposure rather than anything that might leak out of France or the Netherlands.
Creating buzz in the US
In fact, it's often the case that European and Asian films are sold internationally because of the attention they receive in the US. And their premieres are sometimes strategically planned to piggyback on the US press spotlight.
There's also a flip side that can benefit a US independent. No-one anticipated the $40m The Illusionist generated at the US box office and that certainly paved the way for foreign sales that ultimately spawned an additional $47m in international box-office receipts.
There's a tendency to codify the global movie business into 'us' and 'them', to distinguish North America from the rest of the world. But the nature of the modern industry has rendered such terminology parochial and antiquated. There's a clear correlation between the two and the glass is at least half full and sometimes, in the best of cases, overflowing.
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