It's always worrying when you spot what looks like a clear trend in the market. Given the number of false dawns and indeed phantom disasters of the last few years, circumspection is wise.
One is reminded of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai's claim in the 1960s that it was still too early to assess the impact of the French Revolution. Getting a fix on audience trends is neither an art nor a science; it is more a matter of guesswork with an MBA. Normally, by the time you think you've got a handle on the numbers, they are already all but useless.
Knowing what the customer wants this year is of no more help in forecasting what they may want in the future than it would be to use this year's weather patterns to predict climatic conditions in April 2010.
The number of Iraq war film flops this year testifies to the difficulty in predicting the public mood. Last year, a cinematic reassessment of the invasion might have been absolutely spot on - who could have told that the moment had come and gone by the time the movies arrived'
But while this element of unpredictability is a weakness for the analyst, it is also the strength of the medium: films are much better at creating the zeitgeist than following it. The ironic proof of that assertion is the 20/20 hindsight of critics who have spent acres of newspaper space taking apart cinema's Iraq obsession. Cinema still sets the agenda even when it fails to bring in the punters.
Having said all that, first-quarter returns from a number of territories (see page 27) confirm a general direction that's hard not to call a trend.
Still, drawing conclusions from such indications of short-term growth has its traps. Chief among these is the understandable but utterly hopeless attempt to see a decisive shift in public taste and imagination every time a film hits the spot.
In an international market, there's no single public consciousness. None of the figures in recent years prove unequivocally that an appetite for local commercial film has suddenly emerged from nowhere.
The appetite for a good film in a home language that seems rooted in one's own culture has always been present, but there has not always been a business plan to satisfy that demand.
The difference between some of today's hits and yesterday's flops is in marketing and distribution. Stick a film on 10 screens on a Tuesday in a dingy arthouse cinema and it won't get an audience, and writing it off afterwards as uncommercial is dim.
So what conclusions can be drawn from current indications of strong international growth' Well, the usual glaringly obvious ones. As biologist Thomas Huxley famously said when reading Darwin's The Origin Of Species, 'How extremely stupid (of me) not to have thought of that.' It sometimes feels that way looking at the box office.
The simplest observation is that much of the growth in the international box office comes from emerging markets. The rapid construction of multiplexes is having the same effect on Russia and China as it did everywhere else in the 1990s. If you build cinemas, audiences will come.
But the trend that seems clear for now is that if you back a film with screen space and strong marketing, then it doesn't have to be a Hollywood four-quadrant spectacular to make a big splash. The local blockbuster, tried and tested at home and then potentially taking on the world, is interesting but largely as a business phenomenon.
The studios believe they can use their distribution clout to make the idea work. How many other films have failed to achieve their potential because their distribution has been fragmented into random territories'
The only fact that can be deduced with any clarity is that there have been enough hits in local markets of a significant size to drive forward the ambitious plans of US studios and emerging international studios from the likes of Tarak Ben Ammar. Their muscle will create more hits through simple weight of numbers. Whether these bigger operators will be any good at spotting potential winners remains to be seen, but the fact they are betting their reputations on it represents a trend.
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