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DreamWorks Raises Its Blockbuster 'American Beauty' Mark Overseas

March 10, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

When DreamWorks SKG released its quirky little movie "American Beauty" in September, executives at the studio had zero expectations for the movie's box office. They said they'd be thrilled if their risky venture broke even.

Who knew? This low-cost $15-million movie is producing a stunning windfall for the 5 1/2-year-old studio and ranks among its most profitable movies. It's possible, DreamWorks executives acknowledge, that "American Beauty" could surpass its blockbuster "Saving Private Ryan" and its animated hit "Antz" to wind up as its most profitable movie yet.

Now, will anyone thank DreamWorks' ousted production chief Bob Cooper, who championed the project at the studio for independent producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, at the upcoming Academy Awards when the film picks up armloads of Oscars? Let's just say Hollywood sometimes has a funny way of conveniently overlooking such particulars when it comes to giving credit to former executives. But, hey, that's another story.

Everybody is going to try to take credit for Jinks' and Cohen's "American Beauty," the comically dark tale of a hyper-dysfunctional suburban family written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes. It garnered more Oscar nominations than any other movie (eight), it is a surprise hit in the U.S.--on track to gross more than $100 million--and even more unexpected, it's a commercial success overseas.

To date, the film's international box-office, at more than $103 million, has surpassed the domestic take of $94 million, bringing its total to close to $200 million. The film still has a lot of life left in it in certain foreign territories and is yet to open in others, such as Japan.

If "American Beauty" scores the best picture Oscar as widely expected, or other top awards for which it's nominated, including best director, screenplay, actor (Kevin Spacey) and actress (Annette Bening), expect its revenue to spike significantly both here and abroad.

"Everybody is surprised at how well this film--a small piece about an American family--has done overseas," says producer Jinks. "Every major studio except DreamWorks passed on the screenplay." The breathtaking work was dismissed as uncommercial. (Ball is considered a front-runner for taking home the best original screenplay Oscar).

"Nobody would have guessed that people in Germany, France and the Netherlands would be flocking to see the film," Jinks said.

Jonathan Chissick, DreamWork's London-based international chief, said that depending on what happens on March 26--Oscar night--he predicts that "American Beauty" has a good shot at reaching $150 million internationally.

"Word of mouth has been astounding and the staying power is amazing," said Chissick, noting the film has weeks left in theaters in Scandinavia and South America. So far, the strongest market has been Britain, followed by Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia. The film won't open in Japan until late April and in the next couple of weeks will debut in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

So why are international audiences so enthralled? Chissick suggested, "People are mesmerized by this movie. They are riveted because they're taken by surprise. You expect the story to take you in one direction, and it takes you in another. I think a lot of people relate to the characters."

Even in tougher foreign territories like Hong Kong and Korea, where the film has taken in an impressive $1.4 million to date, "people are taken with the theme of the movie," said Chissick.

Before the film was released, Chissick said he was advised by some close business cronies to change the film's title since traditionally movies with "American" in the title or American flags in their advertising materials are a hard sell to European audiences (think "The American President"). Obviously, that wasn't the case with the recent domestic comedy hit "American Pie," which also became a surprise overseas hit with more than $100 million.

"I've always maintained you can call a picture anything," said the DreamWorks executive.

There's also no question that a film's strong critical and commercial success domestically helps fuel its international performance.

"We do feel the heat from the states because communication today is so immediate and people are so in tuned to what's going on," said Chissick, who works closely with United International Pictures on the overseas marketing and distribution of DreamWorks' movies.

The success of "American Beauty" is a warm welcome to DreamWorks' bottom line. Unlike its past hits "Saving Private Ryan" and "Deep Impact," both of which are split deals with Paramount Pictures, the lion's share of profit on "American Beauty" go into its own coffers.

Moreover, a good chunk of the profit from "Private Ryan" went to the film's director, DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg, and star Tom Hanks. DreamWorks still says it is the company's most profitable film to date. "Private Ryan," "Deep Impact" and "Antz" each cost substantially more than "American Beauty."

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