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The Plots Thicken in Foreign Markets

Movies: With roughly 50% of annual revenue coming from overseas, Hollywood studios try to tailor campaigns to local tastes and sensibilities.


Remember those steamy trailers for last year's acclaimed movie "Moulin Rouge," the ones with Nicole Kidman locked in a swirling, sensual dance with her smitten lover?

Now imagine the same slinky redhead taking her final breath, her body sprawled on a bed of blood-red rose petals, a heartsick young man sobbing at her side.

That's the promo they saw in Japan, where "tragic love is considered most noble and honorable," said the film's director, Baz Luhrmann. No matter that the trailer gave away the ending, a strategy that would prompt most American moviegoers to chuck their popcorn at the screen.

The split personality of the "Moulin Rouge" ads reflects Hollywood's continuing struggle to figure out how to extend its global reach. Although the overseas markets have been very good to the industry, they have not produced the riches once imagined, given the size of the potential audience.

Some blockbusters such as "Spider-Man" and the "Star Wars" movies virtually sell themselves because of the simplicity of their plots, their muscular action scenes and dazzling special effects. But most of Hollywood's exports require the sensibilities of a cultural anthropologist to understand the nuances and norms of countries around the globe.

"It isn't one world when it comes to laughing, crying or being frightened," said industry veteran Warren Lieberfarb, president of Warner Home Video. "There is not one homogeneous appetite for American movies, and that is what poses this huge challenge for the U.S. studios."

Universal Pictures had hoped that its sleeper hit "The Fast and the Furious" would rev up business abroad, but foreign audiences weren't interested in its uniquely American backdrop of illegal street racing. Domestic comedies, meanwhile, rarely catch fire abroad--even when headlined by such major stars as Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. The jokes often don't translate well.

New Line Cinema's tear jerker "I Am Sam," in which Sean Penn portrays a mentally challenged dad, hit big in Japan but flopped in England, Germany and France.

"It was too sappy for them," explained Rolf Mittweg, head of international marketing and distribution at New Line.

On the flip side, high-profile movies that withered in the U.S. sometimes find audiences abroad. Steven Spielberg's sci-fi drama "A.I.," which grossed less than $80 million domestically, made that much in Japan alone, where audiences worship Spielberg and were wowed by the movie's futuristic themes.

During the last decade, as the U.S. market has plateaued, foreign territories have become increasingly important to the studios. Roughly 50% of their annual theatrical revenue comes from overseas. Sometimes it can be far more. Last year's blockbuster "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" earned more than twice as much on foreign soil--$651 million--as it did here. That's the equivalent of six hits in the U.S.

Still, industry executives acknowledge that the vast majority of their offerings are not selling abroad as they once hoped.

Ten years ago, the studios were predicting that, by now, foreign ticket sales would constitute 70% of their business. They underestimated the difficulties of drawing people to theaters in countries with unique personalities. Here, people go to the movies an average of 5.2 times a year. In Europe, it's 1.3. Compared with the relative predictability of the domestic landscape, "the international marketplace is the Wild West," said Revolution Studios founder Joe Roth.

The foreign market has become so important that no studio boss today would "greenlight" a movie--particularly an expensive one--without factoring in its international potential. "It would be like crossing the street and not looking both ways," said 20th Century Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman.

And to make sure they don't get flattened, Hollywood marketers are increasingly tailoring their campaigns to indigenous tastes.

Rothman's studio scored one of last year's biggest--and most unexpected--triumphs in the U.S. with its animated feature "Ice Age," starring TV comedian Ray Romano as the voice of a woolly mammoth named Manny. Romano, the star of CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond," was the centerpiece of the "Ice Age" ad campaign.

So when the movie opened big overseas, Rothman immediately picked up the phone to share the good news with Romano.

"You're knocking them dead in Germany," Rothman gushed.

"I don't speak German," Romano wryly reminded him.

In his exuberance, Rothman had forgotten Otto Waalkes, who headlined the German campaign. One of the country's hottest comics, he dubbed the voice of the film's frenetic wise-cracking sloth, Sid.

Besides online chats, Waalkes went on radio and TV to stump for the film. He produced funny jingles. He showed the movie trailer on his comedy tours. At the premiere, he autographed posters.

"I am a German comedian, and to make the Germans laugh is not easy," he said. "In dubbing, I used some specific German things like a yodel.... People stop me in the streets and ask me to do Sid now."

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