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A world of hidden hits

Many films that flop in the U.S. score overseas, but distance can dilute the thrill of victory.

August 03, 2004|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

On the opening night of his most recent film, "King Arthur," mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer was taking a break at his log cabin home in Kentucky. He and his wife went to the movies at the local multiplex -- to see the latest installment of "Harry Potter" -- and he couldn't resist peeking in on the "King Arthur" crowd. "There were people there," he recalls, but it wasn't too impressive. Although the tracking had been decent, "I never believed it," he says. Indeed, the $100-million film is on track to earn about $55 million domestically, one of the rare flops in a storied career.

Or is it? A few days later, Bruckheimer, director Antoine Fuqua and the cast barnstormed Japan, where they were greeted by 5,000 screaming fans at the premiere. Opening weekend, the film beat box office behemoth "Shrek 2" ($433 million domestically), which was also debuting. Disney conservatively estimates that the film will gross at least $110 million foreign. It will probably be profitable. "It's hard to tell, but it should do OK -- because of the cassettes," he says, referring to the film's eventual video/DVD release.

Bruckheimer's "King Arthur" is just the latest epic which has performed substantially better overseas than domestically. Still in a town which wakes up to read the domestic weekend grosses every Monday morning, being big in Taiwan and Germany doesn't afford quite the same victory lap.

"There is a lot of attention paid to domestic box office gross, and it's a little frustrating," Warner Bros. Chairman Alan Horn says. His studio released such hugely expensive films as "Troy," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," as well as the earlier Tom Cruise historical epic "The Last Samurai" -- all of which became international juggernauts. " 'The Last Samurai' was lumped in with pictures that were disappointments. It did $111 million here and $344 million internationally. We're over $450 million worldwide. That's a successful movie. If the numbers had been reversed, if it had been $344 million here and $111 million internationally, it would be called a big hit. I don't want our company to be thought of as crazy. We're not going to make expensive movies unless we are comfortable that they can generate returns on that investment."

This summer, $170-million sword-and-sandals saga "Troy" appeared to be a disappointment, earning only $133 million domestically, but then went on to pick up $352 million in the rest of the world. Even such hits as "The Day After Tomorrow" ($185 million domestically) and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" ($244 million domestically) did better internationally, raking in $347 million and $462 million respectively.

Bruckheimer sounds more philosophical than pleased with this twist of fate. "I always expect the worst so I'm never terribly disappointed," he insists.

According to various international distribution experts, the foreign gross now accounts for about 50% to 60% of the box office. Rolf Mittweg, president of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution at New Line, says that figure should increase about 5% in the next few years as new theaters are built in such under-screened territories as Japan and Korea, as well as in virgin lands such as China and Russia.

"The international response used to be ancillary and has now become primary. It is no longer the dog wagging the tail. It's the tail wagging the dog," says "The Last Samurai" director Ed Zwick, whose film was one of the best-selling films in Japan of all time. "It turns out to be very important for my career."

"Everyone wants instant gratification. People in the business look at the weekend grosses for the U.S. They don't look at weekend grosses for foreign," producer Mark Gordon ("The Day After Tomorrow") points out. "One's perception of success is still based on domestic box office, but now that you have day and date releasing around the world like we did, now you can look more easily at the foreign box office."

"The Day After Tomorrow" opened simultaneously around the globe. Until recently, most films debuted in different countries on different dates, making it impossible to gauge the international box office instantly.

Still, tastes vary.

Apparently, in the case of "The Day After Tomorrow," Europeans took delight in watching global warming wreak havoc across the planet and in the Americans being forced to ask Mexico for asylum. "The politics spoke to the rest of the world a little more than it did to the U.S. audiences," Gordon says. "They embraced it more. There's a lot more sensitivity to the environment outside the U.S."

Likewise, last summer, when now-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger blazed across Europe touting his last major film, "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," continental audiences were more welcoming of his political ambitions.

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