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Coming soon to a theater near Yuri

U.S. movie studios increasingly rely on Russia and other emerging foreign markets that once were of little consequence to them.

June 25, 2011|By Richard Verrier, Ben Fritz and Sergei Loiko, Los Angeles Times
  • Transformers 3 director Michael Bay in Pushkin Square near the Pushkinsky theater, which opened the Moscow International Film Festival with the world premiere of the movie.
Transformers 3 director Michael Bay in Pushkin Square near the Pushkinsky… (Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Los Angeles and Moscow — On a hot summer night this week in a historic Moscow square, a delegation of Hollywood celebrities headed by director Michael Bay and actor Shia LaBeouf marched past the 33-foot tall Alexander Pushkin monument and up the green carpeted stairs to the movie theater, a drab Soviet-era cube of concrete and glass.

In a poorly air-conditioned auditorium filled well beyond its 2,000-seat capacity, the Hollywood contingent went on stage to introduce the opening film of the 33rd Moscow International Film Festival: Paramount Pictures' "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," the latest in the series of critically pummeled but wildly popular extravaganzas featuring giant battling robots, fiery explosions and scantily clad young actresses.

If the festival, conceived as a showcase for films extolling the Soviet Union, seemed an unlikely marketing venue for Hollywood's quintessential summer event movie, it actually reflects how emerging markets that were a backwater for the American film industry only a decade ago have become its primary growth engine.

"Ten years ago Russia had only a few dozen screens, and now it is enjoying such enormous growth that we think it's fitting to have the opening of one of the biggest franchises in the industry there," Paramount Chairman Brad Grey said in an interview. "Russia is just one of several new markets opening up that are driving most of the increase in demand for our movies."

Box-office growth in countries such as Russia, Brazil and China (Europe and Japan have long been fertile ground for American movies) comes as theater attendance in the U.S. and Canada has flattened and once-lucrative DVD sales have plummeted.

Overseas ticket buyers now account for nearly 70% of Hollywood's box-office revenue, and it's quite possible for a movie to flop in the U.S. yet still be a hit because of its international appeal. For example, the Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie thriller "The Tourist" earned only $68 million domestically after its December debut. But the movie, directed by a German, filmed in Venice and Paris, featuring a largely British supporting cast and remade from a popular French film, did a healthy $211 million overseas.

"We have to make up for the shortfall in DVD spending somehow, and the principal way we are doing it now is international," said Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The trend has changed how Hollywood does business, including deciding which movies get made, where they are filmed, who gets cast and how they are marketed.

In the expanding global marketplace, the sensibilities of moviegoers in Shanghai and St. Petersburg count as much as — if not more than — those in St. Louis and Studio City.

In Sony Pictures' "The Green Hornet," for example, executives tapped Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou to play the Hornet's sidekick despite his lack of Hollywood experience and limited English. He and co-star Cameron Diaz, who is popular in Europe, provided balance to star Seth Rogen, who didn't have a strong track record overseas.

"When it comes to casting decisions … we certainly take into account how well the character will play in international markets," said Neal Moritz, a producer of "Green Hornet."

Another movie Moritz produced, "Fast Five," takes place in Brazil, "not only because it was right for the movie, but because it was right for the international marketplace," he said.

The film had its world premiere in Rio de Janeiro and has grossed $21 million in the country, twice as much as 2009's "Fast & Furious."

In some cases, it's just a matter of branding. The film sold to Americans last fall as "Battle: Los Angeles" was called "World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles" in most of the world. This summer's "Captain America: The First Avenger" will be known simply as "The First Avenger" in Russia and South Korea.

In Disney-Pixar's just-released animated feature "Cars 2," which is set in several international locations, "there was originally a Russian villain, but there was concern about that," said Nathan Stanton, story supervisor on the film. The bad-guy car character was changed to a monocle-wearing German.

Animated family films like "Cars 2" and "Rio," as well as 3D, special-effects-laden spectacles with easy-to-follow stories like the "Transformers" sequel, are typical of the kind of movies that play well overseas, particularly in emerging markets. Live-action comedies and dramas, meanwhile, tend not to translate well, a key reason studios are making fewer of them.

"The movies that work overseas tend to be big action films, the type that don't require viewers to necessarily pick up on the nuances of the language or culture," said Lynton.

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