Interesting article from New York Times: screen writers work for US audience and, specially, for foreign audiences.
Moviegoers in Seoul will love this film
by Brooks Barnes
Published: January 27, 2008
LOS ANGELES — An avid moviegoer, Lindsay Bern takes in a flick at her local multiplex about twice a week. But Ms. Bern, the co-owner of a Los Angeles recording studio, has recently become irritated by what she sees as a disturbing trend on the big screen: the obliteration of New York City.
In particular, she has been annoyed by “I Am Legend”, the Warner Brothers hit that stars Will Smith in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan, and “Cloverfield”, the Paramount film about a monster that implodes the Empire State Building, tears down the Brooklyn Bridge and generally reduces the city to a smoking pile of rubble and despair.
“Can’t they destroy another city for once?” Ms. Bern said in an interview at a local movie theater. “It’s despicable that the studios are using the destruction of New York to sell movies to me.”
Hollywood uses the stunt to sell movies all right — but not primarily to Ms. Bern or anyone else in the United States, for that matter. If Americans go to see the Statue of Liberty’s head ripped off, as they have in droves for “Cloverfield,” all the better. But the fans the studios are really trying to attract with such imagery are in Eastern Europe, South Korea and Latin America.
New York City, studio executives say, is the only United States metropolis with a skyline that is instantly recognizable the world over. (San Francisco is a possible exception, but razing a city that is already teetering on the seismic brink is not as much fun.) Aren’t Americans growing a little tired of seeing the Big Apple being splattered? “Maybe,” a senior Paramount executive said, “but that is what will sell it overseas.”
To gain control over runaway costs, the movie industry is increasingly striving for a one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to the types of films it churns out and the megawatt marketing campaigns that accompany them. But while the studios once tailored their product to the tastes of American audiences and tweaked it for the international crowd, the reverse is becoming the norm.
Indeed, the international movie business — of strategic importance to studios for two decades — has become so lucrative that many movies are now built primarily to appeal to people outside the United States. Given the broad range of cultures to which movies must play, their content will become only simpler as the trend grows. It surely isn’t lost on entertainment companies that complex, politically themed pictures like “In the Valley of Elah”, a tough sell at home, were also disastrous abroad.
“Clearly, international is playing a bigger role than ever in the green-light process for pictures,” said Jeff Blake, chairman for worldwide marketing and distribution at the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. “You’re having big conversations about what you can do to increase your chances overseas.”What sells best overseas is a simple message, preferably one that is nonverbal and can be communicated with a single dominant image. “The Day After Tomorrow” was an easy global sell for 20th Century Fox. (Manhattan freezes over.) But “Spanglish,” with its complicated story about an Anglo chef falling for a Hispanic household helper, and with a tough title to translate, was a nightmare for Sony international marketers.
Ticket sales at theaters in the United States have declined over the last decade despite the efforts of studios and theater owners. In 2007, sales totaled $9.7 billion, up 4 percent from the previous year, according to Media by Numbers, a box-office tracking company. But the attendance figures puncture that happy story: the number of people going to the movies was flat, after a narrow increase in 2006 and three previous years of sharp declines.
The international market, meanwhile, is sizzling. Foreign receipts for the six biggest studios rose 9 percent in 2007 from a year earlier, to $9.4 billion. While there are no reliable independent data for attendance, the number of people outside the United States going to the movies is soaring, too, partly because more modern theaters are popping up, according to Patrick Wachsberger, the co-chairman of Summit Entertainment, a boutique studio with a large foreign film sales business.
“Spider-Man 3” illustrates the shift. Released last May, the movie was a low point for the series at the domestic box office when ticket sales are adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo, another tracking service. But foreign sales for the picture were the best ever for the series, totaling $554 million.
Spider-Man has a lot of company. Most studio movies now gross substantially more abroad than they do at home.
The growth overseas — American movies made $158 million in China last year, for example, up 38 percent from 2006 — helps explain what kinds of films show up on marquees in St. Louis and Seattle.
Multicultural organizations routinely criticize Hollywood, saying it fails to cast many minorities in leading roles. They point to movies like “Madea’s Family Reunion”, which featured a mainly African-American cast, that have performed well at the box office. That picture, which cost about $6 million to make, sold $63.3 million in tickets at North American theaters.
The big studios know that these films make money, but they shy away from them in large part because multicultural casts are a hard sell overseas. “Madea's Family Reunion” sold only $50,939 in tickets abroad. “Urban movies just don’t travel,” Mr. Wachsberger said.
International movie ticket sales, in broad terms, used to be one of two things: gravy or insurance. If a film looked as if it would be a hit, studios would take a chance on how it would perform overseas, knowing that the receipts would only make them richer. If a picture was deemed a difficult sell, studios would sell off parts of the overseas distribution rights to local companies in advance, cutting the risk.
The situation started to change in the 1990s, as companies became more global and foreign investors developed more of an appetite for the movie business. As Hollywood started relying more heavily on action extravaganzas, and as movie attendance in the United States started to drop, the business had to court a wider audience.
WITH many markets still growing, the practice of tailoring scripts for a global audience is only going to increase, said David Maisel, the chairman of Marvel Studios.
He should know. “The Incredible Hulk” from Marvel (set for a June 13 premiere) has been meticulously constructed to appeal to moviegoers across the planet. In one sequence, Dr. Bruce Banner, the scientist who transforms into a green monster when his emotions run high, travels to Brazil to search for a cure. Instead of building Brazil on a back lot, Mr. Maisel sent the production to Rio de Janeiro — a move that could help sell the movie in South America.
If that doesn’t work, he always has a backup: The script also calls for a fight of comic book proportions in which the Hulk must call upon the hero within to save a city from “total destruction.”
Care to guess which city?