Audience Outsourced: How Much Does Hollywood Rely On Foreign Markets?

It goes without saying that major Hollywood studios aim to please their domestic audiences, but how much do they try to appeal to movie-goers outside of American borders?  Judging by the number of movies released in 2013 that saw greater success in foreign theaters than domestic movie houses, the answer is obvious: the amount of money grossed from the international box office matters far more now than it ever has before for the studio giants.

Let’s take a step back and actually consider how much the international box office has mattered to Hollywood throughout the years. To put it frankly, what is now called “the international box office” wasn’t even considered a thing until relatively recently. During the late 1990’s, numerous countries around the world experienced a boom in economic growth. Most of these countries developed a new middle-class that wanted the luxury of having theaters that played American blockbuster movies. It wasn’t until then that Hollywood realized that the future success of the industry relied not just on the tickets sold on American soil, but on the tickets sold around the world.

It wasn’t only the increase of worldwide theatres that gave Tinseltown the international success it’s had over the past decade. It’s also because of the types of movies the industry has produced to appeal to that audience. With the new millennium came an influx of large-scale, epic movies that harness the magic of CGI effects. These types of movies rely just as much on the spectacle as the narrative itself. Instead of needing large amounts of dialogue to push the story forward, filmmakers can tell their stories by simply showing what’s happening, emphasizing images over verbally telling. This means that language barriers won’t as easily muddle a non-English-speaker’s enjoyment of a movie. No overly wordy scripts with too much riding on dialogue that gets lost in translation.

This is why 2013’s action-packed films Iron Man 3Gravity, and Pacific Rim did so well overseas. Each of these three films made (at least) twice as much money internationally as they did domestically. It’s not just the action-adventure genre that has seen this type of global success. Animated family movies have gained equal prosperity. Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, and The Croods can all boast the same level of success as seen by their action-adventure counterparts.

Without further ado, here is a list of the five largest movie studios, arranged by reliance on international gross.

5 #5 Universal: 61% ($2.25 Billion / $3.67 billion Total)

Although Universal ended its year triumphantly, the road to success proved to be a bumpy one for the studio. In September, former Chairman of Universal Adam Fogelson was let go from his position for not being in alignment with parent company Comcast’s Jeff Shell’s plan to make the studio more internationally-driven. Fogelson was alleged to have been too domestically-focused when it came to marketing. A few months after Fogelson’s departure, Paul Walker of Universal’s Fast & Furious franchise passed away in a tragic car accident, putting all production of Fast & Furious 7 on indefinite hold.

Despite the difficulty 2013 brought Universal, the studio finished the year strong, bringing in $2.25 billion internationally. The studio had never previously broken $2 billion outside the US. It sounds like Shell’s plan might be working.

Despicable Me 2 was a game changer for Universal, bringing in $918 million dollars. This makes it the second highest grossing movie of the year, just behind Iron Man 3. The animated family film brought in $368 million domestically and $567 million internationally. With over 60% of profits coming from foreign countries, it’s no wonder Universal is taking a more global approach from now on.

4 #4 Warner Brothers:  62% ($3.14 Billion / $5.04 Billion Total)

While Warner Brothers may only be #4 on this list, it was actually the highest-grossing studio of the year, with a total $5.04 billion in revenue. The only studio to ever have a better year was Paramount, which made $5.17 billion in 2011. That being said, this a list of the highest international grosses, so this illustrates that there are indeed some differences between what American audiences want to watch and the tastes of the international market. For whatever reason, WB’s films just didn’t get the same traction as some of the other studios on this list. Still, we tip our hats to you, Warner Brothers, on a remarkable year.

Taking a look at Warner Brothers’ 2013 track-record makes it a no brainer why the studio did so well. Man of Steel brought in $377 million, and Gravity brought in a whopping $418 million – and those are just international number. Very impressive, but the true international showstoppers were The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Pacific Rim, both films bringing in over 70% of their total gross from abroad.

3 #2 (TIE) Disney: 63% ($3.14 Billion / $4.73 Billion Total)

Warner Brothers weren’t the only major studio to break the $3 billion mark this year. With a cool $3.14 billion in international gross, Disney saw its greatest year abroad yet.

It’s no wonder Disney did so well in the foreign market. With action-packed superhero flicks like Marvel’s Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, as well as spectacular animated family films like Monsters University and Frozen, the beloved studio perfectly demonstrated its ability to create films that are enjoyable by non-English speakers around the globe.

Iron Man 3 was Disney’s shining star this year, reaching astronomical heights with an incredible $1.2 billion total, making it the only film of 2013 to reach the $1 billion mark. The only real hiccup Disney experienced was its bomb with The Lone Ranger. The Johnny Depp vehicle only barely made back the money it cost to produce the film. Not only did the movie flop domestically, it also bombed hard internationally, bringing in a sad $171 million. What’s especially bad is that $171 million was 65% of films total gross. Yikes.

If it weren’t for the blemish of The Lone Ranger’s hard time at the box office, it’s easy to assume Disney might have not only taken Warner Brothers’ #1 spot in total grossing, but also would have made it higher on this list for highest percentage of international revenue. There’s always 2014.

2 #2 (TIE) Sony: 63% ($1.99 Billion / $3.01 Billion Total)

Despite having 63% of its total revenue come from international ticket sales, Sony had a pretty tough year. Their total grossing for the year was $1 billion less than its 2012 intake. While the culprits of their rough start might be obvious (we’re looking at you After Earth and White House Down), Sony ended 2013 on a much higher note, with two highly-regarded films: Captain Phillips and American Hustle.

It’s funny how a failure can lead to something positive. In almost ironic fashion, the two films that brought in the highest percentage of the international gross came from the two pictures critics and audiences so readily mocked, After Earth and White House Down. The films earned 75% and 64%, respectively, of their profits outside of the US.

1 #1 Fox: 68% ($2.33 Billion / $3.4 Billion Total)

Fox comes in at #1 with an impressive 68% of total revenue earned thanks to the international box office. The studio had four different films clear the 60% foreign gross mark, with their prehistoric-themed animated family film The Croods at 68%, their X-Men offshoot The Wolverine with 68%, and their guns-blazing, action-packed Die Hard sequel A Good Day to Die Hard coming in with a remarkable 78% of gross owed to foreign audiences.  Yippee ki yay!

Even the studio’s biggest flop, Runner Runner, made nearly 70% of its total earnings internationally, proving that just because a movie does poorly in America doesn’t mean it’s a total failure elsewhere.

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