Hollywood's foreign booty: New 'Pirates' film earned over $250 million abroad

Foreign audiences paid a quarter-billion dollars to see 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' on opening weekend, but the American box office didn't reach $100 million. How Hollywood is changing to appeal to international filmgoers.

By , Staff writer

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    A huge figure of Captain Jack Sparrow, from the blockbuster film 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,' rides through a Tokyo street on a truck advertising the new film on May 18.
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The boffo overseas box office for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” – which pulled in more than a quarter-billion dollars in its first week of foreign release – underlines the growing importance of the markets outside US borders.

This is the biggest foreign opening weekend in movie history, according to studio figures.

International markets have always been a piece of the pie – but in the past 25 years, it’s grown from a quarter of the pie to nearly 70 percent. Another shift: movies used to open domestically before heading out for distant shores. But in the past few years, Hollywood has begun plying its wares in such far-flung places as China, Russia, and India before the films even bow in their own backyard.

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“The international marketplace is vitally important,” says Paul Dergarabedian, box office expert for Hollywood.com. He points out that, with economies developing in more than a hundred nations around the globe, studios will tailor their product to those diverse audiences more than ever.

"Russia and China were Pirates's top territories with $28.6 million and $20 million, respectively. On Stranger Tides is already the top Pirates movie ever in China, and it's just a day or two away from reaching that mark in Russia as well," reports boxofficemojo.com, adding that it "set industry records in Latin America, the Middle East, Norway, Turkey and Ukraine."

The new “Pirates” film “made almost three times as much overseas as it did in the US,” says Mr. Dergarabedian, adding that this performance sends a powerful message to studio executives.

“When you start to see numbers like this from international markets, you don’t worry so much about how it did on opening weekend at home.” He points out that the latest “Pirates” offering “slightly underperformed here at home,” noting that the $90.1 million US box office for the movie is a bit under the targeted $100 million mark.

Films as ‘a global commodity’

While studios long have mounted country-specific advertising campaigns, international revenue like this – $256.3 million – Hollywood's foreign appeal: New 'Pirates' film opens abroad with $250 millionwill lead to much deeper adaptations, says Dergarabedian. “In the past, they might have changed American slang in a title or focused on a different cast member in the posters,” he says, “but now they’re doing things like casting with an eye for the international audience and telling stories about more exotic locales.”

The addition of global superstar Penelope Cruz to the latest installment in the pirate franchise is just one example. The recent “Fast Five” – the fifth piece of the “Fast and Furious” cars-and-country-roads saga – filmed in Brazil.

Animated films can go even further. The second installment in the “Cars“ saga, opening in the US June 24, subs in vehicles that appeal to local audiences in each country. “Films are a global commodity,” Dergarabedian adds.

The eye-popping international numbers of the latest “Pirates” debut owe as much to the growth of the movie exhibition infrastructure around the world as to the enticing power of snappy new technology like 3D and Imax. China, for instance, is reportedly adding some four new movie theaters a day, says an article in International Herald Tribune, vastly expanding the sheer number of people who will turn out for a new film.

The globalization of the film industry will benefit moviegoers, says storyteller and former Disney animator Jason Lethcoe. “We are in a very exciting time with the emergence of a more international film,” he says.

“America has a long and somewhat myopic history of telling uniquely American kinds of stories,” says Mr. Lethcoe. “Anything that makes us more aware of what’s being done in other countries is a good thing.”

An appeal to the ‘lowest common denominator’?

Not everyone is quite as upbeat about the rising impact of international money.

Wider demand does not create a better product, says Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and co-author – with Gwendolyn Foster – of the upcoming book “21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation.” [Editor's note: The original version of this sentence left off co-author Gwendolyn Foster.]

By necessity, internationally-targeted blockbusters play to the “lowest common denominator,” he says. Explosions and action sequences need no subtitles, after all.

He likens it to the saturation marketing practiced back in 1950s Hollywood. “They opened a film like ‘I was a Teenage Werewolf’ in as many theaters as possible in order to get as many people in before word-of-mouth – about just how bad the film really was – could spread,” Professor Dixon says with a laugh.

The tactic here is very similar, beefed up with the new lure of 3D and big screens, Dixon says, “but the actual quality of the movies is going down.”

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