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U.S. filmmakers are cashing in on a new world order, when most movie tickets are sold overseas and big screens dot the planet.
Published Jun. 26, 2011|Updated Jun. 27, 2011

By domestic box office standards, 2011 is disappointing for Johnny Depp. The Tourist tanked, Rango didn't break even and Capt. Jack Sparrow isn't luring fans like before.

Overseas, it's a different story, written in black ledger ink.

Burgeoning markets in Europe, Asia and Latin America made certified hits of all three films: The Tourist quadrupled its North American take to $278 million, Rango doubled up for a tidy profit, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides tripled its domestic gross, topping $800 million worldwide.

Even movies without Depp are posting similar international gains, spurred by a digital theater construction boom, 3-D and IMAX surcharges, and infatuation with American films. Nearly two-thirds of all movie tickets are now being sold overseas.

The world is Hollywood's freshest oyster. Prying it open for treasure has only begun, with rippling effects on audiences, movie bootleggers and in some cases filmmakers. What we see on theater screens, and when we see it, is already changing.

For starters, U.S. moviegoers don't automatically have first dibs on blockbusters anymore. In the past, movies typically debuted stateside to build awareness for gradual expansion to foreign markets. That business model became obsolete, as filling nearly 150,000 theater screens overseas - almost four times North America's total - became Hollywood's goal.

Many of this summer's biggest films are opening on the same day in dozens of countries worldwide. A couple of hits jumped the gun: Fast Five thrilled 48 nations before its U.S. debut; the animated comedy Rio bowed early in 52 other countries, including such previous distribution afterthoughts as Kazakhstan and Croatia.

"It's mainly a result of massive (theater) development in markets that did not have modern cinemas before," said John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, representing movie exhibitors in 50 countries. "Digital (projection), 3-D, IMAX . . . the international market is installing them faster than we are."

The benefit of global saturation is obvious: Hollywood's goal is to earn windfalls during opening weekend, before the next blockbuster moves in. Opening worldwide allows studios to make money quickly while diminishing the influence of negative word of mouth.

There's also an underlying economic advantage. Opening day-and-date worldwide helps curtail movie piracy that last year cost Hollywood an estimated $25 billion in lost revenue. Black market DVDs and downloads created from surreptitious recordings in theaters aren't as appealing to buyers when the movie is readily available in multiplexes.

"If you release a movie in one market (but) delay its release in another market, then pirates get ahold of the movie and it goes out illegally," Fithian said. "Day-and-date (distribution) is a key tool in our efforts to curtail piracy."

Catering to a global clientele is also subtly influencing the content of some movies, employing actors and locations appealing to foreign audiences. Casting Penelope Cruz opposite Depp in On Stranger Tides certainly boosted the film to an emerging Latin American viewership. Sending the Hangover II crew to Bangkok opened up lucrative Asian markets, making it a rare American comedy success in the Far East.

By far the most popular U.S. cinema exports are high-tech fantasies and action flicks; explosions don't require subtitles. Animated films are easy to dub in various languages, so nothing gets lost in translation or profit.

Movies with distinctly American themes - particularly Westerns, indies and comedies - don't travel as well. Fithian hopes Hollywood continues making those types of films despite their provincial appeal.

"There are some genre movies specific to America that we still want made," he said. "(Stopping) is the only possible risk of globalization, but I think it's a slight risk."

Overall, Fithian sees an upside for U.S. moviegoers to Hollywood's foreign outreach, as our own culture continues to be reshaped:

"We're a nation of diversity and immigrants, so movies that appeal to the world appeal to us, too," he said. "Hispanics are the fastest growing part of our population base - one out of six now; by 2050 it will be one out of three - and our surveys say they're also the most avid moviegoers.

"So, if the studios are making their movies to appeal to an international marketplace, Latin America per se, it also appeals to our growing population of diverse ethnic groups."

Perhaps the best argument for Hollywood's global expansion was offered in March at Cinema-Con, the annual Las Vegas convention of Fithian's constituents.

Newly appointed Motion Picture Association of America chairman Chris Dodd - a former U.S. senator - called movies "the only large American industry that maintains a positive balance of trade with every country in the world where we do business."

Hollywood can't ask for better these days. Just ask Johnny Depp.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365.

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