May 20, 2008

English rules the multiplex abroad

It's a little frightening to contemplate how similar movie tastes are all over the world. It's like some Tooby & Cosmides theory come to life. Aren't there any cultural differences? Does Hollywood really have the formula for what people everywhere want to see? Or do they just want to see it because Hollywood makes it?

The extent of English-language dominance of the movie market is quite extraordinary. I looked up the top 150 movies in 2007 in terms of box office outside of North America, and 93% of the revenue came from English language movies. The top 30 grossers outside of the American/Canadian market were all English language films.

Not all of these Top 30 movies were American: "Mr. Bean's Holiday," which only made $33 million on this side of the pond but earned $196 million in the rest of the world, is basically a British movie. And some of the others might be considered Anglospheric rather than American, such as the latest "Harry Potter." And lots of the talent involved, such as many cameramen, are from non-English-speaking countries. Still, all of the top 30 earners abroad were made in the English language.

The top of the overseas box office list (the top four were the latest sequels of "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Harry Potter," "Spider-Man," and "Shrek") is very similar to the top of the domestic rankings. "The Golden Compass" did much better overseas ($302 million) than in North America ($70 million), but there weren't many exceptions like that.

Number 31 in overseas box office was the first non-English film, the South Korean horror flick "The Host," which took in $87 million abroad, but $65 million of that came from South Koreans, who must really, really like that film.

Next came the Oscar winning French musical drama "La Vie en Rose," the Spanish horror movie "The Orphanage," the German drama "The Lives of Others," and the Taiwanese (Chinese? Hong Kong?) arthouse sex film "Lust, Caution." There were a lot of Indian films farther down the list, but the highest ranking one was "Om Shanti Om" at #78.

Conversely, the top money-making foreign-language films in North America was the excellent German film about the East German secret police, The Lives of Others, with $11 million, followed by the French Edith Piaf biopic, "La Vie en Rose," whose star Marion Cotillard won a deserved Best Actress Oscar.

The English-language movies that do worst abroad relative to their North American performance tend to be comedies, especially African-American comedies, especially ones with the words "Tyler Perry's" in the title -- his two 2007 films took in over 98% of the worldwide revenue domestically.

On the other hand, while foreigners don't like African-American movies, they like African-American actors fine, especially if they are named "Will Smith." His "I Am Legend," a remake of Charlton Heston's "Omega Man" about the seeming last man on Earth and thus a Will Smith Actathon, took in $328 million overseas.

I was listening to an NPR story on how Bollywood producers often remake American blockbusters without paying royalties, such as a shot-for-shot ripoff of Will Smith's "Hitch." The Hollywood studios don't even bother suing. Their attitude appears to be:

Whatever happens we have got
Mister Will Smith and they have not.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

27 comments:

TH said...

Yeah, Hollywood has figured out the lowest common denominator of people around the world pretty well. However, I think non-American movie industries are better attuned to the tastes of their respective local markets than Hollywood.

It seems that the most popular movies in many or most countries are domestic productions. The fact that Hollywood dominates the global movie business is because most non-Hollywood movie industries produce only a small number of movies annually, and these movies appeal to audiences only in one or two countries.

For example, in Finland the domestic industry puts out no more than a dozen movies annually, but the Finnish box office revenue of the average domestic movie is several times larger than that of the average imported Hollywood movie. I think the situation is similar in many countries in Europe and around the world. So in fact tastes are not identical everywhere.

It seems that local movie industries could challenge Hollywood in their home markets by increasing the volume of their production, but this is not easy, as the markets for non-English language movies are very parochial, and most producers are already depended on public subsidies.

Steve Sailer said...

I dunno.

"What Happens in Vegas" with Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz has been #1 two weekends in a row in Finland.

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/intl/finland/

TH said...

Steve, according to this fact sheet:

In 2006, out of 181 new theatrical releases in Finland 16 or 8.8% were domestic productions. However, 24% of the total box-office revenue was generated by domestic productions (page 2). Therefore the average Finnish movie is a lot more popular than the average imported movie. This can be also seen in the list of 20 top-grossing films (page 3), of which six or 30% are Finnish-made, including the top-grossing film of the year ("Matti") which narrowly beat "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest".

This is somewhat confounded by the fact that the total annual revenues of the theaters include not only new releases but also lots of older movies, but this does not change the overall picture as the vast majority of revenues come from new releases.

Anonymous said...

Steve said:

Number 31 in overseas box office was the first non-English film, the South Korean horror flick "The Host," which took in $87 million abroad, but $65 million of that came from South Koreans, who must really, really like that film.

It's more likely that every single person in Korea saw it, and more than once. The movie is called "괴물", which really means simply "Monster" in English. The title "The Host" came from marketing. It's an exceedingly mediocre movie. But Korean see, Korean do.

I'll venture the opinion that, in fact, the concept of "liking things" as we know it may not be applicable to Korean people. In a situation where an entire race of people consistently favors the exact same things (stratified by age group), something other than "liking" is taking place on a massive scale.

I'm talking about the same foods, movies, music, politics, clothes, foreign nationals, etc. This is not a "mere" tendency, but a nearly absolute rule for Koreans everywhere. It may have to be seen to be believed.

Try to find a Korean who is a serious coin collector, a Korean who is interested in Central Asian rugmaking, or one who is interested in the early 20th century bluesmen. These things (sometimes called "hobbies" or "having interests") are simply not done by Koreans. This could be, as Steve has described, an instance where having interesting hobbies, opinions, etc, is discouraged by the extended family structure. However, the Korean family is extremely nuclear by most third-world standards.

Lester Westman said...

This is what I've been saying all along. However, successful China and India become in economic terms, their cultural influence on the West will remain limited. The Chinese,of course, are saddled with a near impenetratable language for Westerners, but even Indian music and Bollywood are making almost no impression in Western markets.

neil craig said...

The bums on seats as opposed to money figures may be substantially different. India is a big country & they make a lot of Bollywood films. The surprisingly high South Korean figure may be because SK has now reached close to western levels of afluence so their tickets may cost close to ours. What 1.3 billioin Chinese watch is a mystery - perhaps there are almost no cinemas & they all watch TV?

Anonymous said...

I suspect movie sales underprice the popularity and impact Hollywood has abroad.

Leonard said...

My guess is that one important lowest common denominator is special effects. Hollywood has 'em in spades, as in all of the movies you listed in the top 4. And foreigners, don't. To this American, all foreign films seem like chick flicks, even if they aren't really, because nothing exciting happens in them.

Leonard said...

Incidentally, my guess is that most movies are dubbed for most foreign markets. So it's not "English" ruling the foreign multiplexes; it's just Hollywood.

And as for Harry Potter -- the books are English. The movies are pure Hollywood.

jaakkeli said...

This is more about economics and knowledge of language than Hollywood. English is so commonly understood that there's a massive oversupply of people who are able to translate from English into the local language with quality that's enough for light entertainment. So in countries that use subtitles (no extra expense of voice actors), importing stuff from English-speaking countries costs essentially nothing besides whatever it is that the sellers take.

Importing an English speaking movie is easy, so there's no reason to be choosy while buying. Producing on your own is a much bigger investment and companies will be much more careful about that. So there's a natural reason why English speaking imports (not just American imports - although the US dominates movies, there's a lot of imported TV from the UK, Canada and Australia) are not on *average* as good as domestic production. With the sheer volume of crap coming from a market that's two orders of magnitude larger, local crap just can't compete.

On the other hand, you can't do anything like Titanic in small countries. So, America tends to dominate both the high end of few movies that draw the huge crowds and the low end of dime-in-a-dozen movies that draw small crowds.

(And th: "Matti" is a bad comparison, since it's about, well, Matti. There's no comparable celebrity in most countries...)

Anonymous said...

$ does not equal people. You are misinterpreting your metric.

Anonymous said...

In most countries (outside Western Europe or, perhaps, India, where Bollywood dominates), not that many people go to the cinema these days, just the higher income classes. So the fact that most movies shown are American or Englsh language, doesn't mean much, just the identification of higher income people with American culture.

Anonymous said...

The South Korean "Host" is a very badly constructed camp version of an American action film. The Chinese-language "Lust, Caution" is directed by the venerable American, Ang Lee.

49erDweet said...

As much as I enjoy Tyler Perry films it must be admitted the ones I've seen are quite "camp" and most likely appeal only to a small market segment. Loyal, but small. So your comments here are probably spot on.

It would be interesting to see what Mr. Perry could do as a full-time director crafting a film that did not feature a self-played character called "Madea".

SKT said...

"even Indian music and Bollywood are making almost no impression in Western markets."

Not neccessarily. Their take from Indian audiences in the U.S. and the UK in the context of currency differences and cheap production costs actually makes the West a sought after market. But you're right that white people and black people in America don't go rent Bollywood films.

Bollywood doesn't have the global reach of Hollywood, but it's quite big throughout South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even parts of South America. The people have an easier time relating to the films and they enjoy the song and dance routines. Also, Bollywood films are squeaky clean, and appeal to socially conservative audiences. You have to admit: when you rent something from Blockbuster to watch with your family, if it's PG-13 or up you're thinking in the back of your head "God, I hope this doesn't have some sex scene or raunchy joke to make things awkward with the whole family around." With Bollywood films, not a problem.

michael farris said...

There are a lot of separate issues here.

In terms of tv, according to one article I read (offline many years ago). Hollywood product (movies and series) aren't sold individually but in blocks with a few high profile titles bundled with a bunch of second or third rank also rans. So to get the six titles a tv network in another country wants to be able to show they have to buy a lot more that they don't necessarily want and since they've paid for them, they show them though there might not be much of an audience for them (the relevant term is 'filler').
Also the trend in most european countries over the last 10 years seems to be away from hollywood and toward local franchises (a model that gets remade in each country).

As for movies, multiplexes are an American business model and survive on concessions more than tickets. As recently as 10 years ago, movie theaters in Poland were single screen affairs scattered around town and depended on ticket sales to survive (most people bought their own snacks and brought them in). The first multiplexes were greeted in the press with the hope that they would bring more varied fare than the typical hollywood explode-athons. Fat chance.

Thirdly, I don't think Poland is unique in that people mostly watch hollywood fare because ... that's what's available but there's widespread distaste for many conventions (including happy endings and pc speeches). But interestingly, the share of non-English-language titles seems to be increasing where I rent dvds. Not only European but also more and more Asian stuff (Anime, bollywood and yes, Korean films).

anony-mouse said...

English (read American) movies were dominating foreign markets before Will Smith's parents were born.

Why?

I believe its because of iSteve commenters' favorite group.

testing99 said...

Most places are seeing dying theatrical revenues. With DVD players so cheap, and pirating so lucrative, most people, particularly in China, see movies on DVD players.

Hollywood may have Will Smith, but he's easily pirated. Heck Downtown LA had American Gangster pirated (on very good qualities) according to the WSJ -- two weeks before the movie opened in the US.

More likely, Hollywood is just a bigger target for pirating. Nearly all entertainment in Hollywood is sad and pathetic because it strives for world-wide acceptance that just doesn't translate into revenues. Watering down American themes to make them acceptable to world-wide audiences. Most of whom watch pirated DVDs anyway.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article Steve. Guess Will Smith is a bigger deal than I thought. That's cool though. I'm a fan.

steve wood said...

Another factor in Hollywood's world dominance is the sheer size and [d-word alert] diversity of the US population. Furthermore, the US was significantly richer than Europe during the movie industry's formative years. The combination of money and the need to appeal to a big domestic audience with very diverse levels of taste and sophistication gave Hollywood an early edge that it has never lost in the international market. (I know many countries had flourishing film industries before WWII that faded out in the post-war glare from Southern California, but how many achieved significant popularity outside their home markets?)

There's also the familiarity factor, which is self-perpetuating. People the world over are familiar (or think they're familiar) with American life and culture, so H'wood movies are easily understandable. A Finnish movie, on the other hand, will inevitably contain cultural references that only a Finnish audience would understand. This is also a reason why American comedies don't sell as well abroad: Comedy is notoriously the most difficult form of entertainment to translate because it depends so much on shared cultural knowledge.

My point is that it's not surprising that the world's richest really big country - or, to put it differently, the world's biggest really rich country - produces the world's most popular light entertainment. Indeed, when you throw in the dominance of English as a world language - which has its origins in the British Empire, not Hollywood - it would be downright embarrassing if Hollywood were NOT the entertainment capital of the world.

Peter said...

The world's third largest film industry, behind Hollywood and Bollywood, is Nollywood.

Anonymous said...

This is just $$ - doesn't account for how many people watch movies. In India Bollywood dominates the North Indian market. South India has 4 completely different languages and each has a huge movie industry. People in India are crazy about movies - it's not unusual for young people to go and watch the same movie 10 times. Heck when I was in college in India I have done that often - movie prices are cheap in small towns and it's a big outing with friends. Watching a movie in India is an experience which has completely vanished in the US. I have described this to my friends in the US and the older ones tell me it used to be the same here also. Video games, multiplexes and DVD have killed the communal theatre going experience. In India the trend is going in that direction in big cities. Towns and villages can still draw in big crowds.

Markku said...

I'll venture the opinion that, in fact, the concept of "liking things" as we know it may not be applicable to Korean people. In a situation where an entire race of people consistently favors the exact same things (stratified by age group), something other than "liking" is taking place on a massive scale.

That may explain why baduk, an ancient highly complex board game, has millions of players in Kore and why top baduk professionals are househould names there.

michael farris said...

On the topic of the Korean movie industry. A lot of the good domestic figures are a reflection of pure nationalism.

As I read recently (offline and in Polish) there's a particular Korean mindset about movies. Namely, even if someone would rather see a non-Korean movie there's a patriotic feeling that they have to support Korean products (so they can improve in quality).

TH said...

(I know many countries had flourishing film industries before WWII that faded out in the post-war glare from Southern California, but how many achieved significant popularity outside their home markets?)

Before the First World War European, particularly French, movies dominated the international film market. IIRC, before WW1, the majority of movies released in the US were foreign. The Great War hampered the European movie industry, giving Hollywood an edge which it has never lost since.

TH said...

Importing an English speaking movie is easy, so there's no reason to be choosy while buying. Producing on your own is a much bigger investment and companies will be much more careful about that. So there's a natural reason why English speaking imports (not just American imports - although the US dominates movies, there's a lot of imported TV from the UK, Canada and Australia) are not on *average* as good as domestic production. With the sheer volume of crap coming from a market that's two orders of magnitude larger, local crap just can't compete.

Yes, but on the other hand, presumably only those Hollywood movies that the distributor expects to make money are imported to Finland. Hollywood cranks out about 600 movies every year, but only about 180 of them are released theatrically in Finland.

In other words, the average domestic film is more popular than the average Hollywood film, even though only the films the distributor expects to be popular are imported.

Anonymous said...

the mouse roared

I believe its because of iSteve commenters' favorite group.

What have the Koreans to do with this?