The old show-biz question was this: How will it play in Peoria?
Now studio executives are asking: How will it play in Pakistan, Paris and Peru?
Last year, for the first time in history, foreign box office receipts eclipsed domestic. Seven of the top-10 grossing films of 1996 made more money overseas than in the United States.
Some films, like 20th Century Fox’s mega-hit “Independence Day,” hauled in considerably more pesetas, yen and drachmas than dollars - $306 million here and $494.6 million globally.
Industry analysts say the rise of the foreign box office is triggered by the building of multiplexes in Europe, Asia and Latin America, which is behind the United States in new theater construction by about 10 years.
What it means for American audiences, as the summer movie season fast approaches, is that we can expect big studios to produce ever more “Mission: Impossibles” - which grossed $181 million here and a whopping $273 million globally - and leave smaller, dialogue-heavy fare to the independents.
The trend toward blockbusters will continue for several years, studio executives predict, as multiplexing spreads.
“All the indications are that by 10 years from now, the domestic market will make up only about a third of a film’s box office,” said Tony Manne, executive vice president of international marketing and distribution for Sony Pictures.
As foreign box office takes rise, so will the number of big-budget, big-action, big-star films produced by major studios.
“A traditional American action film - the sort of film traditionally Hollywood is good at making - is what the overseas market gobbles up,” said Benedict Carver, West Coast editor of the trade magazine Screen International.
Indeed, the top five 1996 films internationally were all action-special effects spectaculars: “Independence Day,” “Twister,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Ransom” and “The Rock.”
Of those films, “Mission: Impossible” stands out as a Hollywood product tailor-made for world dominance. Despite its mixed-to-negative reviews in the American press, which criticized its convoluted plot, it had all the elements that translate into a global smash:
Cutting-edge special effects, a bankable star (Tom Cruise), and a decidedly American flavor, despite the European backdrop.
“It’s those American movies - ‘Independence Day,’ ‘Jerry Maguire,’ ‘Batman’ - those are the movies that appeal to audiences around the world,” Manne said. “We don’t make movies for the German or Brazilian market. We make the movies that are American because our culture is now a worldwide culture.
“Go to a shopping mall in Jakarta, Indonesia, and look at those kids, and you can’t tell if you’re in Asia or America. They’ve adopted our culture. The mall shops are all the same - Banana Republic and The Gap. There are McDonald’s everywhere. That’s the global culture.”
And with a budget of $64 million, “Mission: Impossible” is the kind of film that only a big Hollywood studio could make, which is one reason American films reign over the international market.
The movies that don’t tend to do well overseas are those that are highly dependent on an actor’s performance in his own tongue.