World Cinema: Box office gold

Domestic grosses often make headlines in the US, but how important is a film's success overseas? Very, as Nick explains...

What with all the obsession that the American media puts on domestic box office gross, and in particular opening weekends, you could be forgiven for forgetting that, more often than not, a film will actually do most of its business in the so-called ‘overseas’ territories (of which the UK is part of).

A film which is seen as a moderate failure in the US can often be profitable enough abroad to guarantee it gets a sequel or, at the very least, save face for all concerned.

The recent Robin Hood is an example of this. While it only made just over $100 million in the States, it took close to $140 million elsewhere, suddenly making it a pretty respectable total. In fact, it is very rare these days that a Hollywood film doesn’t make more money around the world than it does at home, with only extremely American-friendly properties such as Star Trek doing so (this has been the case for all the franchise’s efforts, earning about a third of its gross worldwide as opposed to the normal two thirds for other films).

But just which films are the big hitters abroad, and are they Hollywood fare or in fact locally produced efforts? Here’s a look at top earners from different countries, and an insight into just what global viewing habits are (or rather how slick Hollywood marketing is outside America…)

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Proving that they love a good saga as much as the next country, Japan’s biggest opening weekend belongs to Star Wars Episode III, which raked in a mighty $19 million. However, two things are apparent in Japanese viewing habits. Firstly, they like their own films. Out of the top four biggest earners, three are Japanese and the other one is Avatar.

And of these four films, only the number one earner, Howl’s Moving Castle ($190 million total) makes it into the top ten (at number ten) of opening weekends, earning $14 million. None of these four films’ openings accounted for more than 8% of the total gross, showing that, secondly, Japanese audiences like to give their films time at the cinema. Which is nice. Oh, and they also bloody love Miyazaki films. Which is great.


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Just across the water, and things are slightly more muddled and, indeed, a reflection of the changing nature of modern day China. As you would expect, Chinese films dominate the box office charts, and the biggest opening to a film belongs to the fantastically named Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame. Historical epics also feature prominently, with Red Cliff and The Warlords proving big earners.

However, although relatively few and far between, there are the usual big Hollywood releases too, and each one earns comfortably as much as the Chinese films, or in the case of Inception, a lot more (a record gross of $68 million confirms this). This goes to show that the Chinese love an extremely well-made blockbuster, although, worryingly, 10000 BC made quite a large chunk of change…


As you would expect from the world’s largest film producing nation, national cinema is all the rage here. Routinely producing each year’s top earner (apart from last year, with bloody Avatar screwing everything up), the appetite and audience for Bollywood and other regional cinemas remains strong. 2008’s Ghajini did in fact earn about $10 million more at the box office than Avatar did the following year, and it takes a really big Hollywood release to break into the annual top ten.

This isn’t to say that they are not avidly consumed there (I know how popular Hollywood cinema is from personal experience. No man should be forced to queue in 40 degree heat for Shrek Forever After…) but that with such a strong film industry of their own, there are enough quality options to ensure that Hollywood isn’t the only, or indeed, the first choice.France

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On the face of it, you would expect France to have an extremely Gallic flavoured list of home-grown products peppering its highest earners. What with its government subsidies to the film industry and minimum percentage of French films which must be shown, France is a market which seems artificially suited to bucking the Hollywood trend. And partly you would be right. The highest grossing film is also the biggest opening film of all time, French comedy Welcome To The Sticks.

Second on the opening list is (another comedy) Le Bronzes 3.

However, a more careful analysis of the data throws up a definite conclusion. The usual Hollywood suspects are there, the Harry Potters, Pirates Of The Caribbean, The Lord Of The Rings and, of course, Avatar. The French love them as much as we do. Although if we had a locally produced film sitting at the top of our all-time lists, I wouldn’t mind too much!Germany

In contrast to France, Germany seems to be much more like the UK in terms of market domination by Hollywood. Pretty much everything that is watched over there is American, and seemingly Harry Potter. Six of the top ten all time opening weekends belong to the boy wizard (including the latest Deathly Hallows Part One) with only the first adventure outside at a lowly number 11. Shame on it!

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It is interesting to see how much they love magic. With no strong national film industry, Hollywood is in charge. The one glorious exception is Raumschiff Surprise – Periode 1, a bizarre Star Trek spoof which managed a mighty $24 million opening weekend. But then again, this is the country which propelled David Hasselhoff to the top of the charts.Argentina

One of my favourite film producing countries follows the Hollywood trend, thereby confirming American dominance over global viewing habits. Apart from Oscar winner and modern classic The Secret In Their Eyes (which was the number one film in Argentinean cinemas last year) the hits are all from the States. This is probably good news for the studios if they’re relying so heavily on overseas box office! However, it does make a mockery out of the obsession with domestic gross. For something which can make or break careers, and is the subject of many a regular feature, it is of actual little consequence.

Audiences, film fans and industry observers should really stop looking inwards. The real story is out around the world, with all the money Hollywood product is making overseas. Report that instead!

Although, of course, the real, real question is, just why are Hollywood films so dominant? But that my, friends, will have to wait until another time…

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