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Y! Big Story: Hollywood makes America wait for the big movies

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Marvel's The Avengers

America created instant gratification. Now we have to wait for our own movies?

"Journey 2: The Mysterious Island." "Battleship." Even "The Avengers"— starring good ol' American superheros. (Well, except Thor and Black Widow). All those blockbusters premiered in other countries days, or even weeks, ahead of their U.S. debut.

We may have ourselves to blame.  Hollywood blockbuster budgets get bloated with special effects and A-list actors (with their A-list salaries), but domestic box office has been in a decline. Man cannot live by 3D alone, and we ungratefully angle for intangibles like plot and dialogue. Overseas cinephiles meanwhile, queue up for whatever rat-a-tat 3D adventures are thrown up on the screen. Movies, after all, have long been America's leading cultural export, and why shouldn't studios reward the most appreciative customers with the first peek?

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Smurfs at the Belgian premiere

Look at the size of that international box office: The earnings potential can be exponential, as Hollywood learned in 2010, a definite turning point: Overseas markets paid out $12.7 billion, nearly 20 percent more than in 2009, while domestic earnings stayed about the same.

To be fair, the total worldwide admissions didn't increase, but audiences abroad are willing to buy those high-priced 3D tickets. Now it's just savvier accounting practice to get more from offshore:

American movies, always popular internationally, today earn far more money abroad than at home -- up to 70% of their overall take, and rising. Between 2007 and 2011, ticket sales overseas grew 35%, while domestic grosses increased only 6%. (May 4, Los Angeles Times)

Time for a chart, and note "The Smurfs" example:

Sample of domestic vs. international box office earnings

numbers from Box Office Mojo

Movie Domestic Overseas
"Avatar" (2010) $760,507,625 (27%) $2,021,767,547 (73%)
"Thor" (2010) $181,030,624 (40%) $268,295,994 (60%)
"Alice in Wonderland 3D" (2010) $334,191,110 (33%) $690,108,794 (67%)
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" (2011) $381,011,219 (29%) $947,100,000 (71%)
"The Smurfs" (2011) $142,614,158 (25%) $421,135,165 (75%)
"Battleship" (2012) May 18 opening $170,000,000 to date
"Marvel's The Avengers" (2012) May 4 opening $304,000,000 to date

Building buzz from abroad: Whatever happened to the utopia where everyone can share the same collective experience at once? Or, in the half-empty model, won't irked fanboys feel betrayed and take to torrent vengeance?

Five years ago, an overseas-first debut would have been unthinkable. Movies always debuted on the same date around the world, or first in the U.S. But now, studios with certain movies are putting foreign theaters first and making U.S. audiences wait. (May 4, Los Angeles Times)

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Alice in Wonderland

"In many cases, studios [do] release their films on the same day worldwide" in an effort to combat piracy, explains box-office expert Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com to Yahoo!. "It's a case-by-case decision."

But increasingly, that decision may be to go where the money is. Studios may bank more on that advance buzz that more forgiving foreign audiences deliver, because that in turn could entice Americans into thinking, "Hey, maybe 'Battleship' isn't so bad."

"It's the best kind of marketing there is because it builds buzz," says Dergarabedian.

Bomb here, blockbuster there: Domestic audiences likely won't persuaded in large numbers that "Piranha 3-D" is way better than going to the beach. (Yes, "Piranha 3-D," coming June 1.) Doesn't matter: There's already a history of American failures that are overseas money-making machines. "Gulliver's Travels" earned fourfold offshore what it did on native land. "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" atoned for its weak $90 million domestic box office with a phenomenal $244 million international. "Resident Evil: Afterlife 3-D" scared up $60 million in America, but frighteningly brought in $236 million abroad.

One of the consequences of the increasing importance of the foreign market is that Hollywood movies are being tailored to international audiences. Action and special-effects-driven movies such as "Fast Five" and "Thor" need no translation. In dubbed versions, no one is going to fuss about Vin Diesel or co-star Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson's elocution. (April 29, 2011, The Globe and Mail)

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Resident Evil: Afterlife

That can also explain why movies perceived as mediocre get made again and again — because there are buyers out there. Conversely, this explains why funding for good movies may be getting more difficult.

In fact, it's because of the booming market overseas that studios have largely abandoned making dramas, since that's exactly the kind of genre that has the most difficult time competing with locally produced product. It's why even after two leading actors and an acclaimed filmmaker signed on to make "The Fighter," Paramount didn't give the film the green light until it had outside financing -- there's no bonanza for such a uniquely American story overseas. (Jan. 30, 2011, Los Angeles Times)

Catering to the foreign market, whitewashing of America? China limits how many foreign movies can play there, but its massive audience still makes this a top destination. Other theatrical destinations are Brazil, Russia, and India.

So might this mean more diversified casting? Wouldn't China accept John Cho — known to us as Harold — as an action lead? Might an Indian audience envision Kal Penn — known to us as Kumar — an ideal leading man in a romantic comedy? After all, "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" included marquee talent from South Korea and South Africa.

Not quite: Putting a star from one's own country — Jet Li in "The Expendables" for instance — makes for easier Hollywood marketing than a hire from an unknown American minority talent pool. An Indiana University study found that only "two of the 30 highest grossing [2010] films featured major non-white characters."

Journalist Sharon Waxman reports that U.S. film executives and producers are very aware that "foreign distributors have almost no interest in movies that have African-American or other minority casts and themes." Since studios anxious to cash in on the foreign entertainment market believe that action films with white characters are what foreign box offices want, they are reluctant to include minorities in casting for domestic films and television. (Media Awareness Network)

Can we just enjoy ourselves please without thinking about all this? But of course. Let's take a look at what domestic audiences are looking forward to, as determined by online interest:

Most Anticipated Summer-Season Movies, U.S., last 30 days on Y! Search

  1. "Rock of Ages"
  2. "The Avengers"
  3. "The Dark Knight Rises"
  4. "Dark Shadows"
  5. "Total Recall"
  6. "Battleship"
  7. "Prometheus"
  8. "Snow What and the Huntsman"
  9. "GI Joe: Retaliation"
  10. "The Amazing Spider-Man"

Michael Krumboltz contributed to this report

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