Future of Film: Producers Opt for Foreign Talent, Far-Flung Locations to Boost Box Office

Transformers Age of Extinction - H 2014
Paramount Pictures

Transformers Age of Extinction - H 2014

International revenue is dwarfing domestic dollars

This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If the past points the way to the future, then audiences abroad are going to decide more and more the movies that Hollywood makes. During the past five years, the domestic box office managed only a modest increase — from $10.6 billion in 2009 to $10.9 billion last year. But international sales surged — from $18.8 billion in 2009 to $25 billion last year — as foreign ticket buyers accounted for a commanding 70 percent of the total box office in 2013.

When it comes to attracting crowds overseas, action movies, fantasy films and computer-animated films enjoy an edge. "They tend to be the same kind of movies we've made in the past; it's just that they are grossing more," says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, whose Transformers: Age of Extinction is 2014's biggest worldwide grosser with $1.065 billion. If there's a common denominator, he says, it's escapism: "[getting] transported out of your everyday existence."

"You have to have something that gets across different cultures and languages, that hits common themes that have been pared down a bit," says ICM Partners' Chris Silbermann. Potential foreign returns factor into greenlight decisions the way DVD sales once did. "Before, you used to think, 'What is the best story we can tell?' — and then try and sell it. Now you're thinking about what is the best story we can sell before you've even made the thing," says Scott Frank, writer-director of A Walk Among the Tombstones.

Studios aren't abandoning comedies (though jokes that are too culturally specific don't always translate abroad) or dramas (which can't be guaranteed to offer all that much escapism), but they don't reward them with the larger budgets that go to the potential worldwide tentpoles.

But there's a creative silver lining: As if to counter the blandness that could result, American filmmakers are beginning to take a larger view of the world. Justin Lin, who successfully rebooted the Fast & Furious franchise in 2009 by emphasizing multiethnic casting, is now, among his other projects, developing Chinese-language co-productions with the hopes of wooing a global audience. And though Transformers may have headed to Hong Kong so that it would have wider access to the Chinese market once released, Michael Bay also saw it as an opportunity to film in a locale he hadn't used before and to recruit actors like Li Bingbing.

Says di Bonaventura, "If you're a fan of Hong Kong movies, a lot of the people we cast you'd recognize. Part of what was fun for us was beginning to understand the Chinese film business and its creative community."

Suggests Frank, "Appeal­ing to foreign markets is no different than product placement. We will try anything we can to try to maximize the money coming back."

Read more from The Hollywood Reporter's "Future of Film" special report:

Studios Will Have to Take Their Cues From TV Networks

Even Bigger Screens and, Yep, Cinema Selfies

4 Experts Predict How Moviegoing Will Change in 10 Years

VFX Legend Douglas Trumbull's Plan to Save the Movies

Why Oculus Rift Was Worth $2B to Facebook