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This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln begins rolling out to theaters worldwide Jan. 18, viewers will see a subtly different film than moviegoers saw in the U.S.
PHOTOS: New ‘Lincoln’ Opening Made for Overseas Audiences
Instead of opening with a Civil War battle scene, onscreen messages first will contextualize the story against actual black-and-white images designed to provide insight into what was going on in America in 1865. It lasts about a minute.
“We worked on this with Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner,” says Paul Hanneman, co-president of 20th Century Fox International, which is releasing the DreamWorks film overseas. “It’s seamless and quite beautiful, actually. And there is the John Williams score playing over it.”
PHOTOS: ‘Lincoln’ Premiere: Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis Celebrate the 16th President
The explainer will appear before all showings of Lincoln outside the U.S. And when the film opens in April in Japan, there will be yet another element: Spielberg will appear on camera to provide a preamble to the picture.
The moves are part of a plan to address the challenge of selling a uniquely American story to an overseas audience that might not automatically spark to a dialogue-heavy drama about what it takes to pass a bill in the House of Representatives — despite the film’s 12 Oscar nominations, including best picture, and $150 million-and-counting at the U.S. box office.
“It’s not a biopic about Abraham Lincoln, it’s a moment in time that changed history,” says Hanneman. “From a publicity perspective, we’re not trying to make this a movie about politics.”
To that end, the movie’s U.S. poster has been altered to show not only the iconic silhouette of the 16th president, but also a battle scene of a city on fire. Fox research showed that, while nearly everyone outside the U.S. had heard of Abraham Lincoln, most didn’t know about his role in the Civil War or ending slavery. So the studio has created a series of country-specific promotional shorts featuring political figures explaining the larger context. Among those who appear are Peter Mandelson, who served in the U.K. cabinet under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; Michelle Bachelet Jeria, the first female president of Chile; and Martin Palous, one of the leaders of the Czech revolution, who serves as the Czech Republic’s permanent U.N. ambassador.
STORY: ‘Lincoln’s’ Daniel Day Lewis on Bill Clinton’s Golden Globes Appearance: ‘What an Incredible Privilege’
All of this is to appeal to an emerging international audience Fox believes is interested in intelligent movies as well as genre fare. That isn’t going to be easy. Films about American history traditionally have struggled overseas. The Help, a 2011 civil-rights-themed drama also made by DreamWorks, grossed $169.7 million domestically and only $41.9 million internationally, a fate Lincoln hopes to avoid. “In some ways, the movie is more like a stage play because so much of it is interiors,” notes independent distribution strategist Peter Broderick of the $60-million-budgeted production, which is costing about $100 million to market worldwide. (Disney is handling the U.S. release.) “But I think, at least in English-language territories, it should have really good possibilities.”
An added marketing benefit, of course, is Spielberg, as well as star Daniel Day-Lewis and all those Oscar nominations.
“The amount of attention it has gathered critically, its success here and awards will drive international audiences,” says Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Jim Gianopulos. “It’s a global village today. The discussion about the film that’s taken place and the attention it has received through social media and elsewhere is global.”
STORY: 9 Films Vie for Best Picture Oscar; ‘Lincoln’ Tops With 12 Nominations
Months ago, Fox determined that first-quarter 2013 would be optimum for the foreign release, counting on acclaim and awards attention. (Django Unchained, a best-picture nominee also about slavery, has opted for a similar rollout.) Spielberg, Day-Lewis and fellow Oscar nominee Sally Field, among others, hit the road Jan. 14 — the day after Day-Lewis won a Golden Globe for best actor in a motion picture, drama — to Spain to launch the first leg of a European tour that will include stops in Italy, France, Ireland and the U.K.
“We’re excited to open in Europe and see the reaction,” Field tells THR. “There’s a lot of universal themes in the film. Even if you have a different style of government, I think you still understand the fight for democracy is going on all over the world, the messiness and complicated nature of democracy. It’s also a look at a marriage and all it takes to be with someone who carried a great deal of responsibility.”
Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.
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