International Box Office Surprises of 2018

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY - Rami Malek -live aid- Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

A micro-budget zombie film kills in Japan, a pair of basketball films score in Russia and Spain and Germans, ironically, turn away from 'Never Look Away.'

Hollywood blockbusters — led by Disney's Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther and Incredibles 2, alongside Universal's Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Fox's Deadpool 2 — dominated the global box office in 2018.

But local titles continue to gain ground internationally, giving U.S. imports a run for their money.

Here are some of the homegrown heroes that surprised the studios at the international box office this year, and a Disney-backed local title that failed to deliver.

The Japanese Micro-Budget Zombie Film That Outlived Venom and Han Solo

Made for less than $27,000 in eight days with a cast drawn from hopefuls at an acting workshop, One Cut of the Dead looked to be the kind of indie that would be lucky to recoup its production budget. After an initial six-day run at a tiny Tokyo arthouse theater, it began to get some attention overseas, including a rapturous reception at Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy this spring. The 37-minute opening single take, off-kilter humor and riffs on the zombie genre began to generate serious buzz back home after a limited release in June.

Written, directed and edited by Shinichiro Ueda, 34, the film eventually took $26.7 million, finishing 15th in the annual box office rankings, ahead of Venom and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Ueda acknowledged the film's structure was inspired by a play written by a friend, who appeared initially pleased by its success. But after the millions started rolling in, the playwright decided he wanted a slice; Ueda told The Hollywood Reporter in October that they were negotiating a settlement.  

Malek's Mercury Turns to Gold as Bohemian Rhapsody Rocks Global Box Office

Given the film’s somewhat prolonged and chaotic development, one that began in 2010, saw its initial star Sacha Baron Cohen pull out over "creative differences" and, just weeks before it was due to wrap in late 2017, have director Bryan Singer fired over his "unexpected unavailability" amid worrying reports of his behavior on set, nobody would have been remotely surprised had Fox’s Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody bitten the dust at the box office. But Rami Malek’s turn as Freddie Mercury, with Brit director Dexter Fletcher rushed in to finish the job, did anything but.

Middling reviews (although, it should be noted, Malek was almost universally praised) didn’t put off the cinemagoers, and a $51 million budgeted film amassed some $634 million worldwide, easily surpassing Straight Outta Compton as the biggest musical biopic of all time. The film now has two Golden Globes nominations, and Malek is tipped to be among the Oscar best actor contenders. Meanwhile, not to be overshadowed by the success of their own film, Queen have announced plans for a new "Rhapsody" tour.

Germans Turn Their Backs on Never Look Away

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's German-language follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Lives of Others was the most anticipated local movie of the year. The period drama, which traces the life of an East German artist (Tom Schilling) who escapes to the West but still struggles to find his own voice and must deal with the legacy of both his and his country's past, took eight years to make, with notorious perfectionist von Donnersmarck obsessing over every detail.

But the film, which Disney released locally, left German audiences cold, earning just $1.2 million at the box office (compared to nearly $20 million for The Lives of Others). Never Look Away might still have the last laugh though: The film is nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign-language film and has made the Oscar shortlist in the same category.

Social Drama Dying to Survive Earns $450 million and Changes China Government Policy

Dying to Survive is that rarest of things in China's censorship-constrained film industry: a big-budget mainstream movie that actually addresses a real-life social problem in the country (rather than the usual martial arts period drama, urban romantic comedy or Monkey King mythology). Produced by Chinese hitmaker Ning Hao, Dying to Survive tells the true story of a Chinese trader (played by comedy favorite Xu Zheng) who turned to smuggling generic cancer drugs from India after he was diagnosed with leukemia and discovered the prohibitive expense of official medication offered by Chinese state hospitals. The man went on to save more than 1,000 lives by importing generic medicine into China for low-income patients before he was arrested for smuggling unapproved drugs (he was later freed without penalty when it was discovered that he had never profited from the sales).

Made in the mold of a classic Oscar drama (Dallas Buyers Club or Philadelphia), Dying to Survive became an instant box-office phenomenon upon its release, earning more than $453 million (from a budget of $10.9 million), while also demonstrating the Chinese audience's hunger for filmmaking of real-life social import. Even more surprising, the Chinese government opted to piggyback on the film's success rather than issuing a punishment for the open critique of official policy. Even Chinese Premier Li Keqiang publicly praised the film, while urging regulators to "speed up price cuts for cancer drugs" and "reduce the burden on families."

Alfonso Cuaron's Mexican Memoir Roma Is Chasing History

It should come as no surprise that Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaron has crafted yet another work of genius with his critically acclaimed semi-autobiographical drama Roma. But no one would have imagined that Cuaron, after winning a best director Oscar in 2014 for space thriller Gravity, would be doing his next picture backed by streaming giant Netflix. Perhaps even more surprising, Cuaron served as his own director of photography on the beautifully shot black-and-white film.

Roma is vying to become the first Mexican movie to bring home a foreign-language Oscar, and if all goes well, the film is eligible to win Academy Awards for best picture and director as well. And, despite playing in only three theaters in Mexico as part of Netflix's limited release, Roma reportedly earned more than $200,000 in its first five days of release.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superlopez! Spain's Comedy Champions

What does a team of intellectually disabled basketball players have in common with a cartoon-inspired office worker-turned-superhero named Juan Lopez (essentially, John Smith)? They’re the stars of two of the local comedies that saved the market share of homegrown films at the Spanish box office in 2018. Of the top 10 local releases for the year, all but two were comedies. Champions was far and away the year’s biggest success, with a $22 million take for Universal. 

One Week Is Enough for Lesbian Love Drama Rafiki to Make Kenyan Box Office History

Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki made history before anyone ever saw it. As the first Kenyan film to be picked for Cannes — and the first to deal with a lesbian love story — the drama was certain to attract attention. But international interest turned to outrage when Kenya's Film and Classification Board banned the movie from release, citing its "clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya, contrary to the law."

Kahiu challenged the ruling and got the courts to force the government to give Rafiki a one-week release in Kenya. It wasn't much, but the $33,000 Rafiki earned over those seven days was enough for the film to make history once again — becoming the second most successful Kenyan movie ever.

Sink or Swim Floats French Box Office

Synchronized swimming comedy Sink or Swim became the biggest surprise hit of the year after its splashy Cannes premiere, as well as StudioCanal's biggest French box office success ever. More than 4 million (4,117,363) viewers, representing some $33 million in ticket sales, dove in to the comedy starring Guillaume Canet and Mathieu Amalric, landing at number five of the releases of the year, just behind Avengers: Infinity War.

But StudioCanal also had one of the year's biggest disappointments, with its epic Un Peuple et Son Roi. The French Revolution drama was a veritable who's who of the big screen, boasting Gaspard Ulliel, Louis Garrel, Adele Haenel, Celine Sallette, Laurent Lafitte, Izia Higelin and Noemie Lvovsky among its many cinema stars, but brought in just 324,330 spectators, and $2.3 million, when it debuted in September.

Russian Basketball Drama Three Seconds Is a Box Office Slam Dunk

In a nation better known for hockey than hoops, a basketball drama has become a surprising slam dunk success. Three Seconds — a patriotic period drama about the notorious 1972 Munich Olympics match between the U.S. and Soviet basketball teams, which saw the latter score in the final three seconds to win — has earned some $54 million at home, making it the most-successful Russian film of all time. Much like those homegrown heroes, Three Seconds left its American competition in the dust, beating out Hollywood fare to become the highest-grossing film of the year in the territory.

Brazilian Evangelist Biopic Preaches to the Choir

Taking a page from U.S. faith-based releases, Brazilian drama Nothing to Lose, a fictionalized biopic of controversial evangelist preacher Edir Macedo, targeted Christian audiences to deliver the biggest local hit of the year.

Self-financed by the man himself, and his many followers, the portrayal of the rags-to-riches story of the founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and owner of Brazil's Record TV network, is unlikely to win over the unconverted. But preaching to the choir was enough for Nothing to Lose to earn $33 million at Brazil's box office, making it the fourth most successful film of the year in the country.

Argentina's Angel-Faced Murderer Kills at the Box Office

The sexy young serial killer is a cinema stable, so it should come as no surprise that a romanticized version of Argentina's most famous murderer would be box office gold. The Angel, from director Luis Ortega, tells the true story of baby-faced Carlos Robledo Puch, the puppyish trigger-happy psychopath who, after more than 46 years in jail, is the longest-serving prisoner in the history of Argentina. Co-produced by Pedro and Augustin Almodovar, The Angel scored at the local box office, with a $5 million take for Fox.

Poland's Answer to Spotlight Smashes Box Office Records

A dramedy taking on corruption and sexual abuse at the Catholic Church was the most unlikely blockbuster in Poland this year. Wojciech Smarzowski's Clergy, which paints a damaging picture of the local priesthood, but manages to get some laughs along the way, earned $30 million at the country's box office, a record for a homegrown title.

The film also stirred up a nation in which 85 percent of the population still identifies as Catholic, sparking a national debate and prompting many Poles to come forward with their own stories of abuse committed by current and former priests.