Local Warming

Following Sony's lead, Hollywood studios are creating films by and for audiences overseas

Special Report: CineExpo

Since Sony Pictures Entertainment pioneered the first scheme to make movies around the world mostly for local consumption a dozen years ago, all of the other major film distributors have followed suit with programs of varying scope.

"We were the first studio to have a local-language program," says Deb Schindler, SPE's president of international motion picture production. "We've released 40 movies in 13 different languages, including 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' 'Kung Fu Hustle' and 'Snatch.' "

The movies are made on tight budgets to local tastes for theatrical, home video and electronic release, with a handful of the very best going on to be distributed outside the home territory. "It works rather differently than the standard U.S. process of developing things," Schindler says. "A lot of the filmmakers are also the writers and will submit a script they have. It's done all locally in the country in which it is made."

Schindler says Sony has increased its investment in local movies four-fold in the past year and has 10 pictures in pre- or postproduction in Germany, India, Mexico, Russia and the U.K.

Some of the films even feature well-known international stars. Sony, for example, is making the comedy "Cemetery Junction," which is the first picture written and directed by Ricky Gervais, about three blue-collar pals in 1970s England.

Richard Fox, Warner Bros.' executive vp international, estimates that since the studio began doing local production in 1999, 230 movies have been produced in 10 different markets and have grossed more than $1.2 billion. "You can efficiently do local production and make a profit," he says.

The boost in local production has been a factor in native movies taking an ever bigger bite of the boxoffice in many countries. In such key territories as Germany and Japan, for instance, local product now regularly represents a quarter or more of all boxoffice. The 2008 top-grossing movie in Germany was Warners' German-language "Rabbit Without Ears," which sold more tickets than "Quantum of Solace" or "Madagascar."

In the U.K., Warners is in a producing alliance with Pathe. One of their joint ventures last year was the Oscar-winning global boxoffice hit "Slumdog Millionaire," the ultimate example of how a movie can break out.

Warners has committed to eight more German-language films, including several as part of a pact with popular German actor-director Til Schweiger, whose Warners release "11⁄2 Knights" was one of the country's big hits last Christmas.

"It's a big chunk of our business," says Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, who heads Warners' international theatrical division. "It's been extremely positive but it is product driven. So we may have success in one market but difficulty in others. But over the years we've seen some great successes."

Disney is placing special emphasis on making movies in "what we call the three big emerging markets: India, China and Russia," says Anthony Marcoly, president of international sales and distribution.

Marcoly says the primary issue in all these countries is "consumer taste." He says their goal is to produce pictures that are "culturally relevant" and lend themselves to "the Disney brand."

Since they carefully guard the Disney brand, it has to be a movie that won't bring down their image. In China, for instance, in the past year they have successfully released two animated movies with their brand, "The Magic Gourd" and "Trail of the Panda."

Fox started its local initiative only a year ago but has hit the ground running. One innovation is simultaneous production of seven foreign-language remakes of the buddy movie "Sideways," with the characters coming to Napa, Calif., for a visit, according to Sanford Panitch, president of Fox International Prods., which is doing versions for Russia, Japan, India, Germany, Spain, Brazil and Korea. In China, FIP has a deal with John Woo to make the thriller "King's Ransom." "There's no formula to making a good movie," Panitch says.

"It's very exciting to be working in different countries and a wonderful way to learn more about specific communities, local stories, filmmakers and what audiences want to see," Schindler says. "It's a changing universe ... there's a world beyond Hollywood for the film business, and I think people are excited by it and interested in it."