The New American Blockbuster Is Not So American

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Three months ago, Warner Bros. was basking in the glow of a successful summer. Films like The Great Gatsby and The Hangover Part III had earned a sizable packet at the box office.  Moreover, Man of Steel had not only made a killing worldwide, it had also resuscitated an important franchise for the studio.

However, in today’s landscape, nothing is ever enough and too many hits is a “problem” every studio hopes to have. To this end, the company released Pacific Rim on July 12. With a production budget of $190m, director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film was an unabashed, four-quadrant tentpole blockbuster. It was meant to start a long and profitable franchise for the studio, which is still recovering from the end of its Harry Potter and Batman sagas.

The elements were in place. Trailers had highlighted the bombast. Comic-Con had been attended. Fans had been baited. Marketing was firing on all cylinders and a coveted release date had been obtained. While not the third-weekend-of-July magic spot the studio reserves for its biggest cash cows (The Dark Knight and the last Harry Potter movie opened over that weekend), Pacific Rim’s July 12 date was no sloth: it had seen Ice Age: Continental Drift make a splash just the previous year.

Unfortunately, Pacific Rim managed to gross little more than $37m on opening weekend. No one was expecting figures like The Avengers’ $207m. But an under-$40m collection for such a massively budgeted film released in the heat of the summer was not what Warner Bros. was hoping for. In comparison, del Toro’s last film, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, had been released in the same slot in 2008 to a $35m opening weekend. It ended its U.S. box office run with a gross of $75m, a figure that would be catastrophic if it had Pacific Rim’s budget. Warner Bros. was praying their baby would have long legs. Very long legs.

Good news came, but not from where it was expected. Pacific Rim had a mammoth opening at the Chinese box office. Not only did it gross $45m on opening weekend (significantly more than in the U.S.), it had the largest opening in China for any Warner Bros. title and the sixth-largest Chinese debut of all time for a Hollywood film. A month later, on August 19, Pacific Rim’s earnings crossed the landmark $100m barrier in China before the United States, becoming the first Hollywood film to achieve this backhanded honor.

As it hits home video on October 15, Pacific Rim will wrap up its theatrical run with $407m in the bank, a scenario Warner Bros. definitely did not expect after that opening weekend. While the film did manage a face-saving $101m stateside, the real talking point is its $305m tally in other countries. A sequel was always on the cards but has now become a much more realistic option.

Hollywood has been paying attention. Unlike earlier times when the domestic gross of a film was the major factor and any international earnings just bonus, today’s dog-eat-dog multiplex scene has led to studios looking keenly at each outlet to recoup their (increasing) investment, and the worldwide box office ranks highly amongst these outlets. Several films have ended up in the black recently because of their worldwide earnings (here’s looking at you, 2012). The Narnia franchise is floating solely because of its performance outside America.

For filmmakers, there are certain tricks to attracting crowds worldwide that have excellent track records. 3D—the supposed bane of American cinemagoers—is a huge hit in countries like Brazil and Russia, where audiences are still lapping it up. In my home country of India, “3D fatigue” is only starting to pop up. The novelty factor of an added dimension has still not worn off. It’s easy to point fingers at greedy Hollywood producers for promoting 3D, but films like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter ($225m worldwide) prove them right. Even though Paramount was castigated for delaying G.I. Joe: Retaliation at the last minute to convert it to 3D, they consoled themselves with a $371m worldwide gross a few months later.

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Another thing that non-American audiences love, for obvious reasons, is seeing familiar locations and faces onscreen. Pacific Rim features an ethnically diverse case; the female lead is Japanese and the Jaeger pilots come from China, Russia and Australia. Large portions of the film take place in Hong Kong, which provides the site for one of its biggest action sequences. No wonder Chinese audiences flocked to this one. Films like 2012 and World War Z can find it in their story to be globetrotting adventures; it wouldn’t be much of a “world war” if the zombies only attacked Manhattan.

However, even upgrading existing characters and changing their identities to appeal to international audiences is now par for the course. Hasbro may call a G.I. Joe “A Real American Hero,” but when it came to adapting the property for film, Paramount took explicit care to form a fighting team that was assembled from all corners of the globe. Shane Black handled the Mandarin switcheroo in Iron Man Three adeptly, but I bet everyone at Marvel was just happy their blockbuster did not, ultimately, contain anything to provoke the wrath of the Chinese government. A $1.1 billion total gross ought to be sufficient reward for navigating those murky waters.

These are interesting times for the Hollywood blockbuster. Facing rising costs, shorter theatrical runs and escalating competition, studio tentpoles could crash and burn if the American box-office was all that the producer eyed. To combat this, studios are looking beyond the Pacific Ocean and working actively to endear themselves to people worldwide, which is leading to new kinds of stories being written and films being made.

All I am saying is, if Michael Bay decided to make Armageddon today, it probably wouldn’t feature just Texan oil drillers.