Analyzing which movies succeed and flop isn’t as easy as it used to be. Take The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, one of a dozen garden-variety supernatural young adult movies made after the success of Twilight. The film cost $60 million to make (advertising additional), and it only made $31 million back in the United States. After opening weekend, it was singled out as a cautionary tale for other studios. Revisiting the film after a drawn-out international release reveals, however, that it tripled its take when foreign box office was considered. Add in home release sales and rental, and City of Bones made a tidy profit. A sequel is even in development.
Google “Need for Speed flops” and you’ll see publications ranging from major industry analysts like Forbes to popular online magazines like Uproxx declaring the film a major bomb that threatens DreamWorks’ entire yearly financial outlook. True, Need for Speed did thud into U.S. theaters with a lackluster $17 million opening weekend. This caused an industry-wide race to be the loudest voice turning its flop into a cautionary, knew-it-all-along warning about why movies based off of video games will never be profitable.
Then a funny thing happened. A week later, the film’s topped $130 million worldwide, with weeks left in theaters and many major territories yet to open. A huge hit in China, Need for Speed will make its $66 million production budget back in that country alone.
We typically look at the top movies of a week or a year through American eyes only. The relaunch of RoboCop, for instance, had a $100 million production budget. It’s made only $57 million domestic. Considering the advertising involved, it lost at least $100 million in the U.S. It will be remembered by entertainment journalists as a complete flop. And yet…its worldwide haul sits at $237 million and growing fast.
You might ask yourself why they keep making Die Hard sequels when it’s clear that U.S. audiences have passed the point of diminishing returns on the franchise. Because 80% of the last entry’s $300 million haul came from overseas, that’s why.
In fact, Bruce Willis has achieved only modest success in the U.S. the last five years. He is not a sure domestic draw anymore, but he remains at the top of casting lists because he’s so popular in Australia, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Western Europe. It is virtually impossible to make a Bruce Willis film without making money. He guarantees that, even if a movie under-performs at home, it will make a sizable profit.
Films like Need for Speed and 2013’s Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters are the mid-budget models for post-holiday releases going forward. American audiences don’t flock to the theater January through March, when Winter is at its worst, but many foreign audiences do. After a disappointing January weekend in which Hansel and Gretel opened a weak slew of movies, it was declared a financial failure. It eventually hit $225 million worldwide. For a film that cost $50 million to produce, that meant a huge financial success and, like City of Bones, a sequel in development.
A week ago, Need for Speed was a complete financial disaster of a film. The concept of its challenging Fast and Furious as a franchise was a joke. Now, it’s one of the hottest international properties, and a sequel has to be on the table.
The United States alone does not dictate box office success anymore. It hasn’t been that way for more than a decade, but it’s become especially apparent in recent years as other countries build more theaters and their own film industries. Studios now engineer films with international release strategies, and add extra footage to movies like Looper to tailor them for foreign audiences. The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid was cleverly re-edited for Chinese theaters so that it wasn’t about a transplanted American boy learning kung fu after being beaten up by Chinese bullies, but rather about a displaced American troublemaker who instigated fights himself and – through kung fu – learned to adjust to his new country.
If the industry has changed, why haven’t the journalists, analysts, and bloggers who cover it? It’s time to stop deciding whether a film is successful from a box office standpoint after the first U.S. weekend. Cautionary tales are great to write and all, but people who tell them every week have a bad habit, not a useful perspective. They’re no longer looking at the full picture.
I’d also like to add…RoboCop, After Earth, Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters, A Good Day to Die Hard…can we please stop saying American audiences have bad taste? If we do, it’s pretty clear we’re not the only ones.