Blame Canada (or the Rest of the World, More Accurately)

[6 July 2011]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Don’t you hate it when your side doesn’t win? In an election, or on a reality TV show? Doesn’t it drive you crazy to be on the outside of some decision looking in, wondering why your perspective is being overwhelmed by a far more vocal (and therefore, powerful) majority? Granted, being in the minority means you will lose more times than succeed, but does the defeat have to always seem so one-sided? Case in point, the recent news that the facile fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides, has just broken into the elite group of international box office billionaires. That’s billion, with a bit fat “B”. There are exactly eight films that have earned more than a billion dollars worldwide, and of the rest—Avatar, Titanic, Return of the King, Dead Man’s Chest, Toy Story3, Alice in Wonderland and The Dark KnightTides appears, at first, to be one of the rare examples of something that underperforms in its native country, but explodes worldwide.

For clarification, let’s look at James Cameron’s 3D CG phenomenon. Avatar earned nearly $761 million in North America. Not bad… that is, until you realize it took in over $2 billion everywhere else. That means the rest of the planet provided more than 73% of the resulting gross. Suddenly, Tides’ success isn’t looking so strange. Now, in the case of Nolan’s Batman revamp, it was more of a 50/50 spilt. So was Captain Jack’s first sequel, Dead Man’s Chest. Alice saw more than $690 million come from overseas (vs. $370 million in the US) while Titanic and King also captured two-thirds of its take from elsewhere. But with Tides, the disparity is startling. With only $223 million in North American returns (the lowest of any Pirates), the rest of its billion comes from everywhere else. That’s nearly 80%. Once you go to the aggregate critical reaction to each, the difference becomes even more disconcerting.

Based on scores from Rotten Tomatoes, Toy Story 3 sits at the top with 99% of the reviews being positive. From there, we get The Dark Knight and Return of the King (both 94%), Avatar and Titanic (83%), and then Dead Man’s Chest (54%) and Alice (52%). Sitting at the bottom of the Elite Eight, with a scant 33%, is Tides. Now, popularity has never been an accurate gauge of quality, and (more than) visa versa, but it does seem odd that a full third of this group are getting by on something other than wit, intelligence, craft, or some other qualifying aesthetic. Call it eye candy or easily recognizable star power, but something is giving the rest of the planet conniptions while we here in the US sit back and take a deeper, more determined breath.

Of the movies sitting right below a billion (and for the purposes here, are all within the magic $900 million mark), four are part of the Harry Potter franchise, while Pirates (At World’s End),  Tolkein (The Two Towers) Star Wars (Phantom Menace), Shrek (2) and Jurassic Park (the original) round out the list. The closest thing to a “straight” film is the complex and contagious Inception at #26 with $824 million. So, in order to be part of this discussion, you have to be a larger than life visual feast without much in the way of complicated dialogue or ideas. The reason? Call it getting lost in translation. Movies that require a less common denominator just don’t port over well. How will someone in India or Japan respond to jokes aimed at a Western audience, or dialogue which discusses the intimate details of a life far outside the concerns of their culture?

Thus, we end up with a surreal situation in which a bad movie, carefully marketed and manipulated (thanks to past successes), ends up making a billion dollars at the box office, and since money talks and any discussion of artistic integrity walks, we’ll definitely be seeing more of Johnny Depp in full buccaneer fop in the near future (UPDATE: It’s been confirmed - Number Five is ON!). In fact, you can see the current craze in Hollywood hitmaking all throughout the latest releases. Pixar purposely forgets what made it a beloved fan favorite and dropped Cars 2, a movie based almost solely on the demand from merchandisers and underage consumers. It has all the earmarks of being another Stranger Tides—decent in domestic release, a monster everywhere else. Then there’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The first film in the franchise stalled at $710 million. Revenge of the Fallen raked in $836 million. Mathematics suggest that in a sluggish US summer season, and with a show-stopping must-see destruction of Chicago as part of its last act, a billion is not out of the question.

Along with the micromanaging of projects (right idea, right actors, right demographic) and the constant catering to kids and other family configurations, Tinseltown has tapped into that most elusive of business models: the near sure thing. Sure, they stumble on occasion, booking unproven superheroes, digging through vast amounts of kid lit looking for the next boy wizard, and assuming that anything with CG or PG potty humor will play, but for the most part, the studios have to struggle not to make a profit. Only in those rare cases where they risk it all and lose bigger—Mars Needs Moms $150 million price tag against $39 million worldwide—does the bottom line truly suffer. Instead, revenue streams like Pay Per View, DVD rental, Sell-Through, Blu-ray, etc, guarantee that, at some point in its life, most movies will make money.

Now, the international market is becoming a reliable backup. In the case of Stranger Tides, it confirmed Disney’s decision to push forward with more Pirate product. As the recent returns prove, the final film doesn’t have to be good, just filled with the recognizable elements that make a saleable scallywag. It’s akin to motion picture mass hysteria—even beyond all logical reasoning, mediocrity becomes a major cinematic event. While the notion is really not new, the disparity between home and abroad makes it something to consider. Remember that the next time some disappointing excuse for entertainment crosses the billion dollar mark. Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean the rest of the world won’t embrace it. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that they will.

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